The theory of Twitter
Thursday, April 05, 2007 by Dave Winer.
Yesterday's piece about the "imbalance" of Twitter was, if I say so myself, an important one.
There's a theory of social systems, a theory that has yet to be written, that will eventually group them into two distinct sets: balanced and imbalanced systems. Neither one is better than the other, both have strengths and weaknesses. It's generally assumed that the balanced systems are democratic and fair, and the imbalanced ones are not, but I think that's too crude.
Let me make a prediction. It won't be long, if it hasn't already happened, that there will be an eruption of angst about the A-list in Twitter, just as people grouse about the A-list in blogging. In Twitter terms, the A-list will be people who have lots of followers, more than the average person. It will be more pronounced in Twitter because you can clearly see how many followers someone has. It's like those Feedburner badges that say how many subscribers a site has, except in Twitter, everyone has such a badge, and it's in a consistent place.
But this imbalance is what has made it possible for actual work to get done in the blog world. With balanced media, like a mail list, everyone is tightly coupled with everyone else. Imagine a company where every decision had to be ratified by everyone else. A company where everyone had veto power. Only really small companies could get work done. Once you got over a certain level, there would always be a naysayer for everything you might want to do -- so in the end, nothing gets done.
I like to joke that at one point I could have a developer's conference for RSS in the shower or while I was taking a walk, alone. Suppose the aggregator developers (me) wanted the blogging tool vendors (me) to support a new feature in RSS. I usually found they were easy to work with! Once there were more developers in the space, guess what happened -- nothing! Even the most innocuous proposals were controversial, and once there's controversy that's the end of forward motion.
In open source communities they call the imbalance a benevolent dictatorship. Far from being a perfect democracy some people imagine open source to be, actually a project often sinks or swims based on how good the central decision-maker is. Again, people complain about the A-list, but that's okay, work gets done over the objections.
I found myself thinking of Twitter as loosely-coupled instant messages. It's definitely a new thing, and because of that, it's fascinating. David Weinberger came up with an excellent name for what Twitter is, and the web, and the blogosphere, and RSS (but not mail lists) -- he called it Small Pieces Loosely Joined. There are lots of other terms for it, all good, but to assume that imbalance is bad, would be to miss the goodness of the web itself, imho.
Brian O: "Messages are lightly battered and quick-fried."
Brent Simmons wishes Twitter to remain simple.