Twitter Spring

I read the news today oh boy. Well actually, I didn’t. In a realtime Twitter world where everything looks like news, none of it is. The Steve Jobs anniversary stories are just one measure of this logjam, but something deeper than his tragic demise is troubling the technology business. What news is and why we crave it are being disrespected by Twitter’s recent moves, and the result may be a Twitter spring with unintended consequences.

The fact that Twitter needs to make enough money to justify its venture investment is not news either. Today’s post-Facebook IPO climate is seen as a watershed not unlike the aftermath of the AOL/Time Warner collapse. But history is no guide to the about-to-be-invented, which is what Twitter is. Attempts to rein Twitter in, to close the borders and declare dividends, to capture and bottle the spirit of the times, these are all understandable and yet fundamentally misguided attempts to change the course of biochemical inevitability.

Take @mentions, which is what these guys are trying to do. By shutting down alternative clients in favor of in-house products, the Twitter brain trust is flaunting their misunderstanding of the power of their network. Make no mistake: it is their network, not ours. We only ratify that fact by contributing to it, by repetitively going to the well like some lab rats in search of pellets of insight in a sea of emotional backwash. The amazing and durable fact is that we continue to find what we are looking for, no matter what the latest board or market cap shuffle suggests.

They own the network; get over it. Forget the idea that there is a moral approach to a popular service. Focus instead on the primal urges that drive our search for news, for the alchemic spark that keeps us alive in the face of death. It’s not that we resent Twitter in search of success. It’s the opposite: we are betting on that success, fearful that they are going to screw it up. Hmm, let me just use this pocket knife to find out where the gold is coming from in this goose here.

@mentions are the life blood of Twitter, the refugee of the death of Track from the first of the purges that didn’t work. @mentions form a dynamic frame on which to exercise the power of the social graph in realtime, not moderated algorithmically generated thanks-we’ll-take-it-from-here Facebook time. We are the sum of what we yearn for, that chemical soup of destiny, that thing the great artists strive for in their processes and silences. You can’t take @mentions from us, because we haven’t birthed the next ones yet. You can’t squelch the human spirit, not even for one second.

I remember one night in the dark years ago, when Sam Kinison raged against the status quo in a vile, obscenity-laden deeply angry and gasping-for-air hilarious howl of insanity so inspired that it made us feel ashamed to agree with it so much. That’s what became apparent with Twitter at some point: that we could suddenly tap into this realtime macro mind, this living and breathing planet, this moment in time that made news a secondary pursuit, homework to prepare us for the next leap into the stream.

But you Twitter guys have always thought you could manage this grasping of the third rail. No, your job has always been to figure out how to keep it running, just ahead of the voracious demand you unleashed. We don’t blame you for the FailWhale, for the media footsie of the Suggested User List, for any of the Nineteen Eighty-Four-ish Newspeak (“We’re bombing Track to save it”) and so on. No, we loved you for your inadvertent transparency and hoped you’d come to see the futility of standing up to Jack’s SMS monster.

Here, once again, is why @mentions are important. Not only do they trigger realtime notifications on the dominant unified platform of mobile, they can be mined and massaged into the best possible filter based on the cascading intersections of your, yours, and theirs’ social graphs. Who you follow, @mention, and retweet, and then again who they follow, @mention, and retweet forms a taxonomy that will extract a much higher degree of value from the stream. The key to this working is our ability to interact over time with this cloud and keep it alive in a form that is freely redistributable.

This is where Twitter is attempting to save us from ourselves, by constraining the choice of nodes to which we have access. It doesn’t even matter about existing applications that are being terminated. It’s really about applications that have not been thought of yet, as of right this minute. It’s the ideas we as a living breathing entity born of realtime are about to have that give us the incentive of publishing to the network of networks. What you don’t want to do will never happen. Hey, Dick? Riddle me that.

Cutting off the incentive for @mentions is like administering a small electric shock when you are about to take a bite of food. Gee, that burger looks good but if I’m gonna get shocked for it maybe I should hold out for steak. If I’m a developer or entrepreneur looking to scratch an itch or a customer’s need, and I see Twitter undermining its central reason for existence, I keep looking. Not that Facebook is going to come to the rescue either. You have to have unlimited time like Scoble, really actually be Scoble, to make Facebook into an opaque semi-replica of the network of record.

Nope. The biggest problem Twitter has is that they can’t figure out how to compete with the Twitter that we think it is. We think it’s some supercharged email/IM replacement, and of course we are right. What does Twitter have that email/IM doesn’t have? @mentions. What are @mentions good for? Creating an elastic separate stream of contextual social data, one that is open to be applied to any service at the customer’s will. Freely redistributable. Not the content, but the context. Keep the content, Dick. We already gave it to you. Free the context.

If you think this is some geeky early adopter punditry noise, think again. Remember Microsoft. Big company, Pacific Northwest, richest man in the world yadda yadda. Microsoft foundered on freely redistributable. Arguably the Microsoft tablet machines, not the Surface but 10 years ago, offered much of the value proposition of the iPad if any software was actually released for the platform. In fact, one such application existed, called OneNote. But for whatever reason, the software was quarantined as part of Office. No freely redistributable player was forthcoming. No usage, no metadata, no context.

Apple, on the other hand, shipped Maps, Search, Mail, Web apps, iTunes, freely redistributable video (read Not Flash) bundled with iOS and the devices. I would never have bought an iPod were it not for the ability to rip CDs to the device. The iPhone’s unblocking of WiFi from carrier resistance was the central disruption of the phone and then the iPad. It’s not freely redistributable; it’s that plus carrier acceptance.

Steve Jobs didn’t just know this; he invented it. And by the way, what’s this noise about Jack Dorsey’s role being “reduced” again at Twitter for being difficult and indecisive? Who was more difficult and indecisive than Jobs, right up until he decided? Luckily for Dick Costolo, nothing less than this has any better chance of giving Jack the room he needs to double down on Twitter where it counts. Jack was the only guy at Twitter to give us a straight answer about Track back when it mattered. He loves Track. Twitter is his scratched itch.

Dick and Jack are the right guys for the job of keeping Twitter from eating its young. They are smart, funny, and honest. They understand we are not going to stop wanting to know what’s new, or flee to a nonexistent competitor, or do anything to make Twitter vulnerable to economic imbalance. The presidential debate saw record traffic, as Romney did an amazing job of energizing the sleeping Democratic base. Perhaps Costolo is just energizing the @mention base. If so, @dickc and @jack, here’s the question: what tools will you provide to make @mention data freely redistributable?

[Photo of Jack Dorsey @ BearHugCamp by Andrew Mager]