Felix Stalder on Thu, 20 Oct 2016 09:21:58 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Could Twitter be the next Mozilla?

[This is, of course, a intriguing thought. A community-led social
network, free from the logic of venture capital. I doubt, though, that
#buytwitter is the way, to enter into direct competition with capital
and start bidding. If Netscape/Mozilla is really the play-book, then
it would entail a) Twitter getting so desperate that they resort to a
hail-marry strategy and turning themselves open and b) this strategy
not working out and the commercial players loosing all interest and
spinning it off.]

Twitter could be the next Mozilla
– The Startup – Medium
Pauli Olavi Ojala


Are you old enough to remember Netscape, the company that created the
world’s first commercial web browser and server?

Even if you never did use the products, you’re probably familiar with
some of Netscape’s lasting contributions to the web such as the
JavaScript language, the SSL security protocol, or the <img> tag… And
it’s likely that you have at some point used the open source successor
to Netscape’s browser, Mozilla Firefox.

Netscape started life as Mosaic Communications Corporation. (In fact,
their 1994 web site is still online and worth a look!) The company
changed its name to avoid conflict with the older NCSA Mosaic browser.
In August 1995 Netscape was listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange, saw its
stock shoot up nearly threefold in the first hours of trading, and ended
the day with a market cap of over $2 billion — unheard of (at the time)
for a company with no profits. Netscape was the original blockbuster
Internet company before Amazon, Google or Facebook.

The fall of Netscape was almost as meteoric as its rise. Microsoft
started pouring money into browser development and bundled Internet
Explorer for free with Windows, thus killing the market for a commercial
browser. The server product also faced heavy competition, especially
from the free Apache server project. Having lost its revenue streams,
Netscape first made its browser open-source in an attempt to counter
Microsoft’s R&D juggernaut, then finally in late 1998 ended up being
bought by AOL in a stock deal that was worth $10 billion when the deal
was consummated. Netscape stockholders were presumably pleased, although
nobody else really was in the end.

The open-sourced Mozilla browser continued life under AOL/Netscape’s
auspices. When AOL lost interest in the Netscape/Mozilla browser some
years later, the project was spun off into the non-profit Mozilla
Foundation. That coincided with a turn in fortunes for the browser as
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer development stagnated for years, opening a
window for Mozilla’s browser (in a lean edition newly christened Firefox).

Today, the Mozilla Foundation is a core player on the open web. As a
non-profit, it provides an important balance against the interests of
the three giant corporations — Google, Apple and Microsoft — that own
the other remaining web browser engines. Mozilla also develops many
other projects, some unsuccessful and frankly lacking purpose (Firefox
OS), some offering important solutions to hard technical problems (the
Rust programming language). The web without Mozilla would be much poorer

What does all this have to do with Twitter? The social media company
today looks much like Netscape did in 1998. Twitter was one of the
original social media pioneers, but it hasn’t reached the same level of
global growth as Facebook. Twitter’s core product has stagnated while
the company’s R&D seems to fritter away into entirely separate apps like
Vine and Periscope. (At Netscape, executives wanted the company to make
a “groupware suite”, not just a browser. Twitter’s lack of focus seems
to be in a similar vein.)

Like the browser, Twitter actually provides an important infrastructure
service on the modern Internet. It’s just not clear whether that alone
has the makings of a growth-oriented public company. In the case of
Netscape, the answer ended up being “no”. With Twitter, the answer is
also increasingly looking like “no”.

Latest news (as of 14 October 2016) suggest that Twitter is not going to
be acquired: Salesforce was openly interested but has apparently given
up on any deal, and other rumored suitors disclaimed their interest
weeks ago.

Where does that leave Twitter? The company will of course continue to
exist, but it’s hard to imagine its stock price recovering soon. Twitter
Inc.’s revenue is growing, but it has been constantly losing about half
a billion dollars a year. New management will have to make deep cuts to
bring the company to profitability. That kind of profit-oriented
downsizing can easily become a vicious cycle that will end up destroying
what’s good about Twitter-the-product today.

Twitter would deserve a more positive path forward, and Mozilla’s
example provides one example to follow. Spin off the core of the
platform into a non-profit, a “Tweetzilla Foundation”. Let the unleashed
tweet streams become an essential piece of communications infrastructure
on the web. Open up the APIs which Twitter-the-company closed years ago
while trying to force users away from third-party clients (this was done
so that ads could be served more easily, but it created lasting bad will
towards Twitter in the developer communities).

Meanwhile the for-profit company — let’s call it “Twitter Media
Inc.” — should focus on building the best damn consumer experiences on
top of the tweeting platform. Double down on live streaming and other
media experiences that benefit from Twitter’s real-time feedback. Make
the ad platform so compelling that third-party Twitter clients will want
a share of the action. This is what Google does with its AdSense
program: it serves ads on millions of websites, yet it doesn’t need to
control the web itself.

Yes, Twitter Media would be a smaller company than present-day Twitter,
and getting Tweetzilla Foundation off the ground would be difficult
(current Twitter’s cost of operations is probably tremendous). But it’s
a more positive vision for the future than seeing Twitter Inc. shrink
into a sad kind of operation that tries to wring increasing profits from
the hardcore users of a closed social network.

The board of the current publicly listed Twitter Inc. might not approve
of any non-profit spin-off — but what if Twitter went private? As its
stock price sinks, the price tag becomes more palatable. Steve Ballmer
has a well-documented interest in Twitter and owns about 5% of the
company. A dedicated visionary with very deep pockets like Ballmer’s
could conceivably make an offer for Twitter’s entire stock, take the
company private, and then create the Foundation.

As a business endeavor this would not be immediately profitable. But for
someone looking to make his mark on the Internet’s history, it might
have a unique appeal. (He could simply call it the “Ballmer Foundation”,
just to make it more obvious.) And the private Twitter Media could still
become a highly profitable company eventually.

It’s a pretty crazy scenario. I’m using Ballmer here as an extreme
example of how even a private investor could potentially turn Twitter
into something much more important than it currently is.

Any such path needs to start with a vision, though. If you like Twitter,
why not share yours in the comments?


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