An Internet Rant

"If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold."

-blue_beetle (Andrew Lewis), August 26, 2010, Metafilter

Monetization is a tricky thing. You want to build a profitable online service but charging people up front seriously limits adoption. So you go free. You give away a fun, exciting, engaging online service and eventually, hopefully you end up with a critical mass of users and people start to join up because, well, everyone is on there.

That's what happened with twitter and facebook1. They were great and cool and free services. So when did that change?

Twitter, in the beginning just wasn't reaching the masses. A lot of nerds and early adopters got on board and began to evolve the service from a 'microblogging' and 'where I am right now' service to a real time communication platform. It was these early users, not twitter itself, who invented the @-reply and hashtags. But it still didn't appeal to everyday people. It was awkward to use, relying on either SMS or the full twitter.com website. 

Enter third-party twitter clients. A series of twitter apps, mostly for the iPhone, but also for Blackberry and Android, started to bring twitter to a wider audience. It seems a pretty icon and a high spot in the Top 25 Free Apps in the iOS App Store can really draw in the users. Twitterrific, TweetDeck, and the excellent2 Tweetie began to push the twitter user base towards a critical mass. It wasn't long before twitter was used to plan out Occupy movements and topple Middle Eastern dictatorships.

People began to see twitter as an easy to access, real-time communication service that was better than email or texts and it was FREE! And they started to flock to it.

But twitter had to eventually ask themselves, 'How in the hell are we going to make money with this thing?' Well, if you've got millions of eyeballs glued to a stream of messages all day you can sell those eyeballs... To advertisers!

That's all well and good. After all, they have to keep the lights on somehow. But somewhere within the twitter offices the decision has been made that in this quest for monitization twitter will become not just a communication service. No. Twitter is a burgeoning media service. It isn't just a conduit through which information, ads, and money flows. It's an end-to-end media platform that requires end-to-end control of the entire twitter experience. 

The end result of that tightening control is the slow and steady shutting down of access to the twitter API by outside apps. They cut off Instagram's access to parts of the API and the writing is on the wall for other third-party twitter clients3

To be sure, most people won't care. Way more people use twitter's terrible official app, or the website, to access their twitter feed than TweetBot or Twitterrific4. But a lot of nerds care. And developers definitely care. The twitter platform, it is becoming clear, is not a sustainable, long-term revenue source for anyone other than twitter.

I'm not suggesting you should delete your twitter account today. But if you care about how you access and experience twitter or wish to see the platform continue to evolve past a superficial stream of status updates and duck-face pics and advertisements, then the writing is on the wall for you. You are not one of the masses. You are not just a pair of eyeballs. Twitter is not made for you.

And facebook is essentially the same story, minus the third-party apps part. We all joined facebook because, well, everyone is on facebook. And it does feel good to get 'likes' on things and see your friends photos and re-connect with old friends.

But it sure does feel creepy and get under my skin when I see facebook's new 'Hey! You might like this! Like it. LIKE IT!' ads in my 'News Feed'. And just how many times can you change your feed from 'Top Stories' to 'Most Recent' before you start to realize that facebook is steering your eyeballs to what it wants you to see, not what you've chosen to see? I've just about given up on trying to tailor the facebook experience to my preferences. It's just not worth the effort any more.

Like twitter, and even more so than twitter, facebook controls the way you view and interact with the service. The aim is to keep your eyeballs on the ads as much as possible. A thought: When facebook forced the 'Timeline' onto people's individual pages, which a lot of people hated, did that keep a higher percentage of people on the News Feed for a longer period of time? Because that's where the ads are. 

Facebook is leveraging its numbers in an effort to turn a profit with targeted advertising. And that's fine. Pay the bills. But it's pretty clear given facebook's previous moves that our experience as users, and at times even our privacy as people, is secondary to selling our attention to advertisers.

Every time I see an ad targeted to my, or my friends', likes or I see my avatar inviting me to like and comment on something on a non-facebook website, my spidey-senses start to tingle. Most people probably don't even notice these things or don't care. But I sure do. And I do not like it. Free or not, why am I using a service that I neither like or trust?

As it turns out, there are some very smart people out in the interwebs working on a service that may deliver on the promise that once was twitter. Twitter could have been an internet backbone, replacing RSS, SMS, IM. Twitter could have been an API-based conduit that facilitated the spread of information in ways we haven't even thought of yet. It could have been a real-time communication system that could replace email and text messages. But, it isn't.

The only real way such a service can come to be is if its users and developers are its customers. They must be the primary stakeholders for such a platform to value them over potential ad revenue. To put it bluntly: we have to pay for it.

And here is the pitch. Dalton Caldwell is aggressively working on a project that could start to fulfill the promise of what twitter could have been. The project is App.net. You can read Caldwell's Audacious Proposal about it and see what he's trying to accomplish. If you think a eral-time, user and developer focused communication service is an appealing prospect (I certainly do.) then go to join.app.net and take a look at what they're building there.

It's a $50 pledge to get in on the ground floor of App.net and I personally think that it's well worth that. The potential of App.net is worth my time and attention and yes, even my money. They're doing this initial funding Kickstarter-style. If they don't meet the goal of $500,000 by midnight on August 13, they don't get the money. As of this writing they've got almost $160,000 pledged from over 2,000 people. They've got a long way to go but they're picking up steam in the last ten days of the fundraiser. I really hope you'll consider throwing in $50 to help make this project happen.

However, I totally get it if you aren't willing to put money on this. Maybe $50 is too much. Maybe you don't care whether twitter forces you to use their app over TweetBot and facebook mines your status updates for advertising opportunities. Maybe you want to wait and see if App.net becomes viable5 before throwing in. That's totally cool. But I think you do at least owe it to yourself to take a look at it and keep an eye on how it progresses.

We might at some point look back on the Summer of 2012 as the beginning of the end for Web 2.0 services, like twitter and facebook,that paid for themselves by selling us, and the start of Web 3.0, where the web starts to become what we want and need it to be. And on our terms.


1I'll write them lowercase because they do.

2And eventually acquired (and some would say ruined) by twitter. It was Tweetie that first implemented the now nearly ubiquitous pull-to-refresh.

3Even if third-party clients do find a way to play nice with twitter and show ads and adhere to the 'twitter experience' how many people are going to want to pay $2.99 for TweetBot if it's forced to show the exact same twitter experience as the free, official twitter app? Not many. This is the death-knell for inovation on the twitter platform.

4Two of the biggest third party apps and they still don't come close to the usage of the official twitter app. 

5Take a look at what they have built so far without getting a dime of our money: App.net screenshots