"It's humbling to think that our 2-year old company could be playing such a globally meaningful role that state officials find their way toward highlighting our significance," a post on the Twitter blog by co-founder Biz Stone read. Therein lies the uneasy truth: In a major international crisis, one of the prime channels of communication and news for individuals, media outlets, and governments alike is a 2-year-old start-up in San Francisco with 50 employees, no discernible business model, a history of technical instability, and a misinformation-related lawsuit on the table. This is a problem."
So wrote Caroline McCarthy on CNET yesterday, and she's right: Twitter's youth is over. Which means it's time for Twitter to grow up.
The events of the past week have been incredible. Twitter's role in the protests against the Iranian election has been huge, as a tool for communicating and organizing, and mobilizing people around the world to work for a cause -- so huge that the State Department had to step in and press Twitter to postpone a planned 90-minute outage for maintenance:
"We highlighted to them that this was an important form of communication," said a State Department official of the conversation the department had with Twitter officials.
Here's the thing: I couldn't believe the State Department had to step in — it was obvious what a critical role Twitter was playing in the process. A friend of mine rather presciently noted on Friday night, during the "Facebook land grab," that "Twitter and Facebook are so central and outages are potentially so disruptive that some sort of regulatory scheme can't be far." Turns out we're pretty much there. But even so: if it was so obvious to everyone what a critical role Twitter was playing here — even the State department — why wasn't it obvious to Twitter?
So far the Twitter founders have played the role of newbies to the big kids' table — first time to the Time 100, going on Oprah, a "Night Out" column in the New York Times and a cute little spar-off with Maureen Dowd to boot. But while they've been getting up the celebrity curve, their site has been growing in dog-years (or even fruit-fly years). Twitter's first big international real-time news-reporting event was the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and that was in November - eons ago in Internet time. Since then it has contributed real news value on numerous occasions, most notably with the first shots of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson.
So while a regime-threatening uprising half a world away could hardly be predicted, it could hardly have been surprising ("The Revolution Will Be Twittered" had an impressive Google imprint even before it became emblematic of what's happening in Iran). Which makes Biz Stone's comment about how "humbling it is for our two-year old company to play such a globally meaningful role" just a touch disingenuous, or at least naive. If it "made sense for Twitter and for [network provider] NTT America to keep services active during this highly visible global event" after the State Department pointed it out, it surely made sense before.
The upshot: As McCarthy so ably noted in her excellent piece, it's time for Twitter to grow up. And part of growing up means figuring out how to make money. It's becoming completely irresponsible for Twitter to just accept investor infusions of cash and drag its feet on a business model. Yes, they're a private company -- but they've become a very public platform. It's time to figure out how to pay for it — so they can keep it around. (Funny how this recession has shown just how vulnerable businesses are to a lack of money.) Heck, everyone else is making money on Twitter — did you see how much Jeff Pulver charged to attend his 140 Character conference?
Pundits' calls for Twitter to get cranking on its yet-to-be-unveiled business model have turned into little more than a broken record, but the prominence of Twitter as a communications channel in the Iranian crisis raises the question of whether a pre-revenue company — no matter how cushy its venture backing — is up to task.
Hm. That sounds pretty directly linked to this:
Unstable servers and fail-whales are just the surface, though. It's even less clear as to how effectively Twitter could handle large-scale denial-of-service attacks, phishing, hacking, or more serious forms of sabotage or cyberterrorism.
Seeing how easy it has been to use Twitter for good has exposed the double-edged sword of how easy it could be to co-opt. (The dummy Iranian protest feeds are one example of this.) Twitter is an astounding platform for information, but it's a total blank slate — which means it's an astounding platform for disinformation, too. They need to make money so they can hire more people to monitor all of this — never mind all the problems they haven't even thought of yet.
Twitter is an amazing public tool with an incredible capacity for public good. We don't need the State Department to tell us that — and neither should Twitter. Welcome to adulthood, kiddo.