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Of Walls and Gardens

20120909-111922.jpgI spent the last year building on the Twitter platform. Dashter was my vision to bring blogging and “tweeting” together – and the result is a fun blend between the two platforms. When our team got together, we had grand visions for what each platform could mean: We dreamt of a symbiotic platform experience that blended the depth of blogging with the expediency of tweeting. The data security and independence of self-owned self-hosted long-form content with the network effects of twenty-million twitter users.

We knew that the crux of our project was really rooted in the fact that we were dependent on Twitter to provide consistent API calls – and to keep the platform open and unrestricted.

So when I saw this tweet from Jeff, I knew what he was trying to bring to my attention:

The article Jeff shared (perhaps ironically, on Twitter) is not going to be the last we hear about the Twitter of the future. It tells the story of a Twitter developer who was subject to the demands of corporate clients who require understanding how apps are going to affect their bottom line – and who foot the bill for a project with the expectation that the work will live beyond tomorrow.

Gardens

Twitter is one of a handful of “gardens” of social activities. Places where large volumes of people are congregating – sharing nearly anything that comes to their mind. There are lots of failed gardens – or once glorious gardens that are now shells of their former selves. The dot-com landscape is littered with failures & no-starts. The most-successful ones: Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin are scaled and appear to be “unstoppable.” Smaller sites like Pinterest, Google+, and DeviantArt (see the latest list here) hold sway with often dedicated user-bases.

To both consumers and companies everywhere, these gardens are amazing places. They combine both the medium and the signal in one place – allowing you to create connections, interact with others, find customers & prospects, and engage at a scale that hasn’t been experienced before. There’s never been a communication platform with this kind of scale before. With this kind of reach and potential for impact. But, things may not be as pleasant as they seem.

Walls

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, et all: are businesses. They exist to serve their customers – and to generate profits for their investors. And the users are not the customers. The users are the product to get sold, and slowly but surely they are. Twitter has opened up more of its platform to sponsored tweets and suggested accounts. Facebook has rolled out a range of advertising-meets-social ad units, from the simple banner ad to the elaborate sponsored stories etc. LinkedIn charges subscriptions for professionals (which I’ve just started using and notice is a better experience), as well as advertising space.

But most notably, the walls are rising between these gardens.

As far as I can tell, there are two true driving forces behind the rising of the walls. First is the perception of user encroachment from competitors. Why grant access to your business’ social graph data to your semi- or direct-competitors if you really don’t have to? Some historical examples of this from Twitter:

Twitter’s been a user-favorite since day one not for it’s reliability or stability. It’s been a favorite for its openness, simplicity, and low “cost.” Getting started with Facebook or LinkedIn requires updating profiles, finding friends, sharing photos, etc. Getting started with Twitter requires just saying something. And Twitter was the lowest-cost way to access a real-time social graph for developers. It required few authentication requirements, and because of the nature of the network, once you had permission from users, developers could dive deeply in to connections, relationships, content & context, etc.

But these walls are rising. The garden no longer needs that outside “fertilizer” to help it grow. It’s self-sufficient, thriving on the network effects of long-term relationships between users that are embedded in the earth. Twitter doesn’t need to spend time and money catering external services that threaten its foundation.

And Twitter is also being pressured to make money – much like Facebook and LinkedIn are out in the public markets. Those early investors need liquidity to make their investment pay off. All those third-party services running off the Twitter API have been essentially “free riding” – costing Twitter millions of dollars of additional infrastructure expenses. They over-built their garden knowing that they needed their users to grow. They spent huge sums of money watering other gardens – but now they don’t need to. Nor do they want to. Those customers can now experience a mature Twitter. When was the last time you saw a “Fail Whale?” When was the last time you sought out a major celebrity or business not active on Twitter? When was the last time a topic that caught your interest wasn’t brimming with conversation?

The Cost of Smelling the Roses

For businesses in the modern social landscape, social media has been the answer between direct one-to-one engagement and broadcast. Collecting followers, fans, likes, shares, pins, etc. has meant establishing “relationships” while simultaneously enabling narrow- and broad-casting of their messages. But who owns those relationships?

“The best strategy a business can employ is to build as many diverse connections with a customer or prospect as possible.”

On one hand, it could be easily argued that Twitter controls the relationship since they control the medium and the network. On another hand, individual users could feel like they own the relationship since they control the messages and the attention. It’s a mutually-beneficial relationship that requires all parties to participate to be worthwhile. The best strategy a business can employ is to build as many diverse connections with a customer or prospect as possible. Turn Twitter follows in to email subscriptions. Turn email subscribers into buyers with customer details. Most important – build things that people want to talk about – and then get out of the way. The best way to build positive “brand buzz” is to build an amazing brand that’s worthy of conversation.

The phrase that comes to mind is an old “dating” adage I recall: The best way to get people interested is to be interesting. If you want your brand to be lauded on Twitter, Facebook, etc.: be laudable.

Know You’re a Gardener

But for developers on Twitter – they enjoy the least ownership and the lowest amount of control. We have been “free-riding” on the network(s) for years. So we have really two choices. Know you’re a gardener – and embrace it – or start building your own garden. Medium and App.Net will not save you.

Now, I’m not saying that every Twitter developer should run out and try to build a Twitter competitor. But the developers who don’t want to experience what “Dave” from that Gigaom article was talking about should spend more time exploring how to build apps, tools, services, and solutions that are garden-agnostic.

During one of our planning meetings while developing Dashter, I recall the conversation steering towards, “What happens if Twitter cuts us off?” The simple answer was; well – Dashter dies. It’s a Twitter client. We explored engineering multiple platforms and services, but it really only worked in that one social channel. But building anything involves inheriting the risks. Twitter dependency is one of them.

On the upside; one of the best things about Dashter is that everything is kept on our customers’ servers. We built a model where – even if Twitter disappeared tomorrow, a user could still access their past messages. The content they created was still stored on their servers – untouchable by any other service provider. And those are the services that professional developers can and should be developing for their customers. Ones that grow and scale with the user not with the dependency on the underlying network. There is ample room for those platforms to grow – and allow businesses, clients, and high-interest users to generate their own social graph data and control their own garden.

This post was generated by Dashter

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