Does it matter if Twitter, defacto forum of online political discussion, is run as a private enterprise out of San Francisco? Could we do better than that?
I intend this post as a survey what might motivate a non-commercial Twitter clone, what it’s scope could be, and what other attempts have been made. It was triggered by at least three independent conversations that I’ve had about why such a thing ought to exist. It feels like everyone is thinking about it.
There’s a very productive analogy between political rights in physical space and those in digital space which can be used as a tool for examining this question.
In public physical spaces we expect to be allowed various political rights such as freedom of speech and the right to protest – for example on high street or in a park. It’s an intrinsic part of democracy, but it’s also part of an important idea that the space is owned by and run for the community.
Many people worry about spaces that are appear to be public but are legally considered private, for example in shopping malls or Olympic Park in East London. These ‘faux’ public spaces could be used to rob us of our freedoms without us noticing. At the same time, most reasonable people accept that you can’t hold a protest in a hospital ward or on a cricket pitch during a game. It’s a balance.
Using this analogy to prime our intuitions, have we got the balance between public and private space right online?
Facebook is an expensive thing to run, hosting billions of photos and messages; it constantly evolves. Without investment, it would not exist. And if you don’t like it, there are other ways to keep up with your friends. For those two reasons I think it’s at least reasonable that Facebook is a private enterprise.
Twitter is different, it’s a classic ‘faux’ public space. It is the public forum for digital debate. Several features ensure it’s a perfect fit for that role: public by default, the follower-followee model, and the @ message system which means that everyone at least has a chance of being heard by their target. From haranguing customer services to following the operation against Osama Bin Laden, it truly is the digital inheritor of the notion of the national town square.
Also, it’s extremely simple. They do huge amounts of work to fight spam and operate at massive scale, but the fundamental mechanism could be written on a napkin. This is not true of Facebook, or, for that matter of Google, or even Amazon. It could exist without lots of money to support it, much as Wikipedia does.
Twitter, or something like it, is the key part of a digital, participative democracy. For these reasons, the commercialisation of the public space that Twitter represents is a terrible deal for society. The balance is wrong.
Freedom of speech should not be at the mercy of a corporation’s terms and conditions. You should not have to see adverts to see what your politicians are saying.
So why not build a free, open version of Twitter?
If you built a Twitter clone only to provide a public online space it could actually be a bit simpler than Twitter itself. No need for DMs or locked accounts, even favourites aren’t part of the core offer (nor are the complex system of “entities” that the site uses in the background). Just the ability to post and repost updates, to follow and block other users. That’s it.
The Twitter clone’s underlying API (the server) could exactly copy Twitter’s, bearing the previous scope limitations in mind. Just like Twitter, OAuth would solve authentication.
Then anyone could repurpose any Twitter clients they have hanging around to use the new service (I realise Twitter has banned using their API to build clients so not many people will have been developing them, but I’m sure some people have been messing around or have old ones.) A Twitter-style client is not a complex thing to build from scratch in any case.
Even if the API is conceptually simple, scaling is another issue. However, Twitter and Facebook have been open sourcing software that helps solve exactly this problem, for example Cassandra. Given all this, I wonder if building a limited Twitter clone might not be as hard as you’d at first think.
It would also be possible to build a federated version that shares the load between many server owners, though I’m not sure if it would be advisable, for reasons I’ll discuss in the context of Diaspora. If server prices became prohibitive, my first response would be to discard old messages – if the service did gain traction archive could be left to third party services.
Isn’t this Diaspora?
Diaspora is a federated, non-commercial version of Facebook. Fundamentally, it designed to provide privacy, as Facebook does, not the public space that Twitter does. However it does aspirations in terms of non-commercial ownership – in fact there is no single owner at all, instead it’s a connect network of servers owned by different people or groups (‘pods’).
This system points up the complexity of federation. Diaspora’s protocol has to be very complex to allow the transmission of messages between different ‘pods’ while ensuring only people with permission see the messages. One reason to do that is the legal protection offered by a service whose servers are not located in any one jurisdiction.
Our Twitter clone would alleviate a some of this complexity because all the messages are public, however I still think there is danger that it’s too conceptually difficult for average users.
I say that because on Diaspora the technical complexity is very visible to the user, and because of that I think it won’t catch on. Certainly it hasn’t so far.
In fact, I think Mark Zuckerberg saw this. Realising it was a fatally flawed Facebook alternative he donated money to the project to prevent a more threatening rival emerging.
What about App.net?
App.net is a service that provides an online identity. You can use that identity to log into any of their ecosystem of apps. The first app they offered was a Twitter clone, with the insanely confusing name of “Alpha” (they also have an app called Omega, both of which are presumably in beta). Their thought process seems to have been roughly similar to that outlined above, though focused not on notions of public and private space, rather on ownership of data.
My feeling is that App.net’s project is enormously broader in scope than an open Twitter clone, and that, perhaps for this reason, it doesn’t seem to have gained much traction.
What about encryption? What about the NSA?
All the messages are public, so there is no need for any attempt to hide anything. I’d consider this to be a considerable advantage since it makes the build so much simpler.
I’d love to push it further, to a back of envelope calculation of what such a service might cost to run, perhaps restricted to just the UK.