Facebook and Twitter are bad for the economy.

Thin IceI don’t mean the lost productivity of workers who update their status on their employer’s dime. I mean that the new small and large companies that our economies badly need just won’t be built on top of Twitter or Facebook.

Many people have made the same points before, much better than I could, but Anil Dash’s excellent piece encouraged me to post this anyway.

Facebook and Twitter provide tremendous value to their users. In just a few years those two companies have become a large part of the Internet. Facebook has redefined how people share information with family, friends and acquaintances, and pushed everyone to share a lot more. For many, Facebook is the Internet. At the same time, Twitter has managed to become the platform of choice for real-time news, personal broadcasting, aggregation, curation and more. I remember reading sci-fi novels that described the rise of a global consciousness, or hive mind, depending on whether you see it as positive or a negative. Call me naive but I believe Twitter is the first credible step in that direction. So congratulations guys! But sorry, this stuff is way too important to be left to just two companies.

Twitter’s new API rules make it abundantly clear that if you are an entrepreneur looking to build a sustainable business on top of an API that you don’t control you are severely deluded. But it is not just about Twitter clients or even about Twitter. Facebook and Twitter, to name just those two, are struggling to find business models and revenue to justify their valuations. Even when they do find the revenue, if startup X comes along and manages to be profitable doing Twitter search or Facebook analytics (for example) how long will it take before it is squeezed out? An API that used to be free will suddenly have to be paid for, or it will be so restricted as to become useless, while the provider of the API replicates the money-making functionality. If they are lucky and if they play nice, startup X may be rewarded with an acquisition. Niche businesses and some companies built for a quick flip will do well, but large independent ones? I don’t think so.

Now, before someone points out that Twitter or Facebook can do whatever the hell they want with their API, since they built it with their investors’ money and they provide a free service to users, let me say I wholeheartedly agree. No one except their shareholders has any right to tell them how to run their business. It’s not that they are evil either. The problem  is there is nothing they can do to give external developers the guarantees they would need. The earlier they stop pretending developers have nothing to worry about the better.

Can you imagine businesses the size of Google or eBay or Amazon being built on America Online or Compuserve? Well, that won’t happen on Twitter or Facebook either, and that’s precisely the problem.

Luckily, AOL and Compuserve’s walled gardens have crumbled and the Internet jungle has taken over. Anyone can now create a web site for the entire (free) world to visit without asking anyone’s permission. An email can reach any one of the billions of Internet users regardless of their email client or internet service provider. Blogs are similarly easy to create and to access using standard technologies.

Switching to another service with a similar centralized model is clearly not the solution (sorry, App.net). I believe it is in everyone’s best interest to create and start using open standards to share status updates, location check-ins, photos, videos, news stories, links, upvotes, downvotes, questions, answers, product reviews, witty remarks, lolcats or what you have had for lunch. Either privately or publicly.

How do we go about that? Brent Simmons had a very interesting suggestion: third-party Twitter clients should add support for an open alternative and offer the option to their users to publish on both. It would make it really easy and painless to switch and would help the new service reach critical mass. Is that the reason why Twitter is cracking down on client apps? Do they fear they could be too easily left out of the loop?

Now public sharing is the easy part. There is nothing fundamentally different between a Tweet and a 140-character blog post (OK, real-time issues are not trivial). I also believe that public sharing will give rise to the most revolutionary new applications (if not global consciousness, at least some breakthroughs in scientific research and governance).

Private sharing is a stickier problem. How do you broadcast information on a peer-to-peer network but make sure that only the people you have selected can access it? How do you revoke those permissions? By definition, you don’t control the software running on other nodes than yours, so you cannot assume that they are well behaved and will just comply to your requests. That is an interesting challenge for computer scientists and cryptographers. But if it is possible to create a secure distributed crypto-currency (like bitcoin), I am hopeful that a secure sharing system is within reach too.

If a true peer-to-peer system is too hard, how about old-fashioned interoperability? You know, post on one network, let your friends see your update on another service. Sadly, both Facebook and Twitter are moving away from that, taking their users hostage in their turf wars.

It is tragic that Google has chosen to create their own proprietary social network (Google+) to compete with Facebook and Twitter. It’s like they time-travelled to 1990 and decided to build a competitor to AOL instead of helping create the open web. They had (and still have) the technical talent, the resources, and I believe the right motivation to make it happen.

If instead of peddling Google+ to everyone, Google put its weight behind a truly open and Internet-friendly sharing system, it would become more successful than Google+ (or Facebook) will ever be. Please Google? Or Yahoo!? Here is your chance to shine again!

(image credit: morguefile.com)

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