We could build an open Twitter, but would anyone use it?

Amid the recent brouhaha over Twitter’s future — which some say is aimed at restricting what developers can do with the real-time information network, in an attempt to monetize it more easily — a number of critics have proposed duplicating the network using open-source tools and principles. This idea, which has also been proposed in the past by blogging pioneer and programmer Dave Winer, seems to have a lot of merit: after all, if a short-messaging utility like Twitter is a useful service for society to have, then why not recreate it as an open-source project? The only problem is that others have tried to do exactly that, and have mostly failed to achieve any traction. For better or worse, we seem to be stuck with Twitter.
The latest kerfuffle started with a blog post from Twitter’s director of consumer product Michael Sippey, who said that the service plans to tighten the restrictions on use of its API by third-party developers — an announcement that came on the same day that Twitter shut down a partnership with LinkedIn that allowed users of that service to cross-post tweets to their LinkedIn feed. This led to a number of critical comments from outside developers about the company’s treatment of them, a relationship that has been somewhat strained in the past, as Twitter has tried to control more and more of its ecosystem.

Would an open Twitter be feasible?

Among those complaints was a proposal from developer Brent Simmons, the creator of a popular RSS news-reader called NetNewsWire and a co-founder of Sepia Labs, creator of an app called Glassboard. Although Simmons said he hasn’t been involved in developing a Twitter app, he said the increasing restrictions and tone that the company was taking would make him think twice about doing so — and if he did have one, he would try to get other Twitter app developers together to come up with a way of duplicating the company’s network so they could replace it with an open one:

I would get in touch with other client developers and start talking about a way to do what Twitter does but that doesn’t require Twitter itself (or any specific company or service). Once we came to a consensus, then we’d add support for whatever-it-is to our apps… And then we’d promote the new thing, encourage people to use it, help it grow. Then drop Twitter some day — or wait till Twitter cuts off our apps.

Simmons points out that the technical elements required for a short-messaging service like Twitter, in which users can “follow” each other to get updates pushed to them, aren’t all that complicated (although the company might argue that it’s a lot more complicated when you get to hundreds of millions of users and have to handle billions of simultaneous tweets every few days). A service that did this wouldn’t be all that different from the way that RSS operates as a news-distribution format, Simmons said, and a simple OPML file could be used to handle subscribing or unsubscribing from different people.
It’s no coincidence that Simmons mentions RSS and OPML as solutions to this problem: Dave Winer, who pioneered both technologies in the early days of the web, has been building a system that is based on those protocols for some time. Winer has written often about the need to reclaim the ability to publish short messages from Twitter’s corporate control — both because it would be better as an open service, and because it would be less likely to suffer from the kind of outages that took the network down in the early years of its life, when Winer proposed a kind of “emergency broadcast system.”

Twitter’s network effects are pretty powerful

But would an open Twitter have a hope of actually becoming an alternative to the real thing? Maybe two or three years ago something like that could have worked, but Twitter is now a massive network with over 100 million active users, and that’s a pretty powerful reason why people would tend to keep using the existing service. Not only that, but Twitter can and likely would do whatever it could to stop a competitor from emerging, just as it tried to stifle entrepreneur Bill Gross’s attempt to build a competing network through his company UberMedia.
In addition to Winer’s efforts, one company already tried to build an open-source version of Twitter: Status.net developed a client and service called Identi.ca, which was based on a model similar to that of the blogging platform WordPress (see disclosure below) — users could run the software on their own servers and connect to the network that way, or they could use a hosted version run by Identi.ca. After a lack of uptake, apart from some die-hard programmers and the occasional celebrity, the company wound up pivoting to focus on a corporate information service similar to Yammer.
Diaspora, an open-source alternative to Facebook that was funded through a high-profile Kickstarter campaign in 2010, has suffered a somewhat similar fate: it has been criticized for not developing quickly enough, and seems to be used primarily by hobbyists, and others for whom the principle of an open network is more important than whether anyone else uses it or not. In the end, many users don’t really seem to care whether a system or network is open or not — or at least not enough of them to make a difference.
Disclosure: Automattic (maker of WordPress.com) is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Christian Scholz