What If…? Looking Back at 2 Paths Twitter Didn't Take

For a long time, there was a chance that Twitter would not join the ranks of publicly owned corporations — that it wouldn’t be around to join it, or that it would choose not to. 
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The tweet with which Twitter announced its IPO (Reuters)

Around 5 pm Eastern today, Twitter announced that it had confidentially filed for its initial public offering (IPO). Rumors of the company’s coming IPO had been in circulation since late August. A recent design change, which took the service’s tweets out of chronological order in order to make it more understandable to “the general public,” only quickened the mill. Now we know for sure.

So, sometime in the next six months, the company will careen toward public ownership. No longer will it be a young, California-born upstart (not that it’s been that for a while); no longer, too, will it be categorized as a startup. It will be John Q. Public company: With a stock price, a ticker symbol and a regular revenue report, it will join the pedestrian landscape of American business. 

But, for a long time, there was a chance that Twitter would not join that landscape — that it wouldn’t be around to join it, or that it would choose not to. This isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, but as we prepare for the NASDAQization (or NYSEification) of Twitter, it’s worth looking back on some historical “texts,” of a sort, from the company’s history. These blog posts — there are two of them — reveal what we might think of as Twitter’s alternate universes. They show paths not taken, ideas not imagined.

1. A pedestrian podcasting company never hatches Twitter.

Twitter didn’t start out as its own company: It began as an experiment between members of the podcasting startup, Odeo. In February 2005, Evan Williams, one of Odeo’s founders, explained the company’s conceit on his blog, Evhead. (At the time, he was fresh off success, having sold his company Blogger to Google. Now, he’s behind the enigmatic Medium.) He describes Odeo almost as a pre-iPhone Instapaper for podcasts, writing:

One day, Biz Stone and I were driving home from work, it all clicked for us. We were talking about how Audioblogger was great, but we didn't tend to actually listen to the posts much, when we came across them on the web. However, there I was, paying for and downloaded spoken-word audio from the web to listen to on my iPod. Why, we thought, couldn't you get the interesting, new audio-blogged posts on your iPod when you synched it and listen to them where it made sense?

Yes, that Biz Stone! The other guy connected to Medium. 

Other than the where-are-they-now aspect to Williams’s excitement, it’s fun to see him worked up about a product that went nowhere. “I'm super-excited to see where this goes,” he says. “[I]t’s the same story as blogging (with several unique charastics of its own), but in a whole new medium that is much bigger than people think. And it'll happen much, much faster.” It sounds like he’s talking about Twitter, but, of course, he’s not. Twitter didn’t exist yet. Allow him to clarify: “Podcasting,” he wrote, “is going to be freakin’ huge.”

2. Twitter becomes a medium, not a business.

In 2010, one of Twitter’s first employees, Alex Payne, wrote a blog post called The Very Last Thing I’ll Write About Twitter.” He had recently left the company, and the post was ostensibly about a new interface Twitter was unveiling. Payne wrote:

While Twitter has been growing in mainstream significance and popularity, it hasn’t managed to adopt a strategy that clearly aims the company towards mass market success. I think #newtwitter changes that, turning the site into a rich information discovery platform, if you’ll excuse the buzzword bingo.

But the post was about more than the interface update which Payne called #newtwitter. It was a prediction about Twitter’s longterm health. As a business, Payne argued, Twitter could not survive. His argument is worth excerpting at length:

I believe that Twitter as a medium is and should be distinct from Twitter as a business. Put another way, there’s an important difference between lowercase “t” tweeting and uppercase “T” Twitter, just as with democrat and Democrat.

This is not a new sentiment. Others have expressed it for years, in calls for a decentralized Twitter and attempts to build just that. For a time, I dismissed those missives as faxes from the crazy uncle lunatic fringe of the Internet technology community: the standardsistas, the neckbeards, the open sorcerers, the people who believe that all things must be free and open regardless of context. I came to the conclusion on a different path, but I came to it nonetheless.

Some time ago, I circulated a document internally with a straightforward thesis: Twitter needs to decentralize or it will die. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not even in a decade, but it was (and, I think, remains) my belief that all communications media will inevitably be decentralized, and that all businesses who build walled gardens will eventually see them torn down. Predating Twitter, there were the wars against the centralized IM providers that ultimately yielded Jabber, the breakup of Ma Bell, etc. etc. This isn’t to say that one can’t make quite a staggeringly lot of money with a walled garden or centralized communications utility, and the investment community’s salivation over the prospect of IPOs from LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter itself suggests that those companies will probably do quite well with a closed-but-for-our-API approach.

Payne wasn’t the only member of the company who felt this way. There’s an alternate universe where Twitter followed the wishes of those employees and decentralized, distinguishing itself from the private, “walled gardens” of Facebook or LinkedIn. There are many microblogging providers, in this universe, not just Twitter.

To decentralize would’ve entailed some large technical challenges for the company. A decentralized Twitter could never have become the home for breaking news it is now. To decentralize, too, would’ve challenged Twitter to find a different kind of Internet business model. Maybe it would have had to charge users, or offer additional services.

But a decentralized Twitter might, today, have found itself at the middle of an expansive and flourishing microblogging and personal information delivery ecosystem. That Twitter, which Payne describes it, would be quite different from Facebook or any of the other big social networks.  

Twitter chose not to do that — and now we know about the IPO which Payne proleptically alludes to — but there’s a universe in which it did. And, there, we’d be looking at a fundamentally different, and possibly more democratic, tech landscape.

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

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