A Venezuelan Moment: The Gillmor Gang considers nationalizing Twitter
It must be an odd thing to run a company in the midst of a debate around the idea of nationalizing your core technology. In a Venezuelan moment, the Gillmor Gang considers the idea that Twitter has become so important that our national security requires nationalizing its technical infrastructure. In a two-part discussion about an open mesh / cross-service dashboard mashup and the role of Twitter as a sort of fundamental glue, the question surfaced of breaking up the centralized Twitter monopoly. You can hear the conversation here:
The conversation was provoked by some ongoing thoughts by Dave Winer around decentralizing Twitter. Initially the issues addressed were:
- Backup of Twitter user data in the event of utter failure of the service
- An alternative venue for the moments when Twitter is indisposed.
- Improving reliability through distributing the infrastructure to multiple players
- Redistributing Twitter’s monopoly power to multiple players for the common good
Discussion revolved around the general principle of open source standards and how Twitter should be re-created as a standard like ethernet, SMPT, POP, IMAP, XMPP, HTTP, etc. This would allow multiple vendors to compete with products using the same base protocols. For example, many vendors compete using a common standard for email. Standards create a very useful interoperability in the case of email and web sites. Instant messenger has multiple protocols and requires debabelization services to enable conversation between platforms.
Chris Saad put forth an interesting proposal around the idea of publish/subscribe and Twitter literally as micro-blogging. His idea is to move Twitter to a model similar to that of blogging and RSS. Through a micro-blogging authoring tool, something like WordPress, an individual would publish Tweets. A group of followers who had indicated interest in receiving messages would be pushed a payload immediately on publication. A Tweet reader would be used to subscribe to the streams of various publishers.
On the Gillmor Gang call there was some confusion about the roll of RSS in Saad’s proposal. Because XMPP can be difficult to program against, Saad suggested authoring tools that output the RSS format into a gateway that would transform it into XMPP for immediate transport. The idea is to use RSS as XML, a simple transport markup that most blog authoring tools already know how to output. However this was confused with the common usage of RSS as a polling-based publish/subscribe blog syndication methodology.
In looking at decentralizing Twitter, the focus was on two aspects of the service, replicating the unique social graph Twitter creates through the ideas of following and being open to being followed; and the immediate stream of 140 character hypertext that is generated through that matrix of connections. These two elements of the service have created a rich fabric of relationship and information flow that satisfies and intrigues 80% of the users.
The stream of information can be followed in a number of ways. Most people use the Twitter web site which offers a stream through a periodic refresh and redraw of the screen. A number of Twitter clients have been created to automate that process based on a web/RSS model of updating and publication. This streaming model is the equivalent of 15 minute delayed stock quotes. The stream flows based on the polling intervals of the reader, not on the actual publication events.
Steve Gillmor has been championing the instant messenger model of Twitter consumption. In this method an instant messenger client like Google’s Gtalk or iChat is used to talk to Twitter through an XMPP server that relays the Tweets it receives as quickly as it can on the publication event. This also works on a teleputer via SMS, or as those devices are sometimes called these days telephones. This model doesn’t scale particularly well. Users like Robert Scoble and Jason Calacanis have well over 20,000 people they follow.
The consumption strategy that makes the instant messaging model of Twitter work is to follow a core group and then track keywords of interest. Tracking keywords adds people you don’t follow into your stream and provides a proper level of noise and negative feedback into the information ecosystem. This can also be accomplished through a diversified approach to following. In modern portfolio theory this is called covariance.
It’s tracking that makes a decentralized Twitter nearly impossible. Think of a 140 character Tweet as a series of space separated tags to which you can subscribe. In this model, you’re following everyone, or at least everyone who uses that particular tag. This feature radically changes the shape of the social graph underlying the information stream. Since you don’t know who might use a tag you’re tracking, the regular RSS style contract around publication and subscription doesn’t work. Track is not commonly used today, but it’s one of the more interesting features of the service.
The idea of building competitors to Twitter on the same platform, or redistributing Twitter to multiple players reminds me of the idea that New York City should be rebuilt in Ohio because it would be cheaper. Or perhaps we could distribute a little of New York City in every state of the Union. New York City is what it is because of the people who live and visit there. Building another New York City in Las Vegas doesn’t result in the phenomenon that is New York City. In a very important sense, Twitter is decentralized at its core, it is rhizomatic rather than arborescent.