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Twitter's 'revolution': becoming an old media company

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Earlier this week, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey painted the changed direction of services like Twitter in the colors of "revolution." But what Twitter is doing in sealing off their API seems anything but revolutionary — it's falling back in line.


Earlier this week at TechCrunch Disrupt, Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey, in discussing his philosophy of “revolution,” drew curious parallels to the Founding Fathers’ original drafting of the US Constitution. “If we stuck to the idea of the original founders of this nation, we would not be here today,” he said, reasoning that companies, Twitter included, “evolve over time and have multiple founding moments.” Stating his confidence in CEO Dick Costolo, Dorsey urged founders and entrepreneurs to embrace these moments and “pick a movement, a revolution, and join it.”

It was an indirect response to criticism of the microblogging service’s new direction, which has prompted a massive outcry from the platform’s third party development community. But Dorsey’s revolutionary rhetoric was oddly misplaced in light of what Twitter seems to be doing with its platform: that is, as O’Reilly Media’s Edd Dumbill observes, turning it into something very closely resembling an old media company.

In other words, falling in line with everybody else.

“Overnight, Twitter is no longer a platform.”

“Twitter's bait-and-switch, now [that] they've built their reach on the back of eager early adopters, is disappointing,” Dumbill wrote last week. “It marks them as part of old, unenlightened business, and consigns them to a far less remarkable place in the future economy than they otherwise might have had.”

Dumbill’s comments were in response to the discovery that in addition to cutting off RSS, Twitter has also effectively killed support for the JSONP data exchange format by restricting its API to only handle authenticated, server-to-server requests. “Overnight, Twitter are no longer a platform,” he wrote. “They're a media company with carefully monitored access agreements.”

Twitter’s move into the walled garden seems to follow what law professor and net neutrality advocate Tim Wu calls “The Cycle”: a constant flux throughout history between open and closed technologies. After all, the telephone, the radio, and countless others all began as “open” communications platforms before transitioning into their respective industries, and inevitably collapsing into integrated systems dominated by monopolistic control.

Dorsey’s definition of 'revolution' sounds more like a call to conformity

To that end, Dorsey’s definition of “revolution” sounds in this case more like a call to conformity; the signal for a regrettable but unavoidable growth point of “matured” web startups who, like Facebook, have transitioned away from their open web roots in order to become profitable.

We’ve already seen signs of the increasing conflict between Twitter the communications platform and Twitter the media company, like its temporary banning of a journalist at the behest of its Olympic media partners. Other web companies have faced similar dilemmas in their own quests for media prominence: Google's partnerships with the content industries, forged to bolster streaming media services on Google Play, have caused the once-neutral search provider to act in the interests of copyright owners, rather than their users.

Twitter, for its part, had a great chance for a true “revolutionary” moment earlier today when it faced demands from a US court to hand over the data of Malcolm Harris, an Occupy Wall Street protester. But Twitter caved to the demands at the eleventh hour, despite its refreshingly firm stance against doing so in the past.

Twitter's principled stance in favor of users is still no match for its need to act in the interests of profit

Here was Twitter faced with the opportunity to take an incredibly bold stand: if it had eaten the costs of the fine and stood against the court, the company could have sent a powerful message to US law enforcement that strong-arming cloud services to get at protesters and activists is simply out-of-bounds.

But Twitter's principled stance in favor of users, strong as it may be, is still no match for its need to act in the interests of profit. A Bloomberg report revealed that failure to comply with the court’s demands would have also forced Twitter to release two quarters worth of earnings reports, a potentially damaging requirement for the company, which wants to keep its financials under wraps.

Twitter's business is its business, whether we like it or not. But the company could stand to be straightforward about its relationship with users, rather than dressing a turn to closed ecosystems, curation, and advertising with revolutionary flair.