Could An Open Source "Twittersphere" Save Twitter? Or Kill It?

Is Twitter too important to be left in the hands of Twitter? That’s the argument that bubbled up over the weekend. The argument is that Twitter is not distributed. This means that if Twitter goes down no one can Twitter. It also means if Twitter goes out of business, or just screws up, we could lose all of our tweet history.

The idea being posited is to make a parallel, open source “twittersphere” that supports the Twitter API. Let’s call it Twitshadow.

Twitshadow is built to be a shadow of Twitter that all third party apps can use. The shadow could even be the way to talk to Twitter, by implementing what would essentially be something like a write-through cache. Third-party apps write to Twitshadow, and Twitshadow writes to Twitter.

Or it could just be a second call that all third-party apps make along with writting directly to Twitter. When Twitter goes down, this open source, non-centralized Twitshadow keeps on chugging. And the more time that passes, the less important Twitter actually becomes, because most of your data is in Twitshadow. Twitshadow could even support sucking in tweets from Twitter, so it could be a full replacement of Twitter, history and all.

This whole conversation is fascinating to me.

It is entirely possible that before Twitter makes its first penny, it will become too important to exist in its current form, and the community will feel it has to be replaced by an open source, distributed framework. This should strike fear into the hearts of anyone who decides open their API. While the Open API strategy has clearly sped up adoption, it may have worked too well. In fact, it may have worked so well that Twitter may be killed before it ever makes it out of the womb — by people who love it.

Technically, Twitter is ripe for destruction by open sourcers. It is a super simple API. It is loved by lots of really smart people that definitely have the intellect, the means, and the motivation to create Twitshadow. In fact, open source will tend to be far more effective a development model for something like Twitter than closed source, in large part because a proper solution to this is a very pure computer science problem. This means the open source community will almost certainly be more clever about the solution that one tiny closed source company because there will be lots of heads focused on an easy-to-understand problem.

The lesson from all of this may be that communications apps can’t live without an open API, But they can’t live with them, either. Of course I have been sceptical that any communication app can make money, and particularly Twitter, but I could not envision that they would and could be undermined as a platform like this. It is truly astonishing to watch.

SAI Contributor Hank Williams is a New York-based entrepreneur. He writes Why Does Everything Suck? Exploring the tech marketplace from 10,000 feet.

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