Innovation Requires Knowing It Can Be Done

How do you build more when you don’t think there is a place for more?

I was chatting with Marshall Kirkpatrick about apps and what we’re up to. I think Marshall is a deity, demigod at least, of taking tons of data sources and doing amazing things. He and I probably consumed the same number of RSS feeds at our peak of blogging days (we’re talking 900–1000 feeds each). I don’t know if he still keeps up that punishing regime, but I’m down to a paltry few hundred now (Feedly doesn’t give you the magic number any more). What set Marshall apart — and would later fuel Little Bird — was his amazing ability to bolt disparate data sources together into a publishing workflow or treasure trove of awesome information.

Marshall and I were talking about Mastodon and I commented on how the Twitter API restrictions stifled innovation. He disagreed and then showed me some blow-your-mind-with-awesome analysis he did with just the free, public Twitter API. I can’t show you what he showed me, but that’s not the point. The point is that Twitter did a great job at first of encouraging innovation through easy access to its API. It’s something that made Web 2.0 awesome. Connect this, pull from that, post this, and, ta da, amazingness.

Then things changed.

Twitter started limiting the API and charging metric butt loads for full access (firehose level it’s called). Apps started dying. Services like Hootsuite suddenly had something to worry about. If Twitter cut off access to their API they were toast. Kiss an entire business goodbye.

This stuck in my head. The idea that Twitter didn’t want people doing interesting things with their API. Twitter wanted the best data for ads and their own apps (Man I miss the old TweetDeck sometimes). I don’t know if I was the only one, but I certainly don’t think the number of apps that tap into the treasure trove of Twitter has been pretty slim lately.

The only really interesting app I remember seeing since the big shake up was Little Bird itself.

One really awesome app. Not good. In the meantime folks built things based on WordPress, Slack (kinda), heck even bots based on Facebook Messenger saw more action (in the last year) than Twitter has in a long, long time.

While Twitter seemed to be trying to hold onto its caché as the arbiter of cool, what was most exciting to builders and the folks who liked to try out the stuff builders made, was fading away. That sense of “hey, let’s see if I can build this with the Twitter API…” withered and died.

It’s this excitement of building of thinking, “hmm, what could come from this…” that has me excited about Mastodon. There was a lot we figured out how to do with SMTP in the early days. RSS built many a business and I even dabbled in making some things tapping into collected RSS feeds, parsing them, filtering them, and giving me chunks of news. I see Mastodon as a chance to reclaim that excitement.

Wait! What about Status.net and Identi.ca and Laconi.ca and all those tools! They tried to be the not-Twitter Twitter. True, except there is a huge different between then and now.

Twitter didn’t suck then.

The scary problems of more and more walled gardens controlling our world view wasn’t so scary then. Maybe we were more naive. Maybe we figured Facebook would cave at some point. Maybe we didn’t imagine that fake news conjured from teenage Macedonian brains (and a few Russian agents) would influence American politics to what we have now.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

I don’t have the answers, not by a long shot, but what I’m hoping is that some folks far more clever than I are going to figure out how to mash up Mastodon with other things and make a new and interesting communications app. I think the fact that we still have email and Twitter and myriad chat apps like Slack, indicates we haven’t quite figured out how to jump from different messaging needs without jumping apps. Wouldn’t it be neat to start a message and if it’s really short goes into a stream like Slack, medium into something more like Twitter, and longer into Email, and longer maybe into a blog post?

Would one tool that adapts the medium to the message help us or just confuse the crap out of us?

No idea. But here’s to hoping someone tries to figure it out.

Here’s to hoping that we’ve reached a point where having single-company-controlled messaging systems isn’t cool any more. Here’s to hoping Mastodon inspires us to at least try.

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