50 Shades of Open

There is trouble in micro-blogging paradise. Twitter changed its API guidelines, which leaves third party clients like TweetBot or Twitterrific with an uncertain future. App.net raised over 750,000 dollars in a Kickerstarter-like crowd-sourcing campaign1. Finally, Tent tries to build an open alternative to Twitter.

In the first years of its existence Twitter was considered open (or at least more open than its competitors) because developers had access to nearly every feature of their platform through the Twitter API. Twitters very limited feature set and the API made a huge ecosystem of Twitter apps from third party developers possible. Especially power users favoured clients like TweetBot or Twitterrific over the clients provided by Twitter directly. However, the changes to their API guidelines announced on August 162 leave developers of third party clients with an uncertain future3. For now the guidelines still allow clients and developers seem to look optimistic in the future45. The problem is that Twitter made changes to their guidelines and policies in the past and they can do it again any time. For example, Twitter revoked access to the friend-finding API for Instagram and Tumblr6. While Instagram is now owned by Facebook, their biggest competitor, Tumblr partnered with Twitter in the past. After this announcement it is unclear if Twitter allow a find friends feature for any other service in the future.

Since a lot of users and developers are scared that Twitter will strengthen their guidelines even more and, eventually, disallowing third party clients, App.net was successful in meeting their funding goal of 500,000 dollars7. Although this has happened before Twitter changed their guidelines, there where rumours and signs for Twitter becoming the bad guys for a while now. In this case bad means trying to earn money from advertisers and therefore by compromising the experience for users. There are two main problems with App.net. First of all, currently we do not now if App.net succeeds, that is, it reaches a critical mass of users and not only a small group of nerds that care about third party apps and open API access. Secondly even if a critical mass signs up for App.net and pays to use the server we can’t determine if they can generate enough revenue from its users to develop and maintain the service.

Another huge problem of App.net is that generating revenue from users instead of advertisers and providing an open API does not make App.net a truly open service. A truly open service would work somehow like email or blogs. Everyone is able to install the service on its on servers, even if the vast majority of users choose to use a commercial provider (like WordPress.com for blogs or Gmail for email).

Although OStatus8 and Status.net exist for several years now, Tent.io tries to build such a distributed social network9. The goal of these projects is noble, but only the future will show if it is even technically possible to build a distributed real-time network that scales well10 and if enough users are going to use this open alternative.

The future of real-time micro-blogging is unclear, but we will see if Twitter will remain useable (i.e. there will be third party clients), if App.net will become successful or if we even can use our own servers to publish status updates. In the worst case scenario nothing will work out and we will blog more.

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