This article talks about Twitter but the points made here apply equally to Facebook.
There are two reasons Twitter took off like it did. First, it fills a desire in the culture for ubiquitous notifications from everyone to everyone. Second, it did so in a way that is immediately accessible and easy to use for anyone with a web browser. I.e., real time simple peer-to-peer notifications that are both created and accessed via existing ubiquitous technology.
Twitter lets people create notifications and “follow” other peoples notifications. And, it does that via the Web by letting people both write and view notifications in a browser. It can’t get any simpler than that, can it?
Hence, a simple idea (real time notifications) combined with providing that via existing tools that everyone already has on their computers and cell phones.
Why do I say I don’t like that? It’s not that I don’t like the idea. And I commend the authors of Twitter for making the starkly simple realization that all this was both desired and so easily provided. They will become very rich because of that realization combined with what I don’t like about the situation. That is, the mechanism for providing Tweets is proprietary.
Although the mechanisms for writing and following Tweets are standards-based (standard message protocol, HTTP, and HTML basically), the creators of Twitter co-opted the concept of notifications by providing the mechanism via a branded web server. And therein lies the rub. Although web clients are free and ubiquitous, web servers are not. Web servers and domain names are owned. By co-opting the concept of ubiquitous notifications via a proprietary web server, Twitter has enriched a few people who happened to think of the idea first. It’s not always this way. For example, the Web itself, which arguably underpins all things Twitter-like, was developed by socialized programs (called science, academic research, and just plain good engineering) done by governments and government-funded research. (One of many arguments I make that government is not bad as the Libertarian Fundamentalists like to believe).
Are there alternatives to these proprietary mechanisms? Yes. For example, RSS feeds provide a mechanism very similar to Tweets. In fact, RSS feeds provide a richer mechanism. And, RSS feeds are also built in or can be built in to browsers,although they are not anywhere near as accessible as Tweets. Why? The problem is that there is no central place to find all RSS feeds and there is no ubiquitous easily accessible place to write and distribute RSS feeds. Generalizing slightly, we live in a culture where identity and mind share is still proprietary. There is no standard freely available centralized place to create content for the Web. Now, Google and others provide a central place to search for identity, but not to create it. And Google itself is proprietary. Think about it. All Web servers are owned. There is a reason for that. Unlike the client (the web browser), the server (the web server) has to have lots and lots of memory. Real memory. And processors, lots of processors. And that all costs money.
There are solutions. We could distribute the notion of identity across a pool of volunteers who would provide resources for a large distributed server. It would be public, non-proprietary, secure, and ultimately scalable to any size needed. Alternatively, one or more governments could provide the central server. In one of these ways, we would be able to provide a server side of the equation in a way that scales, does not require advertising or other revenue, is a shared resource, and achieves everything that the Twitters and Facebooks of the world achieve. It would be a large non-proprietary sand box where equal numbers of ideas are tried out and what wins is, just as now, based on popularity and viral acquisition of mind share.
I am sure my idea is not new and has bugs. But I wanted to get this off my mind.