Twitter Mainland

Brent Simmons deleted all his old tweets. He wants to own and control his writing, including his microposts.

Manton Reece chimed in with an interesting reply:

Justin Williams joked that Brent and I are now the sole inhabitants of “Manton Island”. That’s funny but it’s actually backwards; it’s Twitter that is the island. Everyone is there, though, in an overpopulated mess, so they don’t realize they’re cut off from the rest of the world — the open web, designed 25 years ago as an interconnected system of countless islands.

I think it’s a noble goal to build systems that let people express themselves while retaining full ownership and control of their expression. I’ve spent a surprising portion of my recent downtime thinking about such systems, and I’m slowly consolidating my own output under one roof.

But there’s an uncomfortable truth to Justin’s joke: most people don’t care about ownership and control. At least, not principally. To them, Twitter isn’t an overpopulated island: it’s the mainland. Everywhere else is the vast, quiet sea.

If we want people to set sail for brighter shores, we’ll need to do more than replicate the features of central silos in distributed fashion. As table stakes, we’ll need to provide world-class user experiences for reading and writing, and we’ll need to have a story for discovery so the network can grow.

But most importantly, we’ll need to offer something new to do on our islands that can’t be done, or done well, anywhere else. Network effects are the lifeblood of any social network. Our travel brochures will need to offer compelling new reasons to visit.

I suspect this is why the systems I’ve played with so far have failed to thrive. Some slavishly copied their progenitors, providing little added value. Some offered bridges to ease transition, only to become mere appendages to their centralized counterparts.

This is our challenge and our opportunity. Twitter is a highly evolved organism, well adapted to the centralized landscape. Distributed systems are fundamentally different terrain with fundamentally different character. What new and compelling organisms might thrive here?