If This Guy’s Right, We’ve Got Trouble Ahead

July 9, 2012
Dave Winer

Dave Winer

When bad stuff happens on a grand scale, you often hear purveyors of conventional wisdom declare, “No one saw this coming.”

We always seem to learn later, however, that plenty of smart people anticipated the chaos. They warned us, but we either didn’t hear them or we chose not to listen.

Look to 2008 for a great example. Pundits proclaimed “no one could have predicted” the severity of the credit crisis that pushed the U.S. financial system to the brink of collapse. But two years later, Michael Lewis described in “The Big Short” the various traders, hedge fund managers and financial hobbyists who not only saw the collapse approaching, but made piles of cash from the fallout.

Today, a smart guy named Dave Winer foresees a different storm brewing, one that could swamp the communication tools and technology systems we take for granted. And he’s doing his best to warn us to take cover.

Winer is well known in web geek circles, not so much outside of them. He’s a web developer, author and passionate advocate for a robust, open and independent internet.

In the 1980s, he wrote software, built a successful company and cashed out by selling the firm to a tech giant. In the 1990s, he wrote his own content syndication code, doing more than any other person to popularize the RSS system that to this day makes the web a much more open place. He also helped made podcasting a everyday activity for the masses.

Today, Winer’s megaphone is his blog “Scripting News.” I follow Scripting News (via RSS, of course) and admit that much of what Winer writes goes over my head. But I get the gist of what he’s saying — and he sees trouble ahead.

Winer contends that a crisis looms for individuals, businesses and organizations that rely too heavily on digital platforms they don’t own or control. Twitter and Facebook leap to mind, of course. A business builds its sales model on Facebook. A tech company comes up with a great new Twitter-based service or app. Then Facebook and Twitter change the rules. Now what? How many people lose their jobs?

Facebook and Twitter are the easy whipping boys, but there are many others. Businesses of all sizes are rushing to attract customers on Pinterest. Multitudes are sharing files via Google and Dropbox. The music and media industries have tied their fortunes to Apple.

Winer doesn’t demonize Facebook and the others. They do what companies do — make money and defend their turf. But he does demonize a digital regime that enables private entities to control the structure and basic functionality of the internet. He worries that we’re fast-approaching a day when entrepreneurs and innovators won’t be able to build anything without relying on a third party’s proprietary tools.

An analogy of my own: What if you built a store, only to find out that you’ve got pay an annual royalty fee for the proprietary shape of each 2X4 and the proprietary size of each wood screw? And what if the owners of those proprietary items decided one day you couldn’t use them anymore or somehow made them obsolete?

And it’s not just commerce at stake. More and more, we define ourselves online — our ideas, our beliefs, our thoughts. We use the internet as a platform for freedom of thought and association. What if Twitter doesn’t like what we’re saying? What if Google decides to let police monitor your activity without a warrant? What if Facebook doesn’t like who we’re hanging out with?

Here are a few recent Winer quotes to give you a flavor of his worldview. Call him a soothsayer or Chicken Little. Either way, you can’t say he didn’t warn us.

Twitter is a Corporate API

Smart developers will not just conclude that Twitter is unsafe to build on, but also any company that is operating in the Twitter model. If they are running a website, and trying to attract a lot of users, and are going in the direction of advertising, you’d be a fool to think they won’t do the same as Twitter has …

Why is it a bad idea to develop on the Twitter API, but a good idea to develop on Apple’s? I don’t get it. Apple is far bigger therefore far more dangerous than Twitter …

To news people — pay attention. This is your future in the months and years to come. You may feel that Twitter is now a solid platform to build your business on. It is not.

News guys — Twitter is not your friend

Everywhere I look in news, and I spend a lot of my time looking at news — I see the industry making what I think is a fatal mistake. They seem to think Twitter is benign. As if it were the web, which of course isn’t benign either, but at least it’s neutral. Twitter, on the other hand, is imho a competitor to all the news organizations.

We’re still in the early days of online distribution of news. Twitter chose a cute little icon, like Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh. But the sweetness and light will fade when Twitter gets competition. With news orgs going for very little money, and with tech networks becoming sink-holes for cash, how long before the money jumps the gap and Twitter buys a struggling news organization. Look at it this way. How long before Twitter carries exclusive content. Wouldn’t it be smart to develop some options?

Well, if you’re waiting for the news industry to get smart about tech, my guess is you’ll wait a very long time.

Dave Winer photo credit: Joi Ito. Link