By any standards, Twitter is one of the wonders of the digital world. A service that didn’t exist seven years ago has somehow become a central part of our media ecosystem, old and new: I can’t remember when I last heard a radio programme that didn’t invite me to “follow” it on Twitter, while at the opening of every conference I attend nowadays, after the obligatory notices about the location of the fire exits, there is the unveiling of the event’s Twitter hashtag.
So Twitter is huge. It has more than 500 million active users who send 340m tweets on an average day, and is consistently one of the top 10 websites in the world. Two-thirds of the world’s top companies have an active Twitter profile. And yet when it first appeared in July 2006, it provided instant corroboration of Naughton’s First Law of Innovation, which says that if the Daily Mail is baffled and/or infuriated by a new piece of technology, then the odds are that it is a really significant development.
Twitter spread like wildfire for various reasons: it was easy to understand and use; it was quirky; and, most importantly, it was asymmetrical. If you chose to “follow” someone’s Twitter stream, they were under no obligation to follow you. As one of the service’s co-founders (Jack Dorsey) put it, Twitter’s attraction was founded on “connection with very low expectation”. This lack of reciprocity turned out to be seductive to people who were intimidated by the expectations implicit in other social media.
For most of its short life, Twitter has had a good press, partly because of the way it has stood up to attempted bullying by lawyers and security authorities seeking the personal details of users. During the attacks on WikiLeaks after the release of US diplomatic cables, Twitter functioned as a way of bypassing the withdrawal of Domain Name Services (DNS) for the site, providing a workaround that allowed access to WikiLeaks. It also played a significant role in the Arab spring, especially in Egypt – all of which persuaded the world that Google might not be the only internet corporation that had “Don’t be evil” engraved on its corporate DNA.
Recently, however, Twitter has come in for some heavy criticism on two fronts. During the Olympics it suspended the account of Guy Adams – the Independent‘s man in Los Angeles – who had been posting hyper-critical tweets about the awfulness of NBC’s coverage of the Games. Twitter claimed that the suspension was because Adams had broken its rules about not revealing people’s email addresses. Critics alleged that it was because of the fact that Twitter had a commercial arrangement with NBC, and that this had led it to curtail Mr Adams’s freedom of speech. “Twitter is becoming old media,” fumed one venerable netizen, Dave Winer, echoing the sentiments of some other netheads.
But in fact, many techies had become disenchanted with Twitter before the Olympics. The reason was that the company had begun to constrain their freedom to build applications that interacted with the service – eg by creating software (such as HootSuite and TweetDeck) that allowed people to tweet without visiting Twitter’s website. From very early on, Twitter’s co-founders had sussed that the way to expand rapidly was to design the service as a “platform” on which other developers could build things, and so published an application programming interface (API) defining the technical protocols that enabled external developers’ software to communicate with Twitter’s.
Currently there are about 100,000 external applications that use the Twitter API, so its ecosystem is a really big deal. What’s raised techie hackles recently is Twitter’s decision to restrict the freedoms of those who use its API – for example by limiting the number of users they can have, or the frequency with which their apps can interact with Twitter.
This new disenchantment with Twitter seems daft to me. The suspension of Adams’s account looks more like an error of judgment rather than the onset of old-media control freakery. Twitter is unlikely to abandon its First Amendment principles, if only because to do so would be commercially disastrous in the long run. And as for the API restrictions, well, Twitter isn’t a charity. Those billions of tweets have to be processed, stored, retransmitted – and that costs money. Twitter has already had more than $1bn of venture capital funding. Like Facebook, it has to make money, somehow. Otherwise it will disappear. Even on the internet there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010