The Very Last Thing I’ll Write About Twitter
I have an odd mental relationship with my former employer. Clearly, I wouldn’t have worked there for three and a half years if I didn’t care about the product and the community. But then, I wouldn’t have left if I really wanted to see that commitment through. I have an investment of stock in the company, of course, but more importantly I have an investment of time and emotional energy. I’ve walked away from the job, but that investment has made it difficult to truly detach myself from it, as excited as I am to be doing what I’m doing now.
Next week our team at BankSimple gathers together in person for the first time to kick off development in earnest. I want to enter into that meeting completely focused on our mission. This, then, is my Twitter catharsis.
As a disclaimer: nobody at Twitter has read or edited this post, nor am I privy to any insider communication from Twitter and its employees. I don’t represent the company, I no longer work for the company, and any predictions contained herein post are pure personal opinion and speculation. If you report anything in this post as a likely future direction for Twitter, you are a buffoon. Similarly, if you think this an attack on Twitter, you’re not paying attention.
Whenever Twitter announces anything, I’m filled with a mix of excitement, resentment, pride, and dread. What are they releasing? Are they buying another company? Are they having problems, or are things going great and they just want to share some up-and-to-the-right numbers with the world? As one of a relatively few ex-employees of the rapidly growing company, I’m just as far as out of the cone of silence as anyone else. I read every corporate communication through gritted teeth and with fingers crossed.
Yesterday’s announcement of what was immediately dubbed #newtwitter has crept up on me in its significance. Like everyone outside of the company, I didn’t know it was coming. (My unintentionally infamous tweet from months ago about a Twitter web experience that would compete with the best third-party clients was based on some interface experiments that apparently had little bearing on #newtwitter.) At first, a person might wonder why a press conference is necessary for what is, on the surface, a redesign of a web site. But if you scratch the surface of what was announced, you can quickly see why it’s such a milestone for the company.
While Twitter has been growing in mainstream significance and popularity, it hasn’t managed to adopt a strategy that clearly aims the company towards mass market success. I think #newtwitter changes that, turning the site into a rich information discovery platform, if you’ll excuse the buzzword bingo. The new design is a pleasure to use, and encourages a kind of deep exploration of the data within Twitter that has previously only been exposed in bits and pieces by third-party applications. Browsing Twitter is now as rewarding as communicating with it.
One of the striking things about #newtwitter is how clearly it’s designed to allow room for advertisements and promotions. As an early employee who heard a lot of internal discussion about monetization strategies that eschewed the typical Silicon Valley ad play, Twitter’s accelerating turn towards that business model is, on some level, a little disappointing. But as a stockholder and someone who wants to see the company survive and succeed, it’s clearly the most pragmatic way for Twitter to capitalize on its substantial and growing network. Ads have their role in the wheel of commerce, and just as Google’s text ads are more palatable than most forms of advertising, Twitter’s approach could end up being eminently tolerable, even useful.
The Changing Role of the Platform
#newtwitter sees the Twitter web interface itself become a kind of platform. Previously, developers took data out of Twitter and into the context of their own applications and services. The new design flips this on its head, bringing rich embedded content into the site from a host of brand-name web properties. (It’s worth noting that Facebook has done much the opposite: they started out with a very centralized build-it-within-our-walls model, then gradually grew their tendrils out into the web with Facebook Connect.)
In a way, the Twitter platform has come full circle. Twitter’s API grew out of its website as a means to enable outside developers to accomplish what the company, with its then-tiny and overburdened team, could not. Now that Twitter has ample resources, the matured platform is enabling the company to build the best applications in the ecosystem in-house. Going forward, it may be that the Twitter Platform primarily serves Twitter’s interests, in stark contrast to the era of API growth I was around for, in which platform development was driven almost exclusively by the needs of the developer community.
This creates a singular challenge for the company, and for the Platform team in particular. When I ran the Twitter Platform, I had what was–frankly–an easy job: synthesizing third-party developer feedback and building for that community what I deemed practical and achievable. The company didn’t quite know where it was going at the time, so I just did what I thought made sense with our API. Now that Twitter has a clearer mission, balancing the needs of the company with the needs of developers is a much trickier tightrope to walk, and I don’t envy my friends and former coworkers who are performing that balancing act every day. I certainly hope that my freewheeling approach to managing the Platform didn’t put them at a longterm disadvantage.
In my opinion, the Twitter developer community needs to adapt to the post-#newtwitter reality. A Twitter poised to aggressively take on the mass market is going to have a different relationship with its third-party developers. Where the last several years of the Platform have been about open experimentation of all sorts, the next era will likely produce two stratified types of usage: hobbyist and professional.
Some developers will continue to casually experiment with Twitter’s suite of APIs. Some will make a go of building profitable long-term businesses on it, having to carefully navigate terms, conditions, and the defensibility of their own endeavors. But I think the tension that’s arisen in the Twitter developer community of late is largely due to people who aren’t firmly in either camp; developers who can’t figure out if they’re building something for fun or for profit, and who are unclear on how central Twitter is to whatever they’re building.
Essentially: if Twitter is getting focused, developers should get focused too. Get cozy with the company, or work at arm’s length. Operating in between the hobbyist and professional roles could be difficult, and developers may be understandably frustrated as they’re forced to rethink their projects and products. Users are able to toggle between #newtwitter and the old design for a few weeks, but for developers, there’s no going back.
Twitter As A Medium vs Twitter As A Business
A large part of the reason I left Twitter was a fundamental philosophical difference that I couldn’t reconcile, either for myself or the company. I believe that Twitter as a medium is and should be distinct from Twitter as a business. Put another way, there’s an important difference between lowercase “t” tweeting and uppercase “T” Twitter, just as with democrat and Democrat.
This is not a new sentiment. Others have expressed it for years, in calls for a decentralized Twitter and attempts to build just that. For a time, I dismissed those missives as faxes from the crazy uncle lunatic fringe of the Internet technology community: the standardsistas, the neckbeards, the open sorcerers, the people who believe that all things must be free and open regardless of context. I came to the conclusion on a different path, but I came to it nonetheless.
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. Predating Twitter, there were the wars against the centralized IM providers that ultimately yielded Jabber, the breakup of Ma Bell, etc. etc. This isn’t to say that one can’t make quite a staggeringly lot of money with a walled garden or centralized communications utility, and the investment community’s salivation over the prospect of IPOs from LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter itself suggests that those companies will probably do quite well with a closed-but-for-our-API approach.
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.
At any rate, I argued this case at Twitter, and lost. Some coworkers supported me in private, but the executives were unconvinced that exploring decentralization should be a business priority. Rejecting my proposal was, of course, not just their prerogative but their responsibility. There are precious few case studies in the business textbooks of decentralization yielding substantial, predictable, sustainable profits for a commercial entity that fosters that same process of decentralization. Going down the path of investigation I proposed would have been a long and circuitous route. It’s unlikely to have led to the focused and aggressive organization that produced #newtwitter, and it seems like that would have been a loss for the web in and of itself.
So while I don’t expect Twitter to master its own destiny as far as the decentralization of the medium goes, I do support the idea, and I hope that Twitter as a business can coexist with the need for the world to have a free, open, reliable, and verifiable way for humans to instantly communicate in a one-to-many fashion.
It’s a strange thing to have a part of one’s identity tied up in a company whose logo you now see daily on storefronts and in advertisements, and whose name is on the lips of authors, celebrities, and newscasters. It’s been difficult not to care what Twitter does and where it goes as a business, not even to mention all the friends I still have there.
With this, I’ve said my piece on what I think is the most dramatic shift in Twitter’s history, and shared my personal history of struggling with the product, the platform, and the medium itself. That’s the last I’ll say on the subject, and I continue to wish Twitter and the people working there all the best.