What if Twitter goes rogue?

Since the dawn of Twitter, the big question about the micro-blogging service has always been “but how will they make money?”.

To date, Twitter have taken a now-very-typical approach to this: rely on funding to grow a massive, engaged and dynamic community without worrying about the money, and then once the community is in place, apply the business model.

There’s three recent-ish developments that many people think point to the fact that things might be changing soon:

  • First, Twitter made some changes to their API which essentially takes the developer focus away from Twitter clients and instead suggests a focus on data,
  • Second, they just announced the acquisition of Tweetdeck for an astonishing $40m,
  • Third, they have just in the last few days started sending emails by default on all replies and re-tweets

These things might look slightly disparate in nature, but the overall shift is one in which Twitter has more control over the stream of content emanating from the service. Tweetdeck is an interesting acquisition for Twitter in this sense – yes, it may  be an extremely powerful and widely-liked client but it also crucially allows users to filter what they see.

When you consider that the most likely business model for Twitter is to start populating the Twitter stream with ads, suddenly all these developments start to appear a bit more strategically connected. Once Twitter has control over the stream and has moved control away from client developers, ads are going to be much harder to filter. You can bet too that those incoming emails will be ad-populated before long too.

Clearly, any online business needs to make money or at least be self-sustaining, and having burned through a big pile of VC money Twitter is going to be looking to claw back wherever they can. It’s lovely that Twitter is free and not filled with ads, but it is also unrealistic to think that this might go on forever.

Working on the assumption that things are going to have to change, where does that leave the user? Talk of heading off to Identi.ca or other microblogging services is unrealistic; Twitter has (and knows it has!) a huge critical mass. The only other offering on the horizon (albeit what looks like a distant horizon) is Diaspora – a lovely model (you own your own stuff) but again totally lacking in real-world usefulness right now.

We’ve all invested hugely in Twitter. It’d be very hard for many of us to imagine life without it – but we’ve all bought into a service which is a commercial service, and one which is subject to the whims of profitability.

So – back to the title of the post. What if Twitter goes rogue – and by “rogue” I mean “starts doing something that you personally find unacceptable” (so for the sake or argument, imagine a scenario which makes you wince, be it ads in-stream / membership fee / company bought by the Chinese / content moderation at source / etc). What then?

Personally, I think I’d pay a membership fee in order to use the service. I’d also likely pay in order to not have ads in my stream. What about you?