A proposal for community ownership of Twitter

I think Twitter is very important; the most important web-based communication tool yet developed. I don’t need to tell you (whether you use it or not) that it has had a profound effect around the world, created an accessible, robust new route for contact and real-time search. We’re only beginning to learn the benefits it could bring.

I just realised we should somehow liberate the Twitter team from the profit-motive. They’re embedded in a world that their innovation deserves to be allowed to transcend. And I think we could do this by looking at the idea of community ownership… yeah I know, no chance. But dudes! Let’s ‘buy’ Twitter for ourselves and thus protect it from profit-oriented future developments that will otherwise – I’m certain – ruin this beautiful innovation. Here’s the idea:

1. Why?

Because it is too important not to. Twitter as it is now is damn near perfect. It’s a beautifully constructed, elegant yet powerful process for communication. It has already – and can further – change the world. It is also futureproof – so simple and universal, it can continue to work with whatever devices and protocols we will develop in the next few years. According to leaked documents the Twitter team expect to have a billion users by 2013. That seems quite possible, given its rate of growth compared to other social networks. But also, regardless of speed of growth, Twitter provides massive access and a unique new way to speak out and be heard when needed.

Here are some accounts of Twitter usage beyond the trivial. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of tweets are still trivial: it is the tool itself that is game-changing, not current bulk usage of it.

The problem is that, already and from now on, each new alteration or development added to Twitter is actually negative for us users. This is because they (fairly urgently) need to make it pay. It’s no big secret, in fact it has become quite a famous dilemma for the team behind Twitter, that they’re working hard to monetize their invention. According to Wikipedia (using the top end of their estimates) to date the team has received approximately $62million from venture capitalists in three rounds of funding – and of course venture capitalists only ever give out money with the expectation of making money back. Examples of negative developments are already with us: the useless ‘Who to follow’ box and irritating ‘promoted’ trending topics are the sort of trick we will increasingly see. I’m not a web stick-in-the-mud but it’s clear that any future development with money-making in mind can only be detrimental to the system. And it is crucial that Twitter doesn’t follow the curve of so many web-based innovations ankle-chained to profit. When was the last time you checked your Myspace? Worse, if they don’t figure out a clever solution they’ll be forced to charge us all rent that locks out the poorest, turns a wondrous free service into a minority paid-for service and generally seals the slow death of the system.

Perhaps there is still room for innovation but the best innovation for Twitter was always crowd-sourced anyway. If you’re a recent user of Twitter, you may not know that the RT (retweet) protocol wasn’t developed by the team, it was an organic invention by users, eventually becoming so popular that Twitter created the ‘RT button’ in response. If ‘we’ own Twitter, then any decision to alter the system, even in small ways, will go through this organic succeed-or-fail development process. Or, if proposed from source, we could democratise decision making.

So to me the benefits seem extraordinary and, even though achieving community ownership is an enormous challenge, Jack, Biz and Evan have created something that deserves to be shared with everyone. This is why we should look at ‘the world’ buying it from the developers and preserving Twitter in the near-perfect state it is now. Remove the profit-motive and give the whole world a perfect tool.

2. How?

Quite apart from the thousands of communes, co-operatives and land-rights victories around the world, there are some ace precedents for community-oriented or altruistic behaviour in tech. Early in the 20th century sci-fi giant Arthur C. Clarke postulated geo-stationary orbits for satellites before anyone else and he gave it away, which stopped any individual nation or corporation gaining from this extraordinarily powerful ‘secret’.* We all know Tim Berners Lee was similarly altruistic when he came up with the World Wide Web. Even the US military deserves thanks when we use SatNav, as they effectively donate GPS to the world. So.

Option 1 is users collaborate as individuals to buy Twitter, build a global online tool to fundraise and propagate the project, use persuasion and publicity to get the team to abandon profit and sell to ‘the world’. They pay back the venture capital suits, take probably very large personal pay-offs and get to decide whether they want to stay on as stewards, or just wander into the sunset with our money and gratitude driving them forwards to their next big idea.

Option 2 is we get a huge organisation that represents the interests of billions of people around the world to buy it for us and hold it in trust, yet not interfere in the running of it in any way. They do this because they realise Twitter’s immense empowering and connecting qualities. They do this because they should’ve done it decades ago with mobile phone technology but didn’t because they didn’t have the guts. The UN maybe.

Option 3  is a bunch of nice governments who believe in freedom and democracy and all things chewy get together and set up a collaborative organisation to buy Twitter for the world, chipping in what they feel they should. Like space exploration projects or something. Slightly worrying on the ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘complete independence’ fronts but still, a worthwhile option 3.

Option 4 is a combo of options 1, 2 and 3. My favourite version would be; we buy it, then the UN out of the kindness of its heart chips in enough to guarantee running costs forever. They can make exponential predictions about growth in the mid-term and provide the capacity for potentially every single person in the world to be hooked up.

How much should Twitter ‘cost’? The problem with profit-oriented tools is they’re valued using estimations of their future profitability rather than what they’ve cost so far. Obviously, if we’re buying something for the world, we’re not going to pay astronomical imagined profits, we should just pay back the venture stakes and then pay the original developers a big chunk of money to thank them. After that we have plain running costs. So this is a big stumbling block and it’s a totally imagined one, resting on the greed of the owners – yet they can get more money than they’ll ever need without being greedy. Perhaps the sale should be forced, or at least ton of moral pressure could be brought in. Access to Twitter and maintaining it as it is now – is it more important than the ‘rights’ of the ‘owners’? Too much? Certainly if they’d owned the last cottage on a new railway line route, or they’d lived on the Chagos Islands when the Brits decided to lease them to the US for an airbase, they would’ve got short shrift for their ‘rights’ as owners…

(by the way, arguments that collectivising like that kills innovation are gibberish: they get lifelong global reputation, a retirement fund in the millions and the world’s gratitude for incredible altruism. And to move onto something else. Who wouldn’t want that?)

Even rounding up costs (venture capital) so far to $100million, which is a lot more than the team has received so far in funding, well, there are currently well over 100 million users, posting over 65 million tweets every single day. So we somehow organise and get the owners to sell at cost (plus the very generous individual payoffs and agreements whereby they could still remain in place as caretakers as long as they wished) tomorrow morning and it costs us each a one-off payment of less than $1. Aiming to keep this separate from the idea of ‘charging for use’, we set up an online donation model around the bid, so that richer users can ‘fund’ the rest of us if they so chose, taking the Wikipedia route. Many other community-oriented systems run successfully on donations.

Alternatively, accept a one-off price at first sign-up and then a very, very low annual subscription. I’m not even talking about the kind of subscription someone would need to make a profit, purely something that covers strict running costs. And because it’s low, people could pay a decade in advance. This sort of figure would be far closer to web domain name prices than, say, television licences. Would you pay £20 a month for Twitter? Fuck off. But would you pay £1 per year – or £10 for guaranteed use for the next 15 years? Of course you would.

Anyway, that’s the idea. Twitter themselves know they need to own the best innovation around themselves. They looked around at the apps independent developers were releasing to run Twitter on iPhones and when they found the best one, they bought it and made it the ‘official’ Twitter app. This is what the world should do to them.

* bit of a distraction but there’s another wondrous Arthur C. Clarke innovation out there in the PD waiting for science to catch up as well, which one day our great great grandchildren may be hugely grateful nobody can copyright: the concept of an elevator running from ground level to orbit using microfibres. His idea works and it could revolutionise transport of people and goods into space. It’s just waiting for tech to catch up.

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4 responses to “A proposal for community ownership of Twitter

  1. Those venture capitalists who put in 65 million dollars… presumably they now own a decent percentage of the business, and they won’t be selling at the price they bought for.

    They will likely have tied the creators into legal obligations to return them profit too, meaning that short of a government purchase order they won’t legally be able to sell Twitter without breaking their contracts (Leaving them open to being sued for hundreds of millions of dollars, considering potential lost revenue).

    So, that $1 each may well end up needing to be $20 each to pay off all the investors. Not insurmountable, I guess.

    Maybe someone should start a trending topic on Twitter about it. 🙂

  2. A bit of news updating some of what’s in this blog: today Twitter secured another $200million of funding and was valued at $3.2billion.

    BBC news item on Twitter funding

    So (fun with conjecture time) if in August we’d paid $300million for Twitter as a (forced?) community buyout, paying off all backing and giving owners $100million cash for their trouble, we’d now, three months later, be in the black and with enormous prospective profits. And *we’d* own it. Sweet. 😀

  3. Hey, DreamingEntity of twitter here.

    I think you’ve got the wrong approach to this, I’m afraid. While Twitter is a nice system it shouldn’t be treated as the only way to do what it does. I lam a little nervous of having a medium of communication that’s wholly owned by one group. Whoever that group is.

    The big problem with a buy out is that the internet changes rapidly. A new shinier system might undercut Twitter, and then we’d be talking about buying that out.

    I think the better option would be to add a script to RSS feed readers which allow you to filter by character count. That way in future an RSS feed could stream in data of a particular sort. And that data wouldn’t be tied to a particular company. It would just be a format.

  4. Hi DreamingEntity, thanks for your comment, really interesting.

    Isn’t Twitter a medium of communication already precisely ‘owned by one group’?

    To answer your points: I don’t think of Twitter as the only system or possibility – I just framed my proposal around it as an example. Twitter is a robust and relatively non-invasive communication tool and, in that sense, a different beast to other social networks. However my proposal is (of course) not limited to this one example but should be considered for all new vital Internet-based communication tools.

    Here’s why we should own it, evidenced by stuff that’s happened since I wrote the blog: over the past few weeks we’ve learned to our shocking cost how quickly private companies who ‘own’ the cloud that we all operate in will give over that control to those in power when asked, even under false/spurious pretexts: Amazon, Paypal, Visa and Mastercard ALL dropped service to WikiLeaks. But Twitter hasn’t.

    British legal system fined and criminalised Paul Chambers. Twitter hasn’t closed him down. Or the occupying students. Or countless others for communicating ‘unnacceptable’ ideas. Or me for inciting ‘Spartacus’. But they could – without explanation or justification – just by pressing some buttons.

    Community ownership doesn’t place control in the hands of a ‘group’ – it places control in the hands of every user, making cast-iron guarantees and preserving freedoms that private ownership simply doesn’t.

    I think you could feel a lot less nervous of that idea than the current situation, where it is controlled by exactly the one group you describe. They couldn’t switch Twitter off tomorow if they wanted, or were pressured to.

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