Replacing Twitter – easier said than done

The normally unflappable Brent Simmons suggests we replace twitter with ‘nothing’. This is an interesting yet logistically improbable approach — I’ve tried to enumerate the challenges here, along with the reasons why I think it won’t happen.

Brent’s suggestion revolves around replacing twitter status updates with RSS feeds, extending this with a published ‘following’ list, and relying on a nascent third party service(s) for searching & mentions.

The challenges:

  • RSS hosting: your feed and following list need to be hosted somewhere publicly accessible. Geeks can easily sort out hosting, ‘normal people’ are going to have to rely on blogging platforms and other services.
  • Identity: twitter enforces unique usernames (and restricts wilful impersonation); the best you can hope for with RSS is a unique URL. Impersonation is likely to be an issue.
  • API: posting twitter updates from third party applications involves a single API endpoint, a consistent authentication mechanism, and a clearly documented posting API. Distributed feed hosting will make it difficult for third-party applications to post.
  • Front end: I suspect a single, canonical, user-friendly web interface is more important than is immediately obvious. Certainly the service would struggle to establish acceptance and mindshare without one.
  • Searching & mentions: A complete solution is effectively going to involve indexing every RSS feed on the internet, in real time. This will beget considerable storage and bandwidth costs, let alone the engineering expertise required to build it.
  • Governance: search, mention and other interactions involve consistent application of mutually agreed logic. In a distributed scenario, a working group or standards body would need to publish & enforce the protocol.

None of these challenges are insurmountable, but I doubt if any can be properly overcome without the resources of a well-funded (i.e. commercial) organisation. Indexing/searching in particular is going to be expensive. A successful service is going to provide hosting, identity, a good API, value-adding development etc — which will need to be funded somehow — at which point you have another twitter.

My belief is that twitter as it currently exists is the result of innumerable obvious & non-obvious market forces, and despite many people desiring otherwise, it’s the optimum solution based on the current circumstances. That’s not to say it can’t be disrupted by a different model in the future (and it’s certainly incumbent upon us to explore this, as Brent has, in the hope we’ll find it), but I don’t think this is it.

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