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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Next "Facebook Platform" for the Modern Web, and Why Twitter's Running the Wrong Way

I've talked previously about "the web with no login button", a vision of the Building Block Web that follows the user where they go, knowing who they are and adapting as they move.  With the advent of mobile, entire operating systems running on the browser, cloud-based personal information stores and APIs such as Kynetx to manage both user and application data for the user, we are so close to being where we want to be!  There's one hurdle we have to jump before we get there though, and I'm concerned Twitter just ran the wrong direction with their new UI.  The hurdle we've got to get around is that of allowing a user's social connections to also follow them wherever they go, uninhibited by any single corporation.  Not a single big player seems willing to take this step yet, but when it happens, I guarantee you'll see a revolution at the scale of when Facebook Platform launched in 2007.  The first person to do it gets the opportunity to lead the pack, and hundreds of millions will follow.

I mentioned earlier on Twitter that something about Twitter's new UI (which I've actually only seen screenshots and demos of since I'm not on their Press list) really bugged me but I couldn't put my finger on it.  Perhaps it was hearing Ev emphasize "yet" when talking about CoTweet-like functionality. Perhaps it was hearing Jason Goldman talk about improving their "following" interface to something that I think could potentially threaten some of what I'm doing with my business.  Perhaps it's the feature they just asked me to kill on SocialToo that I haven't announced yet.  Perhaps it's their lack of a solid roadmap like Facebook has to warn developers of what's ahead and who will be replaced next.  As a developer, every step like this Twitter makes is certainly a threat to my business model and anyone else like me.  It's definitely a token to their closed nature.  However I think it's much bigger than that.

I think Alex Payne, of whom I just became a big fan after his recent post on his perceptions of the new UI (a must read), said it perfectly, "all communications media will inevitably be decentralized, and that all businesses who build walled gardens will eventually see them torn down."  Now, I don't think all walled gardens will die - Ev William's own original startup, Blogger.com, remained closed in a time where sites like LiveJournal and Wordpress were going completely open source and it was still bought by Google.  In those days, going open source and giving people the opportunity to own their own data stored on each blog was the equivalent of federating social connections would be today - instead of owning content people would now have the opportunity to own their own relationships and port those from site to site if they choose, or host the relationships themselves if they also choose (I'm kind of doing that at http://community.staynalive.com/jesse).  Blogger obviously survived and is now one of the largest blogging platforms on the planet.

Twitter's new UI, while I'm sure it will increase page views for them and bring them lots of money, is too late for Twitter to do any sort of innovation in this space.  Facebook already did this, and they were called a "walled garden" as a result and are now trying to break out of this reputation as users were getting ready to revolt.  Maybe that's what Twitter wants, and I'm sure it will make them a lot of money.  They may even gain a large segment of the masses.  Businesses will still flock and so will the money.  I've mentioned Twitter's need to own the UI before, but I argue it's now too late to be focusing on that.

Twitter could however, have an opportunity to create a new wild west - a new playing field if they choose, a new canvas.  If they do so they need to focus not on the UI, but on the platform and decentralizing it significantly.  Then new opportunities arise such as payments, new service models, search, ad platforms and more that can still make them profitable.  The difference is they're now spanning the entire web instead of their own walled garden.

I think Facebook started to make moves in this direction as they released Facebook Connect last year, and then Graph API this year along with no restrictions, redacted term limits on storage, and a push further and further away from building on their own UI.  They introduced a new protocol in fact that enables websites to be indexed more properly and enables those websites to more easily bring Facebook connections into the experience.  Facebook is moving from the walled garden approach out into the open web.  Twitter, it seems, is moving in the complete opposite direction, which seems perplexing.

Even Facebook hasn't hit the nail on the head yet - maybe they'll make the first move at the next F8 conference.  The next revolution of the web will be when one of these players that currently owns your Social Graph completely federates, creates a standard for others to follow, and then other companies are forced to follow as a result, forcing all the others to rush to find what they're good at which wasn't owning your data or social connections.  Then at that point you will truly be allowed to bring your social connections with you wherever you go, allowing for a web with not only no login button, but one where your family and friends follow with you along the way.  That's a really powerful concept!

Kevin Marks (who led the OpenSocial platform at Google) mentioned the irony in a tweet earlier today of installing the open source social network Diaspora as we were discussing Twitter's very centralized real time streaming API and federated environments.  I think that Kevin may be part of the revolution and we just don't know it yet.  If none of these players make a move, it will be the next open source project like Wordpress, or LiveJournal did in the early 00's that will emerge from the dust, gain traction, and the landscape will naturally adapt.  It has to happen - it's going to happen, and the first big player to do it will lead the way. I'm excited to find out who makes that move and I'm already thinking of ways I can jump on that bandwagon as a developer.

Picture courtesy http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article571291.ece

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