Twitter Needs to Become More Open or Die

Twitter needs to become more decentralized and open, says the company’s former chief engineer, or it will eventually wither and die like other “walled garden” approaches to the web. In a blog post, Alex Payne says he quit the company at the height of its success earlier this year because he wanted the service to become an open, distributed communications platform, but the startup’s senior executives were more focused on building a business instead. It’s a critical question that many technology companies have faced: open or closed? Open can fuel more growth, but closed can generate more revenue. As Payne describes it:

Some time ago, I circulated a document internally with a straightforward thesis: Twitter needs to decentralize or it will die. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not even in a decade, but it was (and, I think, remains) my belief that all communications media will inevitably be decentralized, and that all businesses who build walled gardens will eventually see them torn down.

The former Twitter engineer says he understands the company’s desire — and, in fact, its need — to develop a revenue-generating business rather than pursuing his vision of becoming a decentralized communications network, because “There are precious few case studies in the business textbooks of decentralization yielding substantial, predictable, sustainable profits for a commercial entity.” Although Payne doesn’t mention it, there is likely a considerable amount of pressure building on Twitter to generate revenues, if only because the company has raised over $100 million in financing, and its backers no doubt want to see some return on that investment.

However, the former head of Twitter’s platform team — who left to join a startup called BankSimple — says he’s come to agree with those who see Twitter as having a higher calling: namely, to become a decentralized communications network for the digital age, or what Om has called a messaging bus for the real-time web. We raised the issue of whether there needs to be more than one Twitter in a post earlier this year, in part as a result of the network’s repeated downtime issues, but also because the service has grown to become such a crucial news delivery system for many people. As Payne puts it:

The call for a decentralized Twitter speaks to deeper motives than profit: good engineering and social justice. Done right, a decentralized one-to-many communications mechanism could boast a resilience and efficiency that the current centralized Twitter does not. Decentralization isn’t just a better architecture, it’s an architecture that resists censorship and the corrupting influences of capital and marketing. At the very least, decentralization would make tweeting as fundamental and irrevocable a part of the Internet as email. Now that would be a triumph of humanity.

Among those who have called for a more open Twitter — or at least for the company to federate and inter-operate with other open services, such as the open-source network — is programming guru Dave Winer, the original developer of RSS and other web standards, who has written about the need for an open and distributed Twitter-style service and described how the company could integrate its service with others. Some developers of Twitter-based apps, including Jesse Stay of SocialToo, also appear to be thinking about their future, and whether open might be better.

In a way, this is a future that Twitter itself created by opening up its API in the first place, and creating a vibrant ecosystem of clients and services. Doing so undoubtedly accelerated the adoption of Twitter, but it also made the service seem less like a single company’s product and more like a distributed communications network like SMS or email. Now Twitter is trying to pull back some of that ecosystem under its own control, for its own business purposes, and in the process, it’s causing turmoil for developers (although Payne doesn’t show much sympathy for them in his post, saying they also need to decide whether they are building businesses or just fooling around).

The kind of open and decentralized network that Payne and others envision isn’t necessarily incompatible with generating revenue for Twitter the company. It would just have to compete by adding features or functionality to the core service, like everyone else — possibly by analyzing and filtering the data streaming through the network (although if it were truly open, others could do this as well). The core functionality of the network, the sending and receiving of messages, would effectively become a utility.

But the choice to embrace that future is ultimately Twitter’s to make, and for better or worse, it seems to have chosen the path of centralized control. Whether Alex Payne’s prediction about the company’s fate will come true remains to be seen. Twitter isn’t the only social network that is facing pressure to become more open: Facebook has also seen many of the same criticisms about being closed, and there’s been a lot of attention paid to potential open-source alternatives such as Diaspora, which recently released its source code. For more on the debate over “Open vs. Closed,” please see our earlier series of posts on the issue and some of the companies involved.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Lessons From Twitter: How to Play Nice With Ecosystem Partners

Post and thumbnails courtesy of Flickr user macieklew