There is a lot of ire about what Twitter is doing to its developer ecosystem and its users these days. An often-mentioned suggestion that comes out of it is to build another Twitter, this time one that will set right all the wrongs. Even before we get around to the question whether any product developed thus will eventually wind up facing the same problems as Twitter, we have to first figure out what exactly is Twitter before we attempt to outdo it.
Most of the current ire with Twitter are the recent changes to the usage of the API and changes to how tweets and timelines can be displayed in third-party clients, but Twitter itself is a lot beyond just an API and a bunch of clients. To compete effectively with it does not mean that it will be good enough to create an awesome API which the developers will love. Twitter is a lot more than that.
Messaging Network: At its heart, Twitter is a massive messaging framework. It does nothing more than pick up a message, check with a set of rules who all gets to see it and dumps it with the bunch of people who are authorized to view that message. Clients can look up a user’s dump and render it. By the latest count, the platform handles 340 million tweets a day, which is replicated into numerous timelines (mentioned as dumps earlier). It is not trivial to engineer even just this part of Twitter.
API: Every client (including the official web frontend) displays data consumed from the API endpoints provided by Twitter. Almost all of the user-facing applications that are built atop Twitter leverage this API as web clients, standalone apps and mobile apps. Thankfully, Twitter seems to have so far stayed clear of having a restrictive license on the API specification itself. So replicating the API to allow existing clients to reuse their code should not be a problem. There is, though, no certainty that Twitter won’t change its mind regarding this, irrespective of the very problematic question whether APIs can be copyrighted or not.
Social Graph: Twitter, like any other large-sized network, is as much about the finesse of the product as it is about the number of people using it. For most users the restrictions of the API and the changes to it are inconsequential. For every developer adversely affected by the changes, there are probably a million users who could not care less about it. Without the users, no Twitter replacement will work, no matter how good/open/flexible it may be. If the reason why you are building a new Twitter is to address the griefs of the developers than the consumers it just will not work. Developers augment the network, but they are not the network by themselves.
Brand Partnerships: One of the reason why Twitter has done well is also the partnerships the company has built over time. The first iteration of this was seen in the ‘verified’ badge. We often underestimate the importance of that little badge in quickly it has been adopted, often by people who have struggled to even maintain a basic website. Historically, there is no parallel to the variety of users/brands who have come forward to claim their digital presence as it has happened on Twitter. Same is the case with non-verified official handles. We have never seen before a situation where television channels have voluntarily carried the branding of a communication platform that does not belong to them (by their usual standards, they would build a Twitter of their own and promote it. Example: NDTV Social which now augments than to aggregate). Twitter is gradually building and solidifying these partnerships to things that extend beyond the ‘verified’ badge with initiatives like cards. Over time, due to the authenticity (of the brand’s presence) and the reach (of Twitter) it will be really tough for a competitor to sell itself.
Mobile: This one is simple. Twitter has partnerships with 175 carriers around the world. This provides them with various degrees of advantages including discounted rates for access over SMS compared to other numbers. In an environment where voice revenue is falling or stagnating around the world non-voice and data revenue is a main focus area for telcos across the world. Anyone looking to take on Twitter will have to take this into account. Another aspect to keep in mind on mobile is the money spent on support SMS messages – it is not cheap.
Funding: As an indirect fallout of the Facebook IPO debacle, the valuation bubble in pre-IPO companies are now taking a bit of a beating. When hypergrowth itself does not perk up a company’s potential valuation it will limit the ability of companies to raise money and stay true to the core ideals.
Revenue: For ads to work on services like Twitter you need scale. For scale you need to have massive number of users using the service regularly. At $5 per month per user, you won’t get anywhere with user acquisition. How do you eventually scale this business?
Conclusion: If you can address at least some of the above points you could probably wind up successfully building a new Twitter. The odds are that nobody is going to be able to do that.