Twitter and the Federated Web

Written on March 12 2011 at 17:16

While the language is convoluted, and the meaning obscured, it would seem that Twitter’s new position on clients that provide the ‘core twitter experience’ - in other words, most of the software that people use to access and update their twitter stream - marks the beginning of the end of the flourishing and diverse ecosystem for its platform.

Twitter will provide the primary mainstream consumer client experience on phones, computers, and other devices by which millions of people access Twitter content (tweets, trends, profiles, etc.), and send tweets.


As we point out above, we need to move to a less fragmented world, where every user can experience Twitter in a consistent way. This is already happening organically - the number and market share of consumer client apps that are not owned or operated by Twitter has been shrinking. According to our data, 90% of active Twitter users use official Twitter apps on a monthly basis.

Ignoring the validity (or otherwise) of the arguments presented, it does very much seem like we’ve entered ‘step two’ in Twitter’s inevitable struggle towards becoming a profitable business.

Open alternatives?

As companies try to retain more control over their platforms (iOS, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), more discussion of the “open” alternatives springs up: HTML5 via the Web, instead of iOS; perhaps Diaspora, instead of Facebook; perhaps Identica instead of Twitter, and so on.

HTML5 may very well be a viable alternative to iOS, because the infrastructure to support it is already widespread. The Web, like email, or even IRC, is federated. Nobody really ‘controls’ it, and it’s very unlikely that any single company or organisation ever will. Web, email and IRC servers are federated by design - by necessity - and that’s why they make viable alternatives to controlled platforms.

As a developer, I love the idea of distributed systems, both technically and philosophically. This makes projects like Diaspora and Identica very interesting to me; both are federated, meaning that anyone can run and control their own ‘node’ within the larger system. But I’m a developer, and we haven’t been directing the evolution of the internet for almost 20 years. Now it’s businesses and users.

Follow the money

Businesses require profit, and users are so accustomed to the infrastructure of the internet being free, the only way for these “platform” services believe they can makea profit without charging for access is to lock down and advertise. Hence restricting access to the “core twitter experience” and the introduction of the “dick bar”.

When Twitter says that it wants to control the “core experience”, it means it doesn’t want other clients to be able to circumvent this advertising (or worse, provide advertising of their own). Why should they offer a free service, wide open for other people to profit on?

So, rather than suffer the controlling grasp of a company looking for any way to profit from it’s efforts, shall we all flee to greener, more-open pastures?

Federation isn’t a feature users care about

It’s very hard to replace an entrenched, centralised platform with a federated one. Facebook has over 600 million users, most of whom don’t care about the fact that Facebook ultimately controls how they use the platform. Twitter handles 140 million tweets every day, and most of the people tweeting don’t care what client they use, as long as it doesn’t severely impede their ability to tweet.

In a nutshell, most people don’t (yet?) care about the nature of the platforms they use, as long as their user experience is preserved. The tightrope Twitter must walk, now they are entrenched, is to advertise without making the user experience so bad that people consider alternatives. Given how much advertising we tolerate on more established platforms like television, as long as they turn the heat up sufficiently slowly most people will hardly notice a thing.

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