A world without Twitter

This post has been rolling around in my mind for a while — along with my bank balance, the song “Gee, Officer Krupke”, and Jennifer Aniston’s … nevermind. I was inspired to finally commit it to paper, or whatever the heck this big rectangular white thing is, by a recent tweet from @danielpunkass, AKA Daniel Jalkut, AKA Mr. MarsEdit, AKA The Boston Strangler. As John Lennon might say if he were alive today, and unable to come up with any new ideas in the last 40 years: imagine there’s no Twitter. It’s easy if you try. Command-r, command-r.

The credit, or blame, goes to @rentzsch for luring me onto Twitter. Not once, but twice. The first time was as a requirement for attending the C4[2] conference. My initial run on Twitter came to a halt later when I famously (for some definition of famous) took a 5-month hiatus. At C4[3], however, ‘Wolf’ (as he is known in the porn industry) persuaded me to return to Twitter. You can see why C4 was evil and had to be abolished.

For a whale, err, while, Twitter was fairly stable, relatively speaking. Lately, though, the uptime has been absolutely horrid, even when there’s no World Cup game. The only thing that never fails is the status blog. (Why don’t they make Twitter out of the status blog? Or the black box?) The Twitter developers don’t really inspire confidence; they keep pushing code changes that are supposed to improve reliability but end up causing outages. Furthermore, after all this time they’ve still failed to implement any convenient way to follow conversation threads on Twitter. The @reply is only the most rudimentary step in this direction. To me, that suggests the developers have completely missed what is important and special about Twitter, the social aspect.

Another threat to Twitter’s future, besides the continued technical suckage and danger of collapsing under its own weight, is the need to make money. We’ve grown accustomed to receiving this service for free, but Twitter is not a charity, it’s a for-profit corporation. We’re starting to see this manifested in ‘promoted’ trends. Third-party spammers have existed on Twitter from the beginning, of course, but the question is whether commercialization will transform Twitter itself into something repulsive (cf. iAds). On the other hand, there’s a possibility that Twitter cannot make itself commercial enough. If Twitter doesn’t generate sufficient revenue to sustain itself and make a profit over the long term, it may have to close up shop and go out of business. It certainly wouldn’t be the first dot-com service to disappear. I believe that if Google wanted, they could create a serious competitor to Twitter, backed with Google’s superior knowledge, reliability, and bandwidth. Indeed, I’m surprised that Google hasn’t attempted this already. Maybe they don’t see any profit in it. But that doesn’t bode well for Twitter either.

As good programmers, we always have a backup. (Right? Right? Redundant and off-site, right?) The purpose of this post is to consider, what is our backup to Twitter? If Twitter dies, or if we’re compelled to leave, where do we go? We could go back to our pre-Twitter existence, back to our spouses, children, neighbors, and back to writing long blog posts instead of pithy 140- character tweets. We could, but blech! The un-tweeted life is not worth living. There would always be something missing. Twitter allows us to connect regularly with many friends that we don’t get to see very often (and to make arrangements when we do see them). It introduces us to people that we’d never meet or be able to talk to otherwise. It provides a unmoderated, unstructured forum for sharing crucial tidbits of information and knowledge with people we trust and respect (as well as everyone else, for better or worse). Twitter is like Cheers for the internet, except without Sam Malone. Oh wait, it’s got Sam Malone. The problem is, we don’t have a good backup. Without Twitter, we’ve got nothing. (Please don’t even mention Gary’s Old Towne Tavern.)

Admittedly, there are some alternatives to Twitter, a few services that are similar, but they all suffer from the same inherent limitations as Twitter. They present a single point of failure. If Twitter’s servers are overloaded, then the service becomes unusable. Everyone gets the fail whale. In order to reliably handle the traffic, a centralized service require a large amount of resources, and thus money. So the only hope for a reliable, centralized Twitter-like service is heavily commercialization, and it’s not clear that a heavily commercialized service is one we’d want to spend our time on. Would a profit train be recognizable as the little Twitter we know and (sometimes) love? Besides, any centralized service is still prone to catastrophic failure. Even the mighty Amazon goes down.

So I had this idea. In the shower. (With Jennifer Aniston.) What if we made a distributed Twitter? Like DVCS. All the hip young programmers today use DVCS, whether that’s Git, or Mercurial, or … yeah, Git or Mercurial. The key to DVCS is that there’s no single point of failure, no centralized repository. Each working copy is its own repository, with the entire commit history. And you can commit locally! If one repository goes offline or disappears entirely, the other repositories can continue operating indefinitely without it. Nothing is lost. Similarly, each user of Dwitter (clever, huh?) would install Dwitter software on a web server, which would keep a record not only of the user’s own dweets but also the dweets of everyone the user follows.

When you follow someone, your Dwitter server would send a request containing information such as your name and server address to the Dwitter server of the person you follow. The followee’s Dwitter server stores this information, and then when that person dweets, his/her/its/their Dwitter server would send the dweet to the Dwitter servers of all followers. To prevent connection overload, the rate of sending out dweets to followers would be limited, perhaps to something like 1.5 followers per second. This would allow a dweet to be propagated to 5000 followers in less than an hour. And if you compose another dweet while your followers are still getting notified of the previous dweet, the dweet notifications would get consolidated for the followers who haven’t yet been notified. Furthermore, any Dwitter user directly mentioned in a dweet would receive immediate notification of the dweet, prior to anyone else, to facilitate quick conversation.

Obviously, this system won’t scale for someone who has a million Twitter followers. However, the only people who have a million Twitter followers are celebrities. There are plenty of other, better outlets for celebrity news, we don’t need Twitter for that. Note that celebrities did not make Twitter popular. Rather, celebrities came to Twitter because it was already popular. What makes the presence of celebrities on Twitter mostly useless is that they rarely participate in the culture of Twitter, they don’t foster conversation. You can’t have a conversation with a million followers, because that doesn’t scale either.

A potentially more serious problem for the distributed version of Twitter is the difficulty of use. Running your own Dwitter server requires a fair bit of technical knowledge. It’s much more difficult than going to a web site and signing up for an account. This may exclude mom and pop from joining Dwitter. However, I personally don’t consider the loss of mom and pop to be worse than the loss of celebrities. Frankly, I don’t want my mom following me on Twitter. Have you read my tweets? She’d make me wash my mouth out with soap! Almost all of the people I follow are programmers. They should be fully capable of setting up a Dwitter server on their own internet domain. Even though Twitter is completely public (except for protected tweets, you bastards), the irony is that it’s best suited for insulated groups such as programmers. 140 characters is not enough to teach outsiders your terminology and concepts. When you tweet, you’re forced to leave out a lot and to use shorthand that only likeminded people will understand. Tweeting is kind of like sending out coded messages. (@IwayAmwayAwayUssianrayYspay)

Even with the distributed system, there may be options for less technical users. WordPress operates under a similar model. You can install WordPress software on your own web server and run your blog yourself, or you can sign up to have a hosted blog on wordpress.com, where they take care of the technical aspects for you. The key is that even if one hosted Dwitter service fails, that would only prevent new dweets from the hosted accounts. The rest of the Dwitterverse would go on as usual, and the archives of the hosted dweet accounts would continue to exist on the Dwitter servers of their followers.

I don’t personally have the expertise to design a distributed Twitter-like service. I have some web knowledge, but I’m mainly a desktop programmer. Nonetheless, I will take all glory and riches arising from this idea. All I ask in return for all the glory and riches is that the designers of the new service don’t create a half-assed API. I’m tired of crappy, fatally flawed designs becoming popular by virtue of being first to market. Indeed, this is how Twitter itself became popular. Please, do it right the first time. Or I’ll be looking for an alternative to you too.

2 Responses to “A world without Twitter”

  1. John Brayton says:

    Great post.

    I tend to think of Twitter as “centralized RSS”. The advantage of this centralization is ease of use. It is very easy to create a Twitter account and to follow other Twitter accounts. It is not as easy to create an RSS feed or blog, and it is not as easy to subscribe to other RSS feeds. However, the disadvantages of the centralization you describe are very real.

  2. Peter Hosey says:

    Daniel Sandler (@dsandler) co-created a distributed-Twitter protocol called FETHR and a client for it named Birdfeeder while he was at university: http://brdfdr.com/