The other day I claimed that Twitter is supplanting RSS, and that long term that’s a bad thing. Andrew Weissman had a very reasonable response:
Twitter is the most open application people are currently using. It’s open on the way in and the way out. The variety of applications using the Twitter api are astounding in that they cover many use cases.
Given that, why will Ashton and Oprah someday care?
The problem is Twitter isn’t really open. For Twitter to be truly open, it would have to be possible to use “Twitter” without an any way involving Twitter the institution. Instead, all data goes through Twitter’s centralized service. Today’s dominant core internet services – the web (HTTP), email (SMTP), and subscription messaging (RSS) – are open protocols that are distributed across millions of institutions. If Twitter supplants RSS, it will be the first core internet service that has a single, for-profit gatekeeper.
Why would this matter to Ashton or Oprah? Imagine if Microsoft Exchange server wasn’t just an instantiation of SMTP but was a centralized service that all email had to pass through. A single institution is never as reliable as a system distributed across millions of institutions. Nor is it as secure – for example, a distributed denial-of-service attack can much more easily bring down one service than the entire internet.
But most importantly, having one company control a core internet service hinders competition and therefore innovation. To continue the Microsoft Exchange analogy – do you think in that world we would have such a diverse email ecosystem if everyone had to go through Microsoft to build stuff?
And this is all true while we are still living in the fantasy land where everything involving Twitter is free. At some point Twitter will need to make lots of money to justify their valuation. Then we can really assess the impact of having a single company control a core internet service.
I’ve used Google Reader religiously since it launched. I’m a few days away from quitting it forever. Pretty much every blog I read tweets the titles of their posts along with a link. Better yet, the people I follow retweet their favorite links, providing a very efficient way for me to discover new articles to read and publishers to follow.
Contrary to all the uninformed handwringing about how Twitter is making people dumb, I find I’m reading more long form blog and newspaper content than ever. And the stuff I’m reading is more interesting and relevant. That’s a good thing.
Meanwhile, Google Reader has been desperately adding social features such as sharing starred posts and automatically recommending blogs. These features are clumsy and won’t save Reader, or RSS, from its inevitable decline.
Although I’m generally happier as a user, I think all of this is bad for the internet. Twitter isn’t an open protocol. It’s a private company with a profit motive that has a history of unreliable service. Moreover, URL shorteners – a byproduct of Twitter – are effectively creating a second layer DNS service that is far less secure and reliable.
I know that many people have been calling for an open alternative to Twitter for a long time. I support them, but I’m afraid it’s too late. The network effects of Twitter’s social graph are just too strong. Not to mention its brand momentum. But the biggest reason Twitter has won is that mainstream users don’t care enough about these “principled” objections to switch. Do you think Ashton or Oprah cares about open protocols? I doubt it.
But someday they will care – when the internet is less open, less reliable and less secure.