Disturbances in the Twitterverse: first Twitter releases a new iPhone client that prominently features trends — including “promoted” trends, that is to say, ads — and offers no way to hide them. (A new release makes the trends appear in a slightly less annoying way, but they are still mandatory.) Then Twitter issues new guidelines to developers that — as far as I can tell — pretty much eliminate further development of third-party clients: “Developers ask us if they should build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience. The answer is no. . . . We need to move to a less fragmented world, where every user can experience Twitter in a consistent way.” And that seems to mean, through the Twitter website and through Twitter’s own clients for Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, and so on, with their prominently featured “promoted trends.”
Clearly this has nothing to do with "user experience": the people who run Twitter are casting around for ways to make money, which is understandable, and this is what they have settled on. I can’t say that I totally blame them: their investors are surely demanding return on their (hefty) investments. Twitter has got to be enormously expensive to run. But here we see the chief problem that arises when a major new form of communication — what, surprisingly to everyone, turned out to be a major new form of communication — consists of proprietary technology completely controlled by a single company. Imagine if Google had invented and owned email, so that you could only use email by navigating to the Gmail site and dealing with whatever ads Google chose to feature; so that Google had absolute control over your user experience; so that if Google’s servers went down the entire communicative ecosystem went down. That’s the situation the bosses at Twitter are clearly trying to create.
Again, it’s their technology and they can do what they want. Maybe the next step will be an ad-free, trend-free Twitter experience for a monthly fee; I wouldn’t be surprised, and I would have nothing legitimate to complain about. But Twitter has become so central to many people’s lives that it feels like a public utility, and the ads therefore feel like an unwarranted intrusion — as though we had to listen to 30-second pitches for dishwashing detergent before being able to complete a phone call. (And don't think I'm unaware that we've been here before. I've read The Master Switch.)
Just as Diaspora is being created as an open-source alternative to Facebook, in response to the rather more blatant and consistent tyrannies of the Zuckerbergian empire, these recent developments will prompt renewed attention to open-source and/or distributed alternatives to Twitter, like this one and this one.
But there’s a problem — probably an insurmountable one: these kinds of services only work when pretty much everyone you want to know is on them. Nobody wants to go back and forth between different Twitter-like services or Facebook-like services, trying to remember which friend is on which service. (I rarely remember to log in to Diaspora, and when I do, I find that my tiny handful of friends haven’t visited either.) In such an environment, what’s called for is some powerful aggregating technology that would allow us to have a single conduit through which we could see what all our friends are up to. But this is of course precisely what Facebook and Twitter are refusing to allow. In effect, they’re saying “You get what we offer the way we want to offer it, along with all your other friends, or you’re out in the cold — the silent, still, radically un-social cold. Deal with it.”