Twitter, Control and the Federation

Twitter, Control and the Federation

Submitted by James Purser on Wed, 08/01/2012 - 19:53

The last four days has been "interesting" for twitter. Of course when I say interesting I do mean in the sense of the chinese curse.

Just in case you weren't aware I'll give you the tl;dr:

Guy Adams, Los Angeles based journo for the independent, gets very cranky with NBC over their coverage of the Olympic Games. Among various angry tweets about said coverage he googles and posts the corporate email address of the CEO of NBC

Twitter (who is in partnership with NBC for Olympics related foo in the US) notices the tweet and notifies NBC of the fact that the email address has been "made public" and encourages NBC to make a complaint under the Twitter Guidelines, specifically this bit

Privacy: You may not publish or post other people's private and confidential information, such as credit card numbers, street address or Social Security/National Identity numbers, without their express authorization and permission.

Twitter then acted on the complaint and suspended the account.

Predictably much fuss erupted on the twitterverse as people called out both the journalist for publishing the information in the first place and twitter for suspending the account. This debate raged for four days until Twitter that they broke their own rules by proactively nudging NBC to file a complaint and then unsuspended the account.

Leaving aside the who's worse, Twitter or Guy Adams debate, this whole mess does highlight an issue with the current model of micro-blogging. Twitter has all the power. As third party app builders are discovering, Twitter is not just a happy communal platform, but a company, subject to commercial pressures. This means that at times they are going to make decisions which may not be "Right(tm)" and in fact run counter to the interests of their users (the fact that Twitter is working with NBC and in fact notified NBC of the offending tweet is a good example of this).

This is of course perfectly normal for any company. Companies are expected to make money and aren't perfect. However what it does mean is that Twitters users are left with a problem. If they don't agree with Twitters actions, but want to keep micro-blogging and interacting with twitter based followers, they're stuck. There is no where else to go. And no, facebook or G+ aren't alternatives, the micro-blogging niche is actually very different to the experience you get via the more long form interaction.

That's not to say there isn't an alternative. There is, it's called federated micro-blogging. Rather than a single service provider to rule them all, you have an eco-system of service providers all using a the same protocol to share messages. While it wouldn't remove the threat of a service provider doing something stupid, it would provide an alternative if users felt that they could no longer support said provider. This is an important consideration as Twitter moves towards taking more control of the experience and the eco-system.

So what's stopping this seeming utopian model of peer to peer social media goodness? A couple of things.

Firstly, inertia is massive. We've seen it with facebook, people have invested a hell of a lot into their social platform of choice, the idea of having to move all of that to another platform, or even worse, leave it all behind is quite frankly, scary for people. We've seen it with Facebook. Time and again Facebook has implemented changes to their privacy policies that are less than friendly to their users, they've pushed UI changes that have aggravated and annoyed and yet they are still THE largest social network in the world and growing.

Secondly, projects such as Diaspora (an open source Federated Facebook replacement) and StatusNet (an open source Federated Twitter Replacement), while technically competent and capable of doing the task, have absolutely zero mind share outside of the technoratti. For these projects to gain traction, they will need to get noticed and used by "normal" people who can tell their friends and bring them into the networks.

Lastly, Diaspora and StatusNet are competing with two massively entrenched players. They are not going to go quietly so for these projects to succeed, they need to be pushed and built by people who are not just coders and hackers, but business people and marketers.

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