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The Day the Music Died

Consistency and Ecosystem Opportunities

In the time-honoured tradition of releasing controversial news late on a Friday 1, Twitter’s Ryan Sarver - Product Manager for the Platform/API team - announced on Twitter’s development mailing list on Friday evening that the Twitter API goalposts would, from here on in, be shifting.

Writing on Consistency and Ecosystem Opportunities, Sarver announced an update to the Terms of Service for the use of the Twitter API, outlining a future where the Twitter experience would be one fully owned by Twitter. Citing the need for ‘A Consistent User Experience’, Sarver outlined the new landcape for developers as follows:

Twitter will provide the primary mainstream consumer client experience on phones, computers, and other devices by which millions of people access Twitter content (tweets, trends, profiles, etc.), and send tweets. If there are too many ways to use Twitter that are inconsistent with one another, we risk diffusing the user experience.

As The Guardian put it in its article Twitter Angers Third-Party Developers With ‘No More Timelines’ Urging:

That opening phrase - “Twitter will provide the primary mainstream consumer client experience…” - is the one that hits like an icicle in developers’ hearts. It implies that Twitter itself is going to make it harder for third-party apps to provide the same experience that it does; notably, that it may outlaw the addition of ads in prominent places (which are used to pay for apps which people can use for free, such as Echofon).

The changes outlined by Sarver not only call into question the future of alternative Twitter clients, but clearly signal that existing clients - Twitterific, Echofon, et al - are now living in a state of grace (on borrowed time…?) and that their continued existence will only be granted as long as they followed Twitter’s new, zero tolerance guidelines.

Needless to say, reaction to this change has been swift and resoundingly negative, with Eric Mill writing in the comments of Sarver’s original post:

All third party Twitter developers, no matter what they make, are now walking on eggshells, constantly at risk of offending Twitter’s ideas of how users should interact with Twitter.

If you were cynical - and judging by the reactions on Twitter and elsewhere, it would appear many are - this announcement might translate to mean: “What if you don’t see the same ‘Promoted Trend’ as in the official Twitter client, i.e. the one that someone paid good money for?”

Interestingly, in the same piece, Sarver states that only about 10% of Twitter’s users use unofficial Twitter clients, so the company’s ‘But what about the users?’ argument seems somewhat dogmatic, prompting the question: Why?

Show me the money!

So why would Twitter make this change? And why now?

One answer might be that age-old motivator: Money. Twitter have been under intense pressure to develop revenue models for some time now and, as the service has grown exponentially, the pressure to monetize it has grown exponentially.

As the number of eyeballs has increased, so the opportunities to monetize those eyeballs has increased. This, coupled with the fact that the company now serves over 140 million tweets a day, has held out the prospect of a lucrative revenue model. The real question, however, has been finding this revenue model. Queue: The Dickbar (or, as Twitter would prefer we call it, ‘The Quick Bar’).

The problem with The Dickbar - and the reason it generated such a vocal #dickbar backlash - lay in its perceived lack of honesty. In third party Twitter clients where ads exist, they clearly look like ads (and can in most cases be removed through a paid upgrade). Twitter’s Quick Bar on the other hand, purports to display trending topics, yet also displays ‘Promoted Trends’, begging the question: How can a trend be a trend if it’s being paid for and promoted?

The conspiracy theorists would have us believe that herein lies the problem: Twitter introduces The Quick Bar, quickly christened The Dickbar; a small, but vocal group of early adopters and thought leaders call out Twitter, suggesting an exodus to third party apps; Twitter severely restricts those third party apps and kills the prospect of new ones.

As David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals, in this sardonic tweet, puts it:

If nothing else, they’re speedily responding to criticism. The #dickbar was met with calls to switch to third party apps. Solution: Kill choice.

A more pragmatic way of putting it? How do we make sure all eyes are on the ads? By owning all the channels.

The truth is that the above scenario is a probably a little too simplistic, but the fact of the decree remains: third party Twitter client development would appear to be dead in the water.

On abandoning your partners when the tipping point is reached…

Whatever way you choose to interpret it, with this announcement, Twitter are disenfranchising two important groups of people: their early adopters (who may not mean too much to Twitter, though Twitter means a lot to them); and, more importantly, developers - the very people who helped to create and shape the diverse and flourishing ecosystem that is Twitter today.

As Ryan Paul, writing for Ars Techica, puts it:

What seems to surprise third-party developers more than the new restrictions and changes to the terms of service is the brazenly dismissive tone that Twitter has assumed towards a group of developers who were once the service’s strongest supporters.

It’s this dismissive tone, that so many have objected to, with one developer cited in the article stating:

Twitter started as a very developer friendly service, but as supporting those developers interfered with the ends of their investors – making money – they have become less and less welcoming. They are, of course, well within their rights to do all this, but it’s disappointing all the same, especially to those of us who were there in the beginning.

The effect of this change remains to be seen. Regardless of the reaction, however, it seems clear that Twitter has reached a tipping point, where the mainstream user matters more than the loyal groups that helped Twitter reach the point it’s reached today. Herein lies hubris, neatly summarised in the words of Jon Tan:

Hubris is… @twitter’s attitude to client apps when they’ve helped make it successful, and when Twitter’s own UX is often not as good.

Twitter, as Charles Miller puts it in Dear Twitter…, “has always grown on the back of outside innovation,” and this change looks set to threaten the very ecosystem that drove that innovation, the developers and the ideas they conjured from the underlying service. As Drew McLellan puts it:

One of the things I really admired about Twitter was that it was built as a true web service. Twitter isn’t a website, it’s a service into which you can place tweets and out of which you can retrieve tweets.

Now it has become clear that Twitter wishes to own the entire user experience by having everyone using an official client, in a move akin to CompuServe requiring customers to use their official email client. (Remember them?) Or a website only working in Internet Explorer. (Remember those, also?)

It’s hard to argue with that.

The worst implication for Twitter would be stagnation, due to the suppression of one of their greatest and most valuable assets of all: their outside developers, who have not only catered for niche markets, but have brought imagination and innovation to the service that on more than one occasion has been folded into the official distribution channel.

Where to from here?

Who knows? Perhaps the influencers - the early adopters and developers - will realise that now is the time to start looking at a different model, one where our timeline isn’t owned and controlled by the whims of a single company. A company who, and we often forget this, is a business and not a charitable foundation.

Relationships come and go and need work. Nothing - certainly nothing on the web - can be taken for granted. Maybe this move by Twitter will be the call that brings a substantial number of thought leaders to look at a more distributed model, such as identi.ca. Imagine just a few disheartened iPhone developers creating beautifully crafted apps for identi.ca… how might that change the landscape?

Instead of sending irritable tweets about issues like Twitter wrapping all of your links in measurable and sellable t.co links, or introducing a compulsory trending topics #dickbar, perhaps it’s time to look at an alternative where the control is more distributed, federated and open.

Just think how that might look.

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