#newtwitter and the Future of the Web

Twitter has opened things up for anyone to “build a better Twitter”. I’m not really sure what the point is – either Twitter’s admitting their site sucks or it works just fine and there’s no need to use something else…
-From the introduction to Da Tweeter.

I didn’t get any of my proposed book on the Internet written over the summer, and quite possibly never will. Already on the way out, the kairotic moment for the book may now have passed. This is partly because the Internet has substantially matured; for much of the time I was thinking of writing the book, it would have been trivially easy to state the Internet’s importance (and often stated), but now the book would be much more of a look back than taking place during the Internet revolution and how it changes our lives. I had planned for the book’s subtitle to be How the Internet Changes Everything; now it might be How the Internet Changed Everything.

But also, many of the points I would have made may now be shifting substantially. I had an entire chapter planned dedicated to showing how the free nature of the Internet could threaten the foundation of capitalism, at least for the transmission of information, including an analysis of Marxist theory as applied to the Internet. (I’m not a communist, but communism may do a better job than capitalism of describing what happens on the Internet.) But if the recent provocative cover story of Wired is correct (and it’s been skewered to hell and back by the blogosphere), the free Web may be in decline in favor of the non-free world of apps accessing the broader Internet, in which case capitalism is completely safe and the first decade of the new millenium will soon pass into history as the Decade of the Fad of Free.

Again, most of Chris Anderson’s points have been debunked by the (admittedly Web-based) blogosphere, but there is a salient point to be explored behind the rhetoric. In retrospect, the 2007 debut of the iPhone may mark the beginning of, if not Web 3.0, at least Web 2.5. The iPhone introduced an alternative model to the free exchange of information that grew out of the web and social media sites. Even netbooks had browser software separate from whatever operating system they ran that handled all your surfing; the iPhone effectively merged the browser and operating system to such an extent it was conceivably possible to be very active on the Internet without entering the actual Web browser. The iPhone made each site its own distinct identity, its own program, stored on the phone itself rather than repeatedly loaded from the server, to present its information and capabilities however it wished without conforming to the Web’s standards, permissive though they may be.

When I first joined Twitter, I expressed skepticism about the usefulness of programs such as TweetDeck for connecting to Twitter, thinking them redundant to the site itself. Virtually the instant problems with IE8 drove me to Firefox, I set about trying to use an add-on to post to and use Twitter. I don’t believe I have found the right FF add-on – TwitterBar, the most popular add-on, only allows you to post to Twitter from the address bar (not check Twitter messages), and the two Twitter add-ons I’ve actually installed, Friendbar and Lu.ly, have unnecessary animations and graphical complexity that bog the browser down. (Friendbar tells me of a new message by playing a chime and reversing the colors – reasonable – and then engages in a fade effect back to normal colors I can’t turn off.) I haven’t used FF in months because I’m waiting for it to get back to an acceptable speed for the level of Internet usage I engage in, and I refuse to install betas.

I didn’t run off to add-ons like Friendbar because of any problem with the Twitter site. The Twitter site works just fine, though “infinite scrolling” is a welcome innovation in new Twitter. But I don’t want to have to leave a tab on Twitter all the time, where it’s not visible all the time, or constantly press the Twitter button in my Favorites bar to load up Twitter off the Internet hogging up space on my tabs. I want to be able to keep up with people’s tweets in real time, whenever I want to, at the click of a button at most, and I want instant ability to post to Twitter any time, whenever it strikes the mood. I don’t want to have to pull up Google Reader on one of my tabs; I want to quickly pull up a sidebar and see all my RSS feeds’ current status, like Internet Explorer and Firefox’s Feed Sidebar add-on let me do, or even see all the RSS feed updates I want to see without even lifting a finger. (I still don’t understand why an SMS-equipped smartphone needs a separate app to access Twitter – I must be the last Twitter user to actually txt the site – and apparently, Twitter didn’t either.)

There are some Web sites and some elements of the Internet that are, quite simply, bigger than the browser. They may or may not appropriate the Web for their experience, and they may even be heavily connected to and be dedicated to bringing you the Web, but they are broader than the Web, they are not inherently part of the Web, they only connect to the broader network known as the Internet. So I think a lot of the bloggers who are saying “silly rabbit, Facebook and Twitter are web sites!” may be missing a point that Wired admittedly doesn’t really make. If they stopped being Web sites tomorrow, it might be a sea change, but it wouldn’t be a catastrophe. There’s now a war going on between the Web’s ideals of openness – epitomized by HTML5 – and the return of walled gardens.

So much as I might have once thought otherwise, I don’t think the rollout of “new Twitter” – introduced in a blogpost literally titled, “A Better Twitter” – will necessarily bring people back to the site from other apps. In fact, Twitter is jumping aboard a long bandwagon away from the paradigm of hypertext, and towards a paradigm of getting as much as possible out of every individual page, thus robbing the Web of its critical feature. Changing the URL on the address bar is more useful for direct links than once you’re already at the site; the less you need to use the back button, the better. (“Google Instant” is another sign of this paradigm shift, and that’s a site inextricably linked with the Web.)

Beyond that, the new Twitter is more of a cosmetic change than anything else (a cosmetic change my netbook might be a little slow to properly appreciate), though certainly not a bad one. Even a fairly basic change in functionality that might have accompanied it – tweets updating in close to real time instead of just an alert that they exist – isn’t there (in fact tweet lists seem slow or at least difficult to refresh in general). Twitter was out to add one feature: added functionality to the pages for individual tweets.

One aspect in particular – the ability to follow a conversation from a single page – could almost finish off the old retweet system. The major strike against the new Twitter-backed system was the inability to add your own commentary to tweets, and using this new forum-like aspect of replies, you could make your retweet a reply that people can click and see the tweet responded to… except a) you still have to make it an @reply to make it a reply to a tweet, despite the addition of an interface that could conceivably make that unnecessary and b) there is no way to make sure followers see your tweet if they don’t follow the person you’re responding to. In general, Twitter seems to have missed the broader implications of some of the changes they made; other media, like images and videos, are displayed directly on the tweet pane now, obviating the need for a link and indicating Twitter realizes such things are core to Twitter’s being now and bigger than the tweets themselves (and Twitter for iPad applies this to an even broader extent), but all links still count against the 140 characters (and aren’t very useful in text messages), keeping link shortening services like bit.ly in business.

New Twitter isn’t ultimately much of a big deal, though it certainly is welcome. But it doesn’t really enter into a lot of larger issues Twitter finds itself in the thick of. And even as Twitter shores up the front of the free Web, it does so by making the Web more app-like. Time will tell how this battle shakes out, or how Twitter continues to evolve the service.

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