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What Twitter could have been (daltoncaldwell.com)
372 points by dalton on July 1, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 122 comments



Perhaps you think that the API-centric model would have never worked, and that if the ad guys wouldn’t have won, Twitter would not be alive today. Maybe.

I think this deserves a bit more attention. It's easy to point fingers and make all kinds of what-if predictions, but just handwaving money aside in favor of a poorly defined API utopia ignores the reality of running a business.


Agreed. It would be a much more compelling argument if there were examples of successful API companies presented as possible models for Twitter as an API company. (In addition to the example of Google as an advertising company.)


Yes I have to agree with the two of you. That was my first thought upon finishing. It's odd Dalton doesn't define one or two solid examples of what this successful cloud API could be.


I felt that discussing alternate business models was outside the scope of the post for 2 reasons: 1) I am an outsider, and no one understands what could or could not work better than the people working at Twitter. I am not sure what the pro-API camp inside of Twitter had in mind. 2) Debating which model would work better would derail the points I wanted to make in my post.

I do think there are several large cloud companies that have both their "native" UI and rich/powerful APIs. For instance Salesforce, which my company both pays for & extensively modifies and extends via their API. Given the attention this post has attracted I may write a followup post just on this topic.


> Given the attention this post has attracted I may write a followup post just on this topic.

I hope you do, I am very interested in this topic and I would like to hear what you say and what people have to say in response to it.


There are successful cloud APIs, I think - Twilio comes to mind. It doesn't mean that it would work for Twitter, but it's not impossible.


But Twilio is wrapping an underlying service, not providing a service itself


what would the example of a successful advertising company have been, before google?

in other words - isn't this kind of the point? google is the big advertising company. everyone else is a copy. the big api company is still open space...


>> what would the example of a successful advertising company have been, before google?

??? There was a whole generation of successful advertising (Internet) companies before Google. Even Google went through an internal debate about how much/whether to copy the best of that generation (Yahoo). And advertising-funded businesses are decades older than the Internet.

Also, 1 exemplar >> 0 exemplars was my point.


The entire media space, for example? TV, magazines, newspapers, radio, …


A "firehose" API for the net would be awesome, but it probably needs to be Open Source, in order to avoid being driven towards monetization. Of course, without the drive to make money, Twitter may have never taken off quite the way it did, and may have never had the money to spend on SMS and other expenses they were dealing with in the beginning to create that firehose of data.

The Open Source twitter clones (like identi.ca) have modeled what Twitter became, mostly, rather than what Twitter could have been...so, as far as I know, there isn't much out there that answers this description. I'd started working on something I was calling SYSRSS years ago, which was to be a realtime systems human and machine readable data stream protocol and implementation, but never got a minimum viable product out the door, as I could never quite figure out the right niche for such a thing. I think it may have been too specific, though building on top of an existing popular data format and protocol was probably a valid choice.

In short, I agree that Twitter could have been more awesome than what it is. But, I don't know if I could have made it better, or that having the API guys win would have succeeded. I haven't done any research into that field lately...I wonder if there are any new developments in the Open Source world for this kind of thing?


You should check out Simperium (disclaimer: I'm the co-founder and Twitter's former platform lead is one of our advisors/investors). While it's not immediately apparent yet, we're pushing in this direction: it's easy to create a firehose for your app, and we're working on ways for apps to easily interconnect with each other in a less file-centric, more API-centric way.

The niche we chose to start with is device syncing, based on our experience building Simplenote (which is to Evernote as Twitter is to Facebook). We know there's a need for something more flexible and powerful than iCloud in this regard, so that's what we focused on initially. But we believe a good solution for moving data between devices is also a good solution for moving data between people and 3rd-party apps.

Simplenote's 3rd-party ecosystem looks similar to Twitter's in the earlier days. We're taking the path they didn't take. Rather than shoring up Simplenote vertically, we're focused on extending our backend data layer horizontally and generalizing it for a variety of apps and services (though specifically not as an all-encompassing "backend-as-a-service"). We'll be announcing our open source strategy soon. This is all really hard though, both technically and as a business.


Can you think of examples of any open source standards that emerged from pasting on an open source strategy later? I ask because I can't think of any, but I may be wrong.

I'm contemplating a realtime data sharing system now, but it's hard for me to consider using a commercial platform from a startup.

If your API was already open source, with a real open source community that spans several organizations already in place, I'd be a lot more eager to use your service.

Basically, an open source api is only appealing to me if it seems impossible for it to be hijacked by one sponsor, no matter how well meaning. Who knows, you could get hit by a bus and wake up as your own evil twin.

Love to hear your thoughts


We only launched Simperium a few weeks ago. While it's production-ready (powering Simplenote), it still has a beta label for the simple reason that we haven't announced pricing or our open source strategy. I agree, "pasting on" an open source strategy in a reactionary way doesn't have a great history of success, but similarly, I think it's also hard to build very ambitious open source solutions that are entirely open from the moment of conception. Not impossible, but in any case the path we chose was to build a first version behind closed doors according to a strong vision based on experience and talking to fellow app developers.

Having done that, we're excited to start opening it up and we don't view this as pasting on a strategy. We've been proactively considering the implications for our technology and business from the beginning. I think a great, open circulating system for the internet can be as significant as an operating system like Linux.


> I think it's also hard to build very ambitious open source solutions that are entirely open from the moment of conception

Yes it's hard to build an open source standard using an open development model. On the other hand some people think its impossible to build an open source standard without an open development model.

Open source advocates argue that the very barrier to something becoming an open standard is your wish to own a strong consistent vision. They also argue that having a single host company that has a head start over others will discourage others from jumping on board.

I sincerely hope that such an approach could lead to a real open standard. I can't think of a case that has, though I do hope to be proven wrong.

Cool project, for sure. I bet you can succeed as a commercial platform, you're solving some hard problems and will make life easier for lots of developers. Would be cool if you can drive an open standard too.


Thanks! And I appreciate your insight. You must be rather battle-hardened from your experience over the years, and I know there are others who share your hesitance to use a system like this. In response to your question about examples, Linux and Android are examples of software that, as far as I can tell, only really opened up after conception and a good deal of development.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux#MINIX

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Android_(operating_system)#Foun...


I don't think Linux can be compared in any way, because it was never a commercial venture, and Linus released the first version in a barely working skeletal form, and proceeded from there.

If you actually meant MINIX, which the link goes to, it's also a poor example because it is pretty much a failure...it lost out to the always-open Linux, in such a catastrophic manner that most people, even most Linux users, don't even know it exists or that Linux was a reaction to it. If you plan to be the "MINIX of realtime data streams", I don't think I'll be developing for your platform.

Android is possibly a reasonable example, as I guess it did happen as a proprietary venture that went Open, but it's Open Source life happened under the oversight of Google, arguably the world's most important technology company. You don't have that kind of clout or that kind of market penetration. No one worried that Google would disappear next week, leaving a bunch of development spending un-recouped.

Finally, there is a pretty hard rule of the Internet, which is that infrastructure will be Open Source...and if it isn't today, it will be soon. HTTP, DNS, SMTP, SSL, video (HTML5, which replaced the proprietary Flash). There are still a few examples of non-Open services, and Web 2.0 (or whatever), was a valiant attempt to retake the web for proprietary interests; and the jury is out on whether Open Source and standards will eventually prevail. So, chat is back to being often proprietary, video and voice conferencing never had a viable Open Source option so it remains proprietary with competing standards, etc. But, I think for you to convince other companies to build on what you make, you'll have to either become big fast (like Twitter fast), or start Open. Or, you'll build just another also ran.

Of course, if you start Open Source, you'll never make a bajillion dollars on the software or service itself. So, you get to choose your priorities, and maybe shooting for the big money is more important than a better shot at building a standard that many people and companies use.


I think there a small contradiction in terms here, perhaps you've recognized it already.

A network service has a definition in in terms of the protocol used to talk to it. It could be an "open" protocol standard, in the sense that it's well documented and not patented. Even if it's not well documented, network protocols are not that difficult to analyze.

"Open source" is talking about source code to a program. Such a program might be an embodiment of a protocol endpoint.

The problem that Twitter has is that they have a trivial API and it's very easy for anyone to create a client for it. They're trying to lock this down cryptographically using client certs, but as long as there is some client on the users' devices that can talk to Twitter, the private key has to be available to all the users. Open source client endpoints have to publish their private key in the source. What they're trying to do is technically impossible.

So Twitter has chosen the worst of possible worlds here, they have a de-facto open API and must resort to the threat of lawsuits to prevent their users benefiting from the features provided by the open marketplace of client apps.

I would try to find a way not to end up like Twitter.


> Can you think of examples of any open source standards that emerged from pasting on an open source strategy later? I ask because I can't think of any, but I may be wrong.

Does Java count, or did the recent Oracle lawsuits kill that one?


> Simplenote (which is to Evernote as Twitter is to Facebook)

Are you looking for the word 'competitor'? I don't get these X is to Y as A is to B references..


Telehash is the Open Source "firehose API" you seek. The proposal describes a DHT that routes JSON. However, it seems like I've been waiting for it for years. Maybe it's the obscure telephone lingo that the API is described in terms of that's discouraging would-be implementers, but it's nothing that a good old facade can't fix.

http://telehash.org/


> However, it seems like I've been waiting for it for years.

https://github.com/jamii/erl-telehash is a reasonably complete implementation (it's only missing rate limiting and auth).

After working on erl-telehash I have some doubts about the protocol details (although the overall idea still appears sound). I described how I would modify it at https://gist.github.com/1910754 but I'm not moving forwards with it at the moment (working full-time for now).


I like to think of Telehash as the answer for p2p routing. It's powerful and there's working implementations.

The other piece of the puzzle is REST in the UDP context, for that, CoAP looks really well put together: http://tools.ietf.org/html/draft-ietf-core-coap-10

I have a weekend project going to blend the two and make magic, but I haven't put enough time into it yet.


Is there decent CoAP implementations? That's unfortunately one of the big stumbling blocks with universal p2p transport yet :/


Telehash is radically decentralized. How do you get a firehose out of that? It would be more like a point to point garden hose wouldnt it? I would like to be proved wrong, but I think Twitter/centralized and Telehash/decentralized will end up looking and acting like two very different services.

If the Twitter as an API group had won out the two best outcomes I can think of are either a buy out from Google, or a move to a foundation like Wikipedia. Google could afford to carry it, like it does Youtube, just so they could own a huge firehose of information and use it elsewhere in search ads, without trashing the stream with ads.

Needless to say founders looking to get rich wouldn't go for the low returns of the foundation model but it would have been the best possible outcome for the well being of the future Internet having and open, censorship resistant message bus and API, assuming you could get enough donors to support it.


With a telehash style distributed messaging bus you'd need to have clients opt in to centralized reporting and analytics providers, like the library of congress, internet archive, even commercial firehose companies like gnip, etc.


Also analytics will be very difficult in a P2P architecture. That is the power of twitter: you only need to analyze the centralized firehose.


One of the most ambitious projects I've seen in this vein is psyced ( http://www.psyced.org/ ) which starts from a redesign of IRC and has gone on to accumulate a kitchen-sink's worth of protocol compatibility(from the front page: Jabber™/XMPP S2S, IRC, TELNET, HTTP, SMTP, OAuth, XML, RSS; limited/experimental code for XMPP C2S, Java Applets, Status.Net, Twitter API, WAP, NNTP.) The core protocol is a gorgeous "Right Thing" design which has had many years to mature, and attempts to cover all venues: IM, chat room, microblogging, mail, profiles...

However, like with all of these open-source efforts, traction as a network seems to be missing.


actually the core PSYC folks have moved on to develop http://secushare.org which is a P2P social beast "done right" with technologies and syntaxes much faster than XMPP or JSON. secushare is getting plenty of attention in the european hacker community and projects like freedombox. it's the missing link basically.


"One camp wanted to build the entire business around their realtime API."

I think the real problem with this is that Twitter made an even more fundamental mistake early on, which is that they only support text and not data/microformats. That is, there is no way for a professor to tweet out the homework in such a way that it automatically gets added to students' dayplanners, no way to list something for sale in a globally searchable way, no way to tweet out a dating profile, etc.

Twitter really should have been the company that enabled the semantic web and became the de facto platform powering the entire thing.


Seems to me that this isn't a fundamental mistake but a featureset they could still add now. Not that it's on the table at Twitter HQ, but I believe that the window of opportunity to give Twitter the ability to read and provide microformats is still here. Existing clients would get the same tweets, but could be easily extended to link to the web to get the "attached" data.

Your idea makes me swoon, but I think it'll never happen because that isn't the vision Twitter has, not because it's too late.


"Your idea makes me swoon, but I think it'll never happen because that isn't the vision Twitter has, not because it's too late."

That, and also the fact that by now the ship has gotten big enough that turning it around would be virtually impossible. It's not just an issue of breaking third party clients, but also getting buy-in from the company and investors, completely redesigning the UI, etc.

Basically, consider this a free billion-dollar idea for anyone who wants it.


I'm of the school that one of the worst things Twitter could do is add support for data/attachments, long messages or message bloat in general. The essence of Twitter and its beauty is the messages are short, low overhead and you can skim them very quickly. It compels people to be brief and to not ramble and that is its value and its a good fit for capacity limited mobile. Animated GIF's in Google+ are mostly just annoying.

If you need heavy data then you put a link in the mesage and once people establish they are interested in the subject, then they can go to some server to get the heavy content and all the heavy content isn't centralized at the message service provider.

Also storing and transmitting pictures, video and audio on the message bus dramatically increases overhead, cost and risks of running the service. The second you support it you will have people using it to violate copyrights and laws, you land in a quagmire of shifting standard on what is indecent or illegal in every country in the world. You end up needing a big staff just to deal with take down requests, subpoena requests and to sift though your fire hose to try to eliminate stuff that is going to offend people.

The beauty of short messages is they have very limited capacity to violate laws and copyrights and the message service provider shouldn't be responsile for what is on the web sites the messages link to.

Having integrated image, audio and video support is nice but its actually better if its hosted away from the message bus and decentralized like Twitpic was.


"The essence of Twitter and its beauty is the messages are short, low overhead and you can skim them very quickly."

Adding data wouldn't make the messages any longer, because they'd still be summarized in 140 characters or whatever. The difference is that the actual content would be machine searchable/usable, unlike now where you can add a link but that link is basically worthless unless you're a human.


HTML is machine readable it just has problems with the machine understanding it part. I think you are asking more for a semantic web which hasn't been particularly successful so far. People mostly struggle to just put together a web page that people can understand. Getting them to build diverse information to standards machines can reliably understand is hard. XML has mostly proved this.

I'm not necessarily opposed to their being attachments sitting on Twitter's servers that I can access if I'm interested. I just totally dont want them bombing me with it and sending with the message by default. Their messages are already too bloated. And as I said the fatter the data is the more problems you are going to have with copyright, legality, offensiveness and security risks both for the service and end users.


Bravo!

When Twitter introduced annotations, I thought that was the beginning: soon, we would have Twitter classifieds, Twitter marketplace, Twitter as a data firehose for anything... All I was waiting for is annotations in the Search API. I'm positive that's all that was needed to provide the initial infrastructure for semantics -- the community would take care of the rest. Unfortunatelly, not only has it never happened, but Twitter took an entirely different course.

I can understand them, though. They had to start making money fast and took a less risky road. But I can't help thinking: bugger, this could've been so much more than celebrities and hashtags.


I understand how ads seem like a less risky road, but I really don't like using Twitter's website. Nor, am I that crazed about their app. I can't be the only one. It seems like a good way to lose users.


Yeah, what happened with annotations? I also remember being very excited about that. Does anyone know why they canceled that?


> there is no way for a professor to tweet out the homework

Surely a link to a URL is all you need to do most of that stuff?


A client could simply provide a way to post semantic data to some location and auto-insert a link to it, and support pulling down documents from those links and act on the data. The downside is a much higher overhead compared for small pieces of data compared to if it was inlined.


Do other services do that already? It sounds like something very useful and not very difficult to build...?


I particularly disagree with the conclusion that Twitter would have become some sort of magical panacea as opposed to the screenshot he provides: https://twitter.com/#!/daltonc/media/slideshow?url=pic.twitt...

The problem there is yet another crappy "what's hot" or "what's trending" or "what's popular" block. Google can't solve it for news, Netflix can't solve it for movies, Amazon can't solve it for related products, and a half-borked, underfunded API for accessing the Twitter firehose is unlikely to create an ecosystem for startups that magically condense the entire world's real-time chit-chat into something I find compelling.

Yet isn't that block fundamentally the (false) promise of Twitter? We'll let you, Mr. Brandybrand [perhaps an individual], target your products and ideas and political manifestos that change the world and the blog posts and cat pictures and defamatory attacks and racist sentiments that don't -- somehow to people who'll find it interesting?

The World's Fairs promised us flying cars; Hollywood promised us a flying skateboard. Both still live on in our dreams, so I have a tough time thinking "marketing" killed 'em.

Especially given Twitter's very public technology missteps. Hash exclamation point, ya digg? Half a billion later and the site still loads correctly about as often as Gawker does. He's bitching that an API can't party on their data? Hell, I can't even retrieve my own direct messages from a year ago on the site itself.

Meanwhile: somebody just replied in email with "HAHAHAHA!" Gmail inserted a widget offering to translate it from Filipino and shows an ad for Coconuts beside it. Coconuts! Meanwhile my last Twitter notification is in the Spam folder.

Nope, this isn't "the marketing guys."


Trends on Twitter just aren't important enough for everyone to constantly cite as to why Twitter sucks or why our species is doomed. Its just a source of brief entertainment to see what large numbers of people you probably don't have much in common with are obsessing over at the moment.

Effective Twitter usage is to follow large numbers of interesting people and news sources and then look at the trending topics among the people you care about, you have things in common with and whose opinions you value. Unfortunately Twitter doesn't do trends for just your stream which is one of the many reasons third party clients can rock and Twitter, the company, tends to not rock.


Nah. The internet was built to be decentralized with no single point of failure. Twitter and facebook and other centralized services are not the future. Cloud and tiers are fine as commodities, but having ONE company manage ALL the infrastructure for a particular type of communication is not the "internet way". The futurist in you shouldnt be upset.

Imagine if all email went through a single company's servers, and "fail whale" meant you had to WAIT until Email.com was back up until you sent that file to the coworker across the hall from you...

What we need is a protocol and a decentralized, open source reference implementation.


A bit off topic, you totally psychologically hijacked me for a kudo. :-P

I was curious what the kudos were, so I hovered over the icon. It told me not to move and started filling up, so I waited curiously. Finally, it counted that as a kudo from me to you!

That said, you have a good point. They really have taken a different road recently with their crackdown on the API. They've got every right do do so, and they're making money doing it (always important for a company), but it would've been really interesting to see the equivalent of an API-based SMS-style nearly-ubiquitous service.


That happened to me too the first time I saw a link to this blog on HN. But now I'm wiser. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me, can't get fooled again.


Agreed, although I periodically "give" a kudo just to see if the platform has improved to allow one to revoke a kudo. It hasn't. It's a shame actual "kudos" get conflated with "what's this thing do" over and over. Was the design aspect overlooked or intentional? Either way It's a disrespectful UX error.


If not intentional originally, defiantly intentional now: http://dcurt.is/unkudo/


Wow, he's not fooling me with his rationalisations:

Here’s what it actually does: when you hover over the button, a CSS transform animation is activated which fills the circle. After 1 second (the length of the animation), it fires a request to the server which increments an otherwise meaningless number by exactly one.

Simple response: If that number is meaningless, why give it a fancy animation, why name it 'Kudos' (which even a non-techie would agree is equivalent to a +1, Like whatever) and then why place such a meaningless element next to every meaningful blogpost? If he just wants to amuse himself, may I propose random() in whatever prog. language he uses to update some meaningless local variable. I do like Dustin's blog, but it's sad to see the self-deception going on here from an otherwise smart guy with loads of reputation to lose.


fwiw, this functionality is part of the blogging platform I am using: http://svbtle.com


Yes, and it's dishonest. It happened to me once too.


This feels like an opportunity. I'd love to hear a broader description of the sorts of functionality that twitter could have become as a messaging API instead of an ad driven business.

Anybody have any thoughts to share?

I wonder if twitter's early and longlasting scaling problems affected their choice at all.


I know that when iOS 5.0 mentioned 'twitter integration' and BBM like messaging, I had assumed (wrongly) that iOS was going to use twitter DMs in the way that they are using iMessages now. This would be using a person's twitter handle instead of the Apple ID associated with the iPhone. Like I said, this did not come to pass, but it could have been used as a BBM-like messaging service pre-iMessaging.


As long as you have a centralized system, the entity that runs it has to make money sooner or later.

What we need is a decentralized protocol that does what the "API Twitter" could have done.


So I'll step up and blow my team's trumpet. It's the end of a long weekend hackathon on buddycloud. It's also great to see the rumblings of what could be next.

Where we stand: The server and webclient are mostly done. We're now working on distributed media storage and a distributed API (https://buddycloud.org/wiki/Buddycloud_HTTP_API)

For an example of buddycloud in action here's our hackathon channel from today: https://beta.buddycloud.org/hackathon@topics.buddycloud.org


I think that's called HTTP. Then all you need is a place to search the content, where hosting that is easier than hosting all the data. And that's called google.


HTTP doesn't have pubsub built in.


Rss? FTP?


No. More real-time, more efficient than polling. You're not going to build twitter on RSS alone.

This might qualify: https://code.google.com/p/pubsubhubbub/


How do you explain Wikipedia then?


They have fund drives. I didn't say a centralized entity has to be a for-profit business, just that it has to bring in money one way or another. (I suspect Wikipedia has considerably less infrastructure than Twitter, though.)


What if there existed a Twitter-like technological entity, split into two parts, which together formed a virtual democratic republic.

1. The "community", comprised of those persons and corporations reading and writing messages ("tweets"), un/following each other, forming groups, etc. Both individuals and corporate entities could/would pay for the RESTful server infrastructure powering the basic messaging service.

2.The elected "governance body" which is in charge of:

* A massive geo-weighted DNS round-robin, so the service can operate under a single domain name.

* A system of caches, e.g. a bunch of varnish instances spread across datacenters around the world.

* A lightweight, tiered push-notification system which is orthogonal to the RESTful service, and allows clients to request that they be notified when, say, a timeline-resource has been updated; and also allows the server endpoints to originate notifications of updates.

* Authoring and updating the specifications for protocol support, message format, message signing, media type definitions and semantic profiles, and data replication between servers.

* The "laws" which govern the process of joining the community (e.g. agreeing to messages being under some creative commons license); having a server/s added to the round robin; kicking a server/s out of the round robin for some violation of the specs and laws (e.g. message tampering); banning a user-entity for spamming; and so on.

At regular intervals, the worldwide community would elect members of the governance body. Over time, the specs and laws of the service would evolve -- as a result of the elections, popular demand and technical problems and innovations.

In the beginning, the governance body, specs and laws would be established by the founding participants, to avoid a chicken-and-egg scenario.

---

Here's why I see this attracting interest of corporations and thus motivating them to pay for the servers and develop/deploy implementations of the technical specs:

All sorts of companies would love to analyze the firehose of public messages being pumped through Twitter (or this hypothetical service). They would also like to data-mine the timeline histories. Twitter is more and more making that a difficult and costly proposition. By participating in the infrastructure, companies and individuals would automatically have their own views of the firehose, and could choose whether to invest in the tech to keep the historical data beyond some minimum amount mandated by the specs.

In turn, such infrastructure participants could resell access to their views of the firehose and/or historical data to those who can't or don't want to run servers but are interested in exploring the data. Thus a market would be created, and there would be a healthy amount of competition among infrastructure participants regarding the prices of firehose/history access and the APIs they make available for tapping into those paid resources.


Let's talk about it...


Pie-in-the-sky companies have to make money eventually. Either you start making money, or you'll have to do it later and that may disappoint some people.


For a year or two I've predicted the ultimate demise of Twitter, which probably means some kind of acquisition. I stand by that prediction. They have hundreds of millions (if not billions) so it's not going to happen overnight but it will happen.

What is Twitter? I see it as two things:

1. Infrastructure: it is a means of sending thousands of short messages a second to people in asymmetric relationships. Technically this isn't a hard problem. There are many companies around who handle traffic many orders of magnitude above this. The danger with infrastructure is that it will get commoditized. The cost in terms of resources (bandwidth, CPU, power) is not that high;

There are parallels between Twitter and SMS. SMS survives and is hugely profitable because of the telco cartel that monopolizes it. Where hosting companies will provide you with bandwidth for cents per GB, SMS costs thousands if not millions of dollars per GB. That too will come to an end eventually. What saves it now is all the players want to push their own standards and they aren't interoperable. It's IM fiefdoms all over again.

2. An audience. Twitter and its users have the ability to reach a large number of people. Originally Twitter was envisioned as a means of real-time status updates between normal people. My impression is that this use case is basically dead. The vast majority of Twitter usage seems to be as a communication tool by celebrities. There is a business in that but it isn't the revolutionary communication tool it was once thought (and some still think) it to be.

So the camps in question (the API camp and the ad camp) fit into the above.

Owning infrastructure can be hugely lucrative (eg SMS). History is full of examples of this. Railroads, oil, telephony, etc. The problem is that you get too big and the government will intervene.

Messaging infrastructure is too important for one party to own it. Email is federated and open. The future of messaging is too (I believe) federated and open.

So that leaves (2), the ad camp. The problem with advertising on Twitter is the same as it is on Facebook: it's an unwelcome intrusion.

Perhaps Twitter could have (and may still be able to) build a display ad business but Twitter is still not a particularly mainstream product (and IMHO it doesn't look like it ever will be).

Perhaps Twitter could've had a subreddit/Facebook pages type hubrid model. Upvoting of Tweets is possibly interesting.

Of course this faces the same problem Digg had: few things are globally interesting. What's interesting to you is not necessarily interesting to me so you changing what I see is again an intrusion.

Basically "content gateways" (like Digg, Slashdot, etc) were I believe transitional. I don't believe you'll have a repeat of Digg moderators being paid to promote stories. You can (and people do) pay celebrities to retweet things but that still only goes to their followers. They have to consider their brands and building and keeping their respective audiences too.

Those thinking Twitter should have an open firehose (or close to it) are neglecting the reality that Twitter is a business and needs to make money somehow. Open access to their content greatly diminishes that.

Lastly, quite a few people will speak of "betrayed" by Twitter over API access. They also believe that developers were largely responsible for making Twitter popular. As I said (just yesterday) that this is inevitable. Become too successful and the platform subsumes you into their core offering (no one wants core features controlled by third parties). Developers were I believe largely incidental to Twitter's success. Twitter succeeded (as it were) because people used it. To take credit for that as a developer community is like saying that the automobile succeeded because of car wash stations and autoshops selling rims.

EDIT: one last point. It's popular, particularly on HN, to simply build an audience or something that scales without concern for monetization. I certainly understand the logic behind this. Sometimes it works but sometimes it doesn't.

Twitter hasn't come up with a scalable business model yet because there isn't one. As much as founders can be praised for "swinging for the fences" and going all in, sometimes the best outcome is to be acquired because what you've developed isn't a viable independent business but could be an incredibly valuable part of a wider portfolio of products.


> My impression is that this use case is basically dead. The vast majority of Twitter usage seems to be as a communication tool by celebrities.

Your impression is wrong in this case. Let's take something topical:

https://twitter.com/#!/search/realtime/eurocup

Look at all those people talking about the eurocup!

Also:

> The problem with advertising on Twitter is the same as it is on Facebook: it's an unwelcome intrusion.

You mean, like television commercials? Which are the foundation of an I don't even know how many billion dollar industry. I'm not saying it's a slam dunk they'll get this right but there's a lot of evidence out their in the world that eyeballs can be turned into money just about anywhere. It seems a bit hasty to just dismiss all of that.

There's also plenty of buying intent to work with like this:

https://twitter.com/AllMadeUp21/status/219518855091978240

That's just an example that took me 10 seconds to find. Get enough people talking and some of them are going to talk about things they want to buy.


Cletus: it's an unwelcome intrusion

Harry: like television commercials?

Me: Yes, like TV commercials and youtube commercials and the multitude of unwelcome intrusions that do have some effect, that provide some value for the intruder but which are low grade on the developing advertising food chain.

Harry: ...the foundation of an I don't even know how many billion dollar industry.

Me: You mean like the multi-billion newspaper industry? I'm not saying that TV will go the way of newspapers but you remember TV happened before the net right? The vector today is towards ads that give people what they want, not ads that impose things on people (these won't go away but they aren't a high-value area).


"There's also plenty of buying intent to work with like this"

shrug

I'm not saying it's a sure thing (if it was it'd be done already). I'm just saying they've got a lot to work with.


I actually found an interesting use case with Twitter a little over a week ago when Pier 29 in San Francisco was caught on fire. I initially heard about it on Twitter from one of my friends. I instantly searched for "Pier 29" and found a plethora of relevant images and links as the story was developing.

Sure, searching Google News or going on the /r/sanfrancisco subreddit might've given similar results, but there was an intense amount of content developing in real-time. I was able to see images of the fire from different angles and perspectives and I felt that this was a strong feature that Twitter has. I personally think that Twitter's business model _relies_ on having a large userbase. Using Facebook would be fine with a small userbase, but Twitter's model is much different.


A similar use case: I noticed the sunlight on the wall of my apartment's courtyard was a bright orange so searched twitter for "Berlin sunset" and right away found a gorgeous image someone had just made 5 minutes ago.


Aside on SMS:

Armchair economists like to discuss SMS as an example of oligopolies gone bad, but that doesn't pass the smell test. Telephone competition is suboptimal but SMS is uniquely bad in its outcomes; they've done a much better job on all other forms of data. Furthermore, costs vary from place to place but by all accounts SMS is still very expensive worldwide.

Well, it happens that SMS is a technical hack; the data payloads are snuck into the control channel. The bandwidth in this channel is very scarce. The message could be re-routed over the data network, but the cross-carrier costs are still expensive because the receiving phone might have to use the old implemnetation.


I was going to ask "Source?" but decided to look it up for myself. For anyone else reading this: cynicalkane is right, sms messages "travel on the SS7 network in tandem with voice call signaling traffic" [0]. For a great overview, read this HowStuffWorks article [1].

[0] http://www.ncs.gov/library/tech_bulletins/2003/tib_03-2.pdf (this whole bulletin is pretty interesting: it discusses the fact that SMS service is often maintained even while voice service is down, such as on September 11th 2001).

[1] http://computer.howstuffworks.com/e-mail-messaging/sms.htm


Is that still valid? I mean, after GPRS, MMS and various technologies in this area it might not be as bad as originally implemented.


MMS just works by sending an SMS message to the receiving phone with a url pointing to a stored copy of whatever the original message payload was. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multimedia_Messaging_Service#Te...


It's still valid like XP is still valid. Legacy is called legacy for a reason.


Thats obviously a no-starter. Its not expensive because its "snuck into the control channel", which is only partially true. If that was the case and it would be immensely expensive to transport data that way, there would be a technical solution in no time.

Remember that before SMS, most payload was sounds, voice communication. Even with codecs that is still much more bandwidth intensive. And don't even get started with routing voice cross-carrier with minimal latency; atleast with SMS you can still temporarily hold them while you wait for capacity to free up.


What's funny is that the market has tried to solve it. The first cell phone I ever got offered low-cost AIM. My work BlackBerry has a free messenger app. But it turns out people like sending messages to a phone number, any phone number, and don't care for using multiple ways to text. So SMS is the only universal standard for this. Modern phones could re-route the data to save money but the receiving phone might still use the old protocol. It's a literal "network effect".


>Modern phones could re-route the data to save money but the receiving phone might still use the old protocol.

The iPhone messages app does exactly that. It first tries to send the message via Apple, with fallback to SMS if either the remote phone isn't an iPhone or if it can't establish a connection to it immediately.


Abstraction is the right answer. Just send a message, and let the application layer figure out the right transport to make it readable on the final device.


That may be the Messages.app (on iOS and even more on Mac) plan. I sure wish iMessage and BBM were made interoperable via some well-defined bridge standard.


"Twitter succeeded (as it were) because people used it", and they did because the Twitter API is basically the "Hello World" of using a web service !

This meant ANY platform where a developer cared to bring out a Twitter client had it, and hence more people could jump in quickly.

Secondly, really creative users made Twitter what it is today with Retweets and Hashtags.

Twitter would be wise to not start an evaporative cooling effect.


> Twitter would be wise to not start an evaporative cooling effect.

I think this comment is at least a couple years too late.


My thought about the Twitter business model has always been that they shouldn't charge for putting information into the stream, ala advertising.

They should charge for taking information out of the stream, like a polling company, or consumer research, or business intelligence.

Not for the stream, but for the firehose. And for specialized analysis of the firehose.

There would be massive value in knowing what everyone in the world is thinking about in real time.

Getting there should have been their goal.


They do this already, minus the analysis. I think the problem is this just isn't that big of a business.


I suspect the problem is more that they haven't found the way to make it that big a business, not that it can't be.

Oh well, if they don't, someone else will down the line.


I don't know why they are not doing the same on their own. Anyways they are doing it indirectly by giving the firehose access to companies like DataSift[1].

[1]http://datasift.com/


http://www.crimsonhexagon.com/ does (did?) this pretty good.


> The vast majority of Twitter usage seems to be as a communication tool by celebrities.

I had a hard time with the credibility of this analysis after that whopper. Twitter use continues to grow exponentially and is currently at 140 million active users with 340 million tweets per day. It is the third largest social network behind Facebook and LinkedIn.


So, 139,999,999 users logging in to read 340 million tweets from one very active celebrity? ;-)

(I'm not saying that you're wrong and the OP is right; I'm saying that your numbers don't provide enough information.)


I'd say it's enough information to show that most users aren't using Twitter to communicate. 340/140 < 2.5 per day.


This comments is much more interesting than the inane original post.


To make money, you either need to help others make money, or help people get laid.

Advertising is a possibility but it would ultimately be a failure given the investment that has gone towards Twitter.

Paying for a premium Twitter account isn't going help either. For most people, Twitter doesn't help them make money or isn't a status symbol.

So perhaps the business model needs to be to help people get laid somehow. Listen, people want to either get rich or get laid - do 1 or the other and you'll make a lot of money.


Seems like quite the oversimplification. So everyone in a committed relationship is trying to get rich and everyone else is either trying to get rich or laid? Sounds like a theory that may apply say to people under 25 or so, but it doesn't really model any real world beyond that that I have ever seen.


The sad part of this is that Twitter was going in this direction:

http://blog.twitter.com/2010/05/twitter-platform.html

I don't think the reaction would be nearly as bad if Twitter was better at making clients for their own service. They aren't very good at it. Twitter for Mac (née Tweetie) is dying on the vine.

TweetBot is 10x better on iOS than the native client, and Osfoora on the desktop.

Why not meet the challenge of an ecosystem in conjunction with ad revenue rather than just blanket rule against it?


I disagree that Twitter's official iPhone client is "bad." You may like Tweetbot more, but I am a power user who actually prefers the official client.

It's not a question of good vs. bad, it's more like good vs. better (where better is a personal preference).


Do you disagree that they have abandoned their native Mac client?

Personally I don't think the "Discover" tab is worth its real estate in the menu.


Ditto on Android. Plume is so much better than the official client. This kind of things make you wonder about missed opportunities for Google+, where you can't have a proper alternative client…


> One camp wanted to build the entire business around their realtime API. ... The other camp looked at Google’s advertising model for inspiration, and decided that building their own version of AdWords would be the right way to go.

There was a 3rd camp, those who wanted Twitter to become a protocol instead of a silo. From the sounds of it this camp must have been especially small. It's a shame, it was the only way to make it viable long-term.


The only way to make what viable long term?


What a bizarre post. A company could have entered a different market and killed it 5 years ago... however that market has still yet to materialize, whereas the market that the company actually entered was rather lucrative. Also, Steve Jobs could have invented a company to build hover cars and that company could have changed the world.


Would be cool to see a startup creating a "Twitter for computers" service. An highly reliable system that can be used just to route messages via an API, with a semantic similar to the one of twitter, to be used as a building component for everything you need. Not sure about what a business model would look like.


Wasn't this one of the basic premises of Notifo? As far as I recall, they never did quite figure out the business model, though.


Great post. It seems like there are several different interpretations of what an API-centric business model would have looked like: the "all the data in one place" model, and the "communications bus for the internet" model. (These are not mutually exclusive, necessarily.)

I always loved the idea of Twitter as a communications bus for the internet. It probably would have been very challenging to monetize (though "we have all the data" as a thing to sell isn't bad, it works well for google in a search/1.0 context because they also have all the intent and all the UI around it).

It makes me wonder how much this set of decisions was driven by the amount of capital they raised and the need to demonstrate monetization.

It seems like deciding the business would be ad-supported was the first step toward becoming MySpace2.0.


It seems to me that the potential success of the realtime API approach would be reliant on impressive, profitable applications. Although I can think of a few, I can't think of enough of them to argue against the AdWords approach, which apparently drives revenue for now. If Twitter had chosen the API direction initially it would have been partially on them to cultivate the developer community required to make their strategy works — which could be seen as orthogonal to developing a great product and solving infrastructure problems.

In the long run these two approaches may not actually be at odds with one another. AdWords-ish works for now, and as new apps are developed there may be an opportunity to move back in that direction.


Not to mention their photo product (their partership with photobucket or whatever) is pretty bad... Even the two links in this article that point to twitter photos come up 404 on mobile... wtf. The third party tweet photo sites are still better.


Twitter's mobile site is a complete joke. It wasn't until last week that I could actually see a tweet somebody linked to.

What is more frustrating is I don't ever want the mobile site (there's an app for that). I just want to be able to see tweets people like to.


Wow, that is hilarious, I didn't even think to check those links on mobile. Unbelievable


This post is relevant: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=552821 'How Software Companies Die'.

The engineers/product developers lost and the marketing won. It happens many times because developers are busy building value while marketing/business is scheming/planning/making deals. When this changes we will have more truly awesome products I believe, when Japan was seriously winning they were engineer and product focused but have business/marketing bloat destroying these products nowadays. Making needs as much focus as marketing.


The "marketing screws companies up" meme is old and tired. Yes, bad marketing sucks. So does bad engineering. The reality of creating a business is you need to market it. It's one company in a thousand that can survive with no marketing, and that happens purely by luck.

Marketing is actually really hard. The internet has also drastically altered how marketing happens, since the conversation now needs to be two-way (not just blasting out advertisements). The companies who do this the best don't get credit for great marketing because it just appear natural.

What is worse about this meme is it becomes poisonous inside companies. Instead of everybody working together to build the company, you can have people trying to satisfy agendas. Engineers focus on technology instead of products; marketing tells lies in an effort to force engineering down the path they want.

The only thing about this meme that has any value is that, at its core, the meme talks about providing real value instead of talking about value. But it is the height of arrogance to believe only engineers can create something of value.


People just don't seem to be comfortable with grey. And this is a problem I especially see with newer devs: there has to be one right way that fully solves a problem.

The balancing act between seat-of-the-pants thinking and methodical problem solving is THE key to business survival.


Marketing is very important, as important as the product as my last statement mentions. I think the post was incorrectly interpreted. I was only speaking to when the product stops innovating and everything is solved by more marketing.

The meme isn't 'marketing screws companies up' since without marketing or a product there is nothing. It's when the focus goes off the product and into marketing ether (same problem with only making product and doing no marketing).

An example might be demoing a product that isn't available for another 6 months to a year. It's a balance but the moment the focus is off delivering product first it is over.

The twitter API group verses the marketing group I can bet most of the people in the API camp were developers/product people and the marketers were not. Where do you want the focus in your company? The product or the marketing? One usually wins out or takes the reigns, both extremely important. I think for longevity product wins hands down.


TL;DR: This thread contemplating "Diaspora* for Twitter"


Last year I wrote about Twitter as a platform for life:

http://krisgosser.com/journal/2011/10/twitter-as-lifes-platf...

This article has similar thoughts: if only Twitter allowed us to combine other things like our cars, bodies, appliances, and jobs so that communication was actually useful instead of simply social.


Do you have many concrete thoughts on what the API-Twitter could have looked like now (if not dead, that is)? Tons of clients alone doesn't make an ecosystem.

Up until the 'stop making clients' announcement I'd always vaguely hoped that Twitter would become the true online identity - but perhaps that's just Facebook aversion talking.


Are you asking how could they have made money or what cool things would they have done? I dont care about the making money part, the cool things they could have done being the Internet's message bus:

- Really good search, and access to the entire message archive, instead of hiding their archives in order to monetize it - Better lists/circles with more granular control over private/public messaging and groups - Better conversation ability, for example ability to make a list of users you want to have discussion with and have an easy way for everyone to follow the threads, ability to make it read only to the general public, so everyone can read but spammers can't ruin it, or take it private to everyone on the list. - Video/audio chat/hangouts might be on some people's list, I'm not sure it belongs in the core message service - Creative ways to make the message service the definitive breaking news medium. It already is but you kind of need ways to rein in the bogus news - Curation & moderation, methods to elevate interesting messages, though this moderation should be an option and easily disabled to avoid groupthink - Karma, though again it should be optional - Better support for real-time streams for topical hash tags like conferences, spam killing being the main issue. Clients can do a lot of this but spam killing benefits from support from the message service. - Openly embracing and facilitating academic research on their firehose, archives and social networks

This list could go on all night, buts just a few of my favorites.


Not sure. A bunch of ideas were floated in tech blogs at the time. Yammer was a paid Twitter clone, for instance. Also ideas about paying for API access. Hard to know as a bystander if any of them were seriously considered.


You mean Twitter was better when they started out, had no way of monetizing the service & had constant infrastructure problems resulting daily service outages?

Yeah, I'd really like to make a single entity with a single point of failure a fundamental piece of the Internet's infrastructure.


If there were some successful API companies in past, they would probably go an API route. The problem is that Ad based business is well understood while selling API and selling real-time information and being a 'real-time information bus' is something quite new.


Agreed, but how realtime API business would have made money?


often times i think twitter has become myspace circa 2006.


I'd pay a few dollars a month or year in order to: (1) never see ads (promoted tweets, etc.; retweets from channels I follow are ok), and/or (2) premium features like a more sophisticated Twitter iOS app, etc. I'm always surprised by any debate on the web around "OMG how can they monetize? Ads are annoying. Conundrum!" because I thought this was a solved problem in the business domain a long time ago. Identify things people are willing to pay for, and then sell that to them. Those things exist. Do it, rinse, repeat.


Many websites have adopted the donate-to-see-no-ads model - Slashdot, Reddit, OKCupid etc - but as I understand it none of those have exactly thrived on the donated money.

Has it been more successful than I've heard?




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