Twitter is no longer a pseudo-utility

[Update: I suspect this article has been greeted with a mixture of "huh?" and "meh", which is fine. It's the culmination (hopefully) of something that's been eating at me for years now and I just need to get it out of my system. If you only get a few paragraphs in before wanting to end it all, that's fine. Move along.]

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As you might be aware I like to distinguish between the Twitter model of online communication and Twitter Inc, the company that runs Twitter. I believe that, like most accidental discoveries, Twitter Inc didn’t know what they had – they just knew it was important and interesting. They were effectively custodians of a creature that was developing independently of them. All Twitter Inc could do was try to keep up and maintain the back end of a service that was out of their control. We used to say Twitter wasn’t a website, or an app. It was a database which everyone interacted with in their own unique ways.

Early one in Twitter Inc’s development they made a decision not to make it an open and free protocol. Traditional internet services, such as email, are based on open standards which anyone can implement. To work with the Twitter model you have to get permission from Twitter Inc, and they can revoke that permission if you break their rules.

I’m not making a judgement on this. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a closed, centralised, proprietary system. It goes against the founding ethos of the Internet, sure, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing. It’s just a different model, a different way of thinking about things.

With the launch of what they’re calling New New Twitter, Twitter Inc have finally figured out what Twitter, the service they own and run as a commercial operation, is for and have built a coherent platform for doing that. Dan Frommer has a good breakdown of what they’ve decided and I’m sure more will be come clear over time.

What’s interesting is seeing the negative responses, particularly from some older users who don’t have any particular love for Twitter Inc. John Gruber’s litany of complaint is most illuminating. From his conclusion:

What also worries me is that these changes suggest not only a difference in opinion regarding how a Twitter client should work, but also regarding just what the point is of Twitter as a service. The Twitter service I signed up for is one where people tweet 140-character posts, you follow those people whose tweets you tend to enjoy, and that’s it. The Twitter service this new UI presents is about a whole lot more — mass-market spoonfed “trending topics” and sponsored content. It’s trying to make Twitter work for people who don’t see the appeal of what Twitter was supposed to be.

Precisely. This is not the Twitter those of us with user numbers under 1,000,000 signed up for (find yours here). That Twitter behaved like a utility, like a free-as-in-freedom open standard which we all owned. But it wasn’t – it just felt like that because the custodians were as clueless as the rest of us.

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Twitter, and Facebook for that matter, are not the Internet. They are privately owned services which use the Internet as their platform. They are not free. They are paid for predominantly by selling advertising. Their purpose is not to help you communicate. Their purpose is to generate income through helping you communicate.

Obviously its in their interests to propagate this myth that privately owned social networks are essential and indispensable communication tools in the modern age, but to do so is to confuse what something is with what it does. Twitter is no longer the “Twitter” we thought it was and wished it could be. It’s just Twitter.

And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Yes, oceans of potential have been thrown away. Sure, as one of those early adopters I’m not personally happy about this. But I do like that we can now put Twitter in a box and label it. Twitter have explicitly said what they are and implicitly said what they’re not. This finally settles years of debate and confusion and opens the doors for the next great innovation in digital communication to come along and confuse and delight us.

Twitter has grown up. Its just another company now. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth paying attention to anymore – if anything it’s about to get more interesting – but it’s time to get over this delusion that it’s somehow “ours”.

Hopefully this marks the end of Pete Writing About Twitter. I wouldn’t hold your breath though.