Twitter is a “Stupid Network” (the good kind)

April 16, 2009

I’m sure I’m not the first to point out this analogy, but one of the things that makes Twitter interesting is how it parallels the “stupid network” model, as prescribed by David Isenberg in The Rise of the Stupid Network.

Twitter embraces the end-to-end principle which is a central design principle of the Internet itself.  A “stupid network” is one  that merely passes packets independent of the what application uses the data in those packets. In other words, the network has little knowledge about the contents of the packets it handles and exerts little influence over them.

Twitter passes 140 character “packets” (tweets), acting as a “stupid network” for the most part. Twitter does not interpret the contents of a tweet – it passes whatever data the tweet contains. Some applications “overload” tweets with special content recognized by that application. This end-to-end model permits myriad uses of the underlying network and fosters incredible innovation.

Over time, Twitter has become slightly more “inteligent” interpreting “hashtags”, url-shortened links etc., but it still permits all kinds of application-specific data.

At first look, Twitter becoming more “intelligent” about the contents of tweets may appear to be a good thing.  But it is a slipery slope. Once they start adding meaning to the 140 characters, the network becomes more restrictive. The more Twitter remains a “stupid network” the better, IMHO. By deciding to be “stupid” and supporting the end-to-end prinicple, Twitter is inviting creative minds to use their “network” for new applications, which, it turns out, is a very smart thing to do.

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6 Responses to Twitter is a “Stupid Network” (the good kind)

  1. April 16, 2009 at 5:24 pm


    I see why you would disregard Twitter becoming “intelligent”. Indeed it is not becoming, but it always was. Afterall, if I start my tweet with “D” it assumes that it is supposed to be a DM. In this respect it is not really end-to-end. Twitter server is most definitely in the middle.

    I am not being argumentative. My contention is that “Stupid Network” paper is wrong in its claim that PSTN is not a stupid network. After call establishment, the switched network was transparent to the traffic. The only hitch was echo cancelers. Of course, this was circumvented with the modem signal turning them off. Once it was done, the data flowed truly end-to-end, albeit at a slow rate. That is why PSTN could support data/fax modems. Why it even supported devices that used different codecs. The problem David faced was that his project wanted all the phones to experience without requiring any changes to the end devices. In a way his project REQUIRED an intelligent network, but he faced a stupid network.

    So I say PSTN is a stupid network and Twitter is NOT.

  2. April 16, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    I think we essentially agree Aswath, but I would offer that Twitter is more stupid than not. The “d” is a UI thing. No packet contains that “d” at the beginning of a message. I is detected by the UI the “end application” and not the “network”. A “direct” message is an entirely different kind of packet (sort of the difference between unicast and multicast/broadcast).

    On the other hand “@” and hashtags “#” are contained in the message body, as are urls, some of which get the equivalent of “deep packet inspection” by Twitter (although more by the end-apps than the “network”). So in these intstances Twitter is an “intelligent” network.

    It’s never black and white (even with the Internet, as implemented in practice, as we have discussed many times) but I’d say Twitter leans toward the end-to-end principle.

  3. bodydetox
    July 30, 2009 at 7:58 am

    Twitter is very addictive. I like Twitter more than blogging. the messages are short and straight to the point.

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