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Dear Twitter: Please take my money

How can you do business with a business that has no business model? There is real business happening on Twitter. Yet Twitter itself is still run too much like an experimental start-up.

With respect to my cranky co-worker Charles Cooper, and reversing even my own Oprah/Kutcher-prodded twitterrant the other day, Twitter is an important platform for publishing and marketing, and it needs to be discussed as such, not brushed aside.

The free platform, originally used for not much more than finding parties with free booze at South by Southwest, has become important enough to business and commerce that a media company (CNN) just acquired the branded CNNbrk account complete with followers. In other businesses around the world, meetings are happening where product marketing and branding execs are trying to figure out how they can exploit the platform without being branded, themselves, as corporate tools. I have been in such meetings.

There is real business happening on Twitter. Yet Twitter itself is still run too much like an experimental start-up. There's too much about the service that's unbusinesslike for businesses to rely on it.

For example, I was recently locked out of my Twitter account due to a password snafu. It was resolved, I must note, extremely quickly, after I e-mailed Twitter technical support. But it wasn't clear to me that Twitter as a company had any actual responsibility to reply to me as quickly as it did. It wasn't obvious that there was a guaranteed service level or response time expectation. This is a platform I'm supposed to be devoting real marketing dollars toward?

Then there is the issue of branding and account names on Twitter. Some people, like me, were lucky enough to be born with unusual first names and were also on Twitter early enough that we we able to grab our "brand." Others have had, or will likely need to do, back-room deals to get their names, since buying and selling accounts is, technically, against Twitter policy.

Still others--at least two people I know--have used their connections at Twitter to snare the use of registered but inactive user accounts. The Twitter name space is a market with unenforceable rules and no transparency. Owners of small brands cannot feel safe that their branding on Twitter will be protected. Twitter's posted policies are a good first starting point, but there's not enough here to bank on.

Finally, let's talk about the reliability of the service, which, as I write this, is "over capacity." No amount of money thrown at Twitter at any given exact moment can banish the fail whale. But if I were running a program on Twitter that was, for the sake of argument, scheduled to run simultaneously with a live event--say, a Super Bowl ad--I would sure want to know whom I could call at Twitter to yell at to get this fixed.

I'd want a contract with a penalty clause for downtime to wave in that person's face. Without a contractual, monetary business relationship, there's no actual responsibility, and who wants to base a business plan on good wishes and intent?

Of course, it needs to be said--loudly--that as free services go, Twitter is pretty good. The team does not radically change its terms of service, design, or APIs frequently, ending up alienating developers or users in the process, as Facebook does.

But if a corporate executive is going to put his neck on the line and link even a small part of his success to Twitter, he's going to want Twitter's skin in the game as well, not just a history of pretty good service coupled with its staggering ambition.

So, please, Twitter, let me pay you. Twitter is worth money to me, but until you let me pay for a guaranteed service level or for the continuity of my brand, I'm not convinced I'm worth anything to you.