The Short and Winding Road

2ofusgoingnowhereThe news that some loser URL shortener is closing down does not prove anything other than that those who promoted it with their links better have gotten something out of the deal already. It’s all part of the usual pony ride that starts with excitement about the possibilities and ends in recriminations about the winners controlling the market. Now Dave Winer is calling for an end to what he calls “at best a temporary workaround for a limit Twitter shouldn’t have.” So here are the facts:

Twitter came out of nowhere and dominated the information space by constraining the canvas to 140 characters. The URL became the application trigger, the wormhole through which we could leap back into the existing macrocosm of blogs, software, and services. URL shorteners then, and now, are the mechanism by which we send data to and from the message bus. Whether these URLs are controlled by a private or public group is entirely inconsequential, because whoever controls the flow of that data has an advantage over everyone else who doesn’t.

Twitter and other apparent control points have both power and limits. Twitter’s power is the constraint of the wormhole; its weakness is the assent of its users and third party developers. If users and apps can move from one to several wormholes, their leverage accelerates dramatically. How can this be accomplished with Twitter’s dominance? By piggybacking URL transforms on top of the gatekeeper’s single point of control. By establishing another (or several) URL transform sites that large or influential numbers of links flows through.

In order to reach that critical mass, the purveyors of these URL transformers must establish credibility in the marketplace of return on investment. In making assessments about technology, it’s vital to assess not only the value of the innovation but its chances of survival in the arc of its moment. In that crucible, arguments against market scale, open versus commercial, and so on are largely moot. Whether some person or some community has “control” is only relevant to whether we think it will be successful in its goals and therefore be a factor in how the network develops.

Let’s say we have two transformers in operation. They both operate in similar fashion, taking links and repackaging them in unique and proprietary ways. The end result: you click on the hybrid links and they uncompress in one, two, or potentially endless permutations. As Adam Bosworth once said about XML, its alleged verbosity is trumped by Moore’s Law. So too are transforms. In effect, the speed of the uber transform server is the gating factor, or put another way, the latency you don’t notice you is not a problem.

So now we have competing uber transformer chains of shortened or otherwise enhanced metadata firehoses. As they develop audiences with interesting characteristics — authority, realtime velocity, reach, etc. — they begin to establish a micro-community power base that can encourage mergers, acquisition by platforms, and the emergence of market standards. It does no good to rail against this or that bigco conspiracy; in a transformer ecology, Twitter or or any one service isolates themselves by not talking to the uber layer. The water will flow around those disruptions, so it’s unprofitable to pursue them.

It’s more likely that Twitter and Borthwick will play along rather than constrict the straw through which the firehose currently flows. Hybrid transforms can quickly cherry pick the valuable streams, as many are using FriendFeed as the uber Twitter API. If URL aggregators emerge now to wrap uber layers across the weaker URL shortener populations, it will be difficult for or Twitter or both to mop up and retain an effective monopoly. Even if it’s only a matter of time before URL shortening is absorbed at the OS level, buying up real estate is certainly a smart strategy if only as a hedge against the eventual consolidation.

But just as the iPhone will continue to overturn the market fundamentals by constraining its application space, so too will those who control the URL transform space continue to drive the realtime expansion. It’s not a religious argument but a pragmatic one, and no amount of pigeonholing or posturing about unfair good old boy arrangements will obscure the opportunity for the hybrid transformers to seed the emerging market. The first one in will be the second, and all we need to break the stranglehold that really doesn’t exist.