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Blind men and the elephant

May 23, 2008

Dave Winer reacted today to the Twitter communication from Alex Payne. His response is interesting from a number of angles. First, he makes the excellent point that there is no one "Twitter experience", everyone interacts with Twitter a little differently. He compares the situation to the old story about blind men describing an elephant using only their sense of touch. I couldn't agree more with him. Dave's experience is clearly very different from my own. And for "uber-twits" like Robert Scoble, I can't even imagine what following tens of thousands of people is like.

After these points though, I disagree with where he takes his discussion. First he dismisses Alex's description of their scaling issues, saying Alex doesn't understand the problem because it somehow doesn't mesh with Dave's particular Twitter needs. I didn't quite see the same mismatch from Alex's post but then in quick succession he describes his own needs as three elephant groping blind men, two of which are contradictory regarding message delivery latency, and one requirement to be "on air" all the time.

This then leads to a declaration that Twitter must be decentralized due to the "always-on-air" requirement and that this is a necessary step towards using Twitter for business purposes. This seems like a bit of a stretch, unless I'm misreading it, it sounds like the common refrain of building a "better" twitter outside of or on top of the existing Twitter system. This is once again thinking that Twitter is relatively simple technology and therefore can easily be made better. It's not the technology though that makes it good in the first place.

I think Dave's own argument should point to why this will be a very hard thing to do. What is this decentralized Twitter? Who's needs will it be built for? To stretch the analogy, it's like now asking one of the blind men to build a better elephant. When they're done, is it still an elephant? If the compelling aspect of Twitter is the uniquely individual experience drawn from it by users, how can you improve it for yourself without altering it for everyone else? You could argue that many blind men could build different facets of Twitter to suit their own needs, but then the other compelling reason to be on Twitter, that there are people on Twitter, is fractured when these populations of blind arch-types disperse. It seems like Dave's own requirements are contradictory in some ways.