The Internet is not an airport

I'm going to stretch a few travel analogies in this article, so for those of you who can't stand to see analogies stretched to their near-breaking point, you might want to skip this article. :)

Having recently reacquainted myself with the culture of airports, I feel there are some parallels between my recent experiences with airport hospitality and how Twitter recently handled blocking UberMedia's clients. Having not used any of the applications outside of Twitter itself, I can't comment on the functionality (or dis-functionality) of the applications, nor am I going to get into whether or not they're doing "bad things". However, I feel there's an underlying assumption that both the airport and Twitter hold that could be damaging to both.

Every so often, Popular Mechanics trots out a notion that has been every commuter's dream: the air car. The concept is that the owners of the air car will be able to get into their air car, flip a switch, and shirk the 2D world of the roadways for the less congested 3D world of the skies. No more would we have to sit in our cars in rush hour, waiting for all of the people to get out of our way so we can get to [work / the gym / llama-herding practice], we can instead flip a switch, pull back on the steering wheel and hover our way above all of the poor saps left on the road. (Of course, this also assumes that none of the other poor saps has an air car, and isn't making an even bigger congested mess in the sky, but the future never gets bogged down with such details).

Assuming that the regulatory bodies that govern air travel are OK with folks having air cars, and assuming that an air car could go across country, what do you think this would do to the airport? Taking the analogy further, what happened to the train, bus, and trolly stations when the automobile came onto the scene? They all but disappeared where I live. Only in places where it is more inconvenient to drive did people still use the train. (I dare anyone to drive into Downtown Chicago on a regular basis.) Getting back to the airport analogy, if people were able to fly wherever they wanted from the comfort of their home, they would likely eschew the airport, opting instead to maybe hit a few rest-stops along the way.

Airport concession stands are designed for the captive audience in mind. That's why you can end up spending $7 for a cup of coffee and a bagel w/ cream cheese that would normally cost you $4. They rightly assume that you're not going to pop out to a Starbucks outside of the airport to save $3, especially if you have less than an hour until your flight. But, if air travel from your driveway to your destination was practical, you might hit a Starbucks along the way, or a Caribou, or whatever your fancy.

And herein likes the comparison with Twitter. Right now, social networking is essentially an airport. Twitter believes that their customers will continue to be patrons of their service, so if they decide to block UberMedia's clients because of something that they don't like, they are well within their rights to do so, just as the airport can charge you for $25 to check in a bag. And much like disagreeing with the baggage charge can be alleviated by finding an airline that doesn't charge for baggage claim, one could use a different client, just as one could decide not to fly altogether and take the bus. However, if you want access to Twitter's customer base, you'll have to play by their rules, and so UberMedia changed their client, and tried to meet Twitter's terms of service. We'll see how that pans out.

So, why mention air cars? Assuming the logistics of air cars can be worked out, eventually folks will not use airports as much. But, logistically, getting a car into the air is a hard problem, otherwise we'd have them in our driveway. And setting up something that rivals Twitter is not impossible, but that's where the people are. However, much like there aren't trolly cars in Detroit, situations can change. Folks could set up their own social media services on their own servers if they so choose. Granted, it's not particularly easy for some folks (that's why my mom uses Hotmail instead of setting up her own Postfix server), but there are alternatives.

Twitter needs to realize that they're the only game in town as long as we let them be. All it takes is a few wrong moves, and the users of Twitter might invent themselves an air car. And then they won't need to hang out at the airport after all.