Why social networks cannot now be open.

ClosedThere have long been calls for a federated Twitter with the likes of Dave Winer leading the way.

Now, following comments from Alex Payne (ex-twitter employee) repeating the call that Twitter (and other networks) should be decentralised, there has been a new focus on why this should happen. Jesse Stay, for example, blogged that the first network to open up "gets the opportunity to lead the pack, and hundreds of millions will follow"

Too late

Perhaps in the early days of social networks this might have been a possiblility, not now. A few years ago when there were no defined business models and networks lived off of Venture Capital there might have been the opportunity for a bold new vision but I feel that it is now too late to change direction. Social networks are like lumbering super tankers resistent to changes in direction. Unfortunately, once they have been set in motion along a particular path it is increasingly difficult to deviate from it.

Being a social network is a business and when you are in business you want people to use your product. Decentralising and allowing users to take their data and social circle elsewhere in its entirety is a frank admission "you don't need us". The networks, on the other hand, need their users and need to excert a degree of control over them for monetisation purposes.

Reports show that around 70% of Twitter traffic is via the website - the new Twitter is obviously a tactic to raise that. With this level of market share Twitter are willing to live with the third party apps as they add some value to the network without too much potential impact on revenue.

Consider, however, if the network was distributed with users jumping out to alternative sites or even self hosting? At what point would Twitter say "enough is enough" as they lose revenue due to a decline in market share within their own network?

Louis Gray #NewTwitter" href="http://blog.louisgray.com/2010/09/social-media-experts-marketers-egoists.html" target="_blank">posted earlier:

The New Twitter also reduces the options for some services to market themselves. Instead of seeing "From TweetDeck", "From Tweetie for Mac", "From Seesmic for Android" and so on down the line, the New Twitter no longer displays Tweet sources. I assume this is to reduce confusion from new users, and to focus on the content of the tweet instead of its source.

It could equally be a way of reducing the impact of third party tools as the Twitter website aims to be more of a permanent destination without the need to hop out.

Jesse has also recently pointed out that new twitter also removes the link to RSS feeds for streams. I commented at the time that this may simply be because it is an underused feature, Twitter have done the metrics and removed it. It is entirely possible, though, that is has been deliberately pulled to prevent the easy access to the feed from external clients.

Defensive

The networks are going to be protective over their estate and this is perfectly understandable. In order to maximise their returns they are going to want full control and will not be willing to share user base, advertising opportunities etc. Now that the networks have matured they are plugging their own gaps and, as I said before, taking back what they now consider to be rightly theirs.

Social networks may well be heading in the wrong direction as far as advocates of an open web are concerned. Some may feel, perhaps rightly so, that Twitter and other networks need to open up or die but the consequences of doing so could be equally catastrophic.

Social networks are, perhaps, realising that the old ways just don't cut it any more and repurposing is the way ahead; by becoming destinations for more common activities such as news and media consumption they stand a much improved chance of survival.

Image by Jasoon