Skip to Content
Uncategorized

Twitter, Instagram, And The Internet of (Disconnected) Things

Apps and web services are starting to act just as “dumb” as 20th-century toasters and blenders.
December 11, 2012

You’ve heard of the “internet of things”: that just-over-the-horizon utopia in which our formerly dumb, disconnected physical appliances become “smart” and digitally networked. Here’s what I didn’t see coming: an ironically reversed “things of the internet” scenario, in which our formerly networked, interoperable apps and web services evolve into siloed products that can’t and won’t talk to each other. Welcome to the future: you can use gadgets like Twine and WeMo to make your air conditioner talk to your toaster, but you can’t make your Instagram photos show up on Twitter, or your iPhone work natively with Google Maps. (Well, technically there is a workaround for the Twitter/Instagram issue, but don’t expect it to work for much longer.)

[image via digitaltrends.com]

Not being able to share photos seamlessly from one social network to another may be the epitome of a “first world problem;” getting lost in the Australian outback because your smartphone manufacturer replaced a bulletproof mapping app with its inferior homemade version is a bit more serious. But in either case, the essential value of these information technologies–their ability to seamlessly interface with each other as only bits, rather than atoms, can–is being purposely eroded. The vision is almost comically retrograde: Twitter, Google, Apple, and Facebook each seem to think that they can provide every conceivable digital functionality to the user all on their own at each other’s expense, much like GM’s “kitchen of tomorrow” at the 1964 World’s Fair promised to meet every need of a 20th-century housewife with one brand. Fifty years later, nobody has (or wants) a kitchen built solely out of General Motors products. So why do Twitter and Facebook act like there is a personal information-technology equivalent?

One reason, of course, is the network effect itself. Unlike blenders or toasters, the value of our digital ecosystems depends on massive scale and zero-sum market forces. Or does it? App.net is growing sideways from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram by acting more like a toaster maker, in some fundamental ways, than a network. As with an appliance, you have to pay if you want to use App.net. That incentivizes App.net’s developers to improve the user experience for their paying customers, not amplify the network effects at their expense. But where making a better user experience for a toaster means “making it easier to toast bread,” making a better user experience for an information technology means “making it easier to usefully exchange information.” So as long as App.net’s user base keeps paying for the service, its API can be as open as it takes to keep them happy. 

Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook/Instagram (or Apple and Google) ultimately have to innovate in the opposite direction: away from interfacing with each other (or yet-to-be-invented services) in useful ways, so that their network effects are conserved. But where does that endgame lie? I’d rather have a true “internet of things”–a diversity of usefully connectable products, digital and physical–than a handful of increasingly disconnected monocultures offering “things on the internet.” For all their short term innovation, that’s where the big players seem headed.

Deep Dive

Uncategorized

Five poems about the mind

DREAM VENDING MACHINE I feed it coins and watch the spring coil back,the clunk of a vacuum-packed, foil-wrappeddream dropping into the tray. It dispenses all kinds of dreams—bad dreams, good dreams,short nightmares to stave off worse ones, recurring dreams with a teacake marshmallow center.Hardboiled caramel dreams to tuck in your cheek,a bag of orange dreams…

Work reinvented: Tech will drive the office evolution

As organizations navigate a new world of hybrid work, tech innovation will be crucial for employee connection and collaboration.

lucid dreaming concept
lucid dreaming concept

I taught myself to lucid dream. You can too.

We still don’t know much about the experience of being aware that you’re dreaming—but a few researchers think it could help us find out more about how the brain works.

panpsychism concept
panpsychism concept

Is everything in the world a little bit conscious?

The idea that consciousness is widespread is attractive to many for intellectual and, perhaps, also emotional
reasons. But can it be tested? Surprisingly, perhaps it can.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.