Twitter Is the Web's Best Public Identity Service—So Why Is It Destroying Itself?

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The bigger, civic implications of Twitter breaking up with Tumblr twitterbird615-1.jpg

Join Tumblr on Monday (as I did) and you'd mosey through a little process. You'd pick a username, type in a password. Look at blogs the service recommends following. Then you'd get to a page which, a few days ago, would let you search Facebook, Twitter and your email contacts to find Tumblr blogs written by your friends.

Join Tumblr today? You'd only see Facebook and email. Twitter, as reported by Matthew Panzarino of the Next Web, told Tumblr it couldn't look through Twitter to find friends anymore.

The move's been roundly rebuked. But I guess I'm interested in why this specifically deprives the web of a forum. And to understand why, you have to go back to July 2011, when Google lumbered into social networking.

It was in that month that Edd Dumbill, writing at O'Reily and responding to Google Plus, articulated, in a clean list, exactly what a social network did. His little enumeration is still one of the best abstract statements about what social networking provides, and about what buried, social protocols it makes real:

Identity -- authenticating you as a user, and storing information about you
Sharing -- access rights over content
Notification -- informing users of changes to content or contacts' content
Annotation -- commenting on content
Communication -- direct interaction among members of the system

It's that first one which has gotten the most attention in the past year. Identity. It's the basis of Starbucks's new cashless system, the subject of a good amount of academic study since the 1960s, and the reason, on a stage last year, Google's then-CEO, Eric Schmidt, gave for why Google was making Google Plus:

Fundamentally, what Facebook has done is built a way to figure out who people are. That system is missing in the internet as a whole. Google should have worked on this earlier.

This is why Google Plus exists. As Tim Carmody wrote last year, social networks serve way more roles on the web than as just another inbox:

Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter aren't just providing you with the digital equivalent of your mailing address, but also your driver's license, passport, car keys and credit cards.

According to a Pew study earlier this year, only about 15 percent of American Internet users tweet. But Twitter, for a good chunk of those 15 percent, has always been a much more extendable, much safer web validation tool than Facebook. Facebook's notion of private and public is mushy; I'm not even sure what I have lurking in the depths of my Timeline that I don't want others to see.

Twitter, though! What I've put on Twitter has always been public. The service is the web's street and bazaar. It's the online identity I'm most comfortable giving out -- which only makes me more likely to use the service to authenticate myself (and find my friends from it) around the web.

Marco Arment, writing at his blog, can't think of a reason Twitter would break up with Tumblr other than "the obvious one":

Twitter will now only permit large services to add value to Twitter, not get any value from it.

Twitter has only referred reporters back to its statement on Instagram:

We understand that there's great value associated with Twitter's follow graph data, and we can confirm that it is no longer available within Instagram.

Except replace Tumblr for Instagram. The whole thing is written in such a ham-fisted way -- like a bully fluent in corporatese -- that it just feels weird. But Twitter, despite its assertion that it "understands value," is acting like it has no idea what its doing: slowly choking off the ways that the bustling street and humming forum it controls -- where people are comfortable being who they are online, in public, with no worry about creepiness -- can get to the rest of the web. Do that in a city, and you'd wind up destroying the neighborhood.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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