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Summary:

Twitter has made it clear it plans to crack down on third-party services by tightening the rules on use of the network, but this desire for control — and the drive to monetize its user base — could ruin what made Twitter special to begin with.

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Twitter sent some shock waves through the technology community with a blog post on Friday that talked about its plans for the future, and suggested that those plans don’t necessarily involve third-party services and apps. Although the company phrased its statement as a move designed to standardize the experience for Twitter users, developers and others in the broader Twitter ecosystem clearly took the post as a warning shot across the bow — especially since the company simultaneously shut down a cross-posting partnership it had with LinkedIn . It seems clear that Twitter wants to control the network as tightly as possible so that it can monetize it more easily, but doing so also comes with substantial risks.

In his blog post, consumer product manager Michael Sippey talked a lot about the introduction of features such as “expanded tweets,” which show more information from providers like GigaOM and the New York Times when a link is included in a tweet. He said the company wants to broaden that program to more publishers, as well as giving them tools to display expanded tweets and other features on their sites — but he also made it obvious that developers who stray outside of the lines are taking a big risk:

[W]e’ve already begun to more thoroughly enforce our Developer Rules of the Road with partners, for example with branding, and in the coming weeks, we will be introducing stricter guidelines around how the Twitter API is used.

Twitter has burned the ecosystem before

These comments set off warning bells for a number of developers, who said they were concerned that Twitter was going to crack down on any third-party app or service. One developer on Hacker News said that in his view, Twitter was trying to shut down third-party services so that they could “inflict a homogenized, boring, monoculture on their user base [that] they can monetize, which will make the experience progressively worse.” Said Turntable.fm developer Jonathan Kupferman:

This isn’t the first time that Twitter has upset the developer community by throwing its weight around. In 2011, there was widespread criticism of the service for the way it issued new rules around use of the Twitter API — and also the way it behaved towards those who crossed the line by shutting off their access without even a warning, as it did in the case of entrepreneur Bill Gross and his Ubermedia network. At the time, one critic accused the company of “nuking” the Twitter ecosystem.

The company also came under fire in 2010 for the way it handled relations with third-party developers after it bought an app called Tweetie. Hunch founder Chris Dixon said Twitter was “acting like a drunk guy with an Uzi” by telling developers not to bother developing Twitter apps, and a number of companies and investors that had been putting money and time into the Twitter ecosystem stopped doing so. So some of the negative reaction to Sippey’s post stems from being burned twice already.

Some observers have argued that Twitter is just doing what it has to do in order to control its network and build a sustainable business, and that third-party developers don’t have any right to expect favorable treatment, since they are piggybacking on its API and resources. Longtime Twitter users, however, say the service’s behavior is a betrayal of all of the other services and apps that helped generate most of the goodwill it is now busy monetizing. As John Abell of Reuters pointed out on Friday, much of the value that users find in Twitter comes from the way it connects to other services.

Anti-user moves torpedoed both MySpace and Digg

And there is a very real risk to this kind of aggressive focus on control and monetization, as a commenter on Hacker News pointed out: restricting the ways that users can access and display their tweets, whether through strict API rules or moves like the LinkedIn shutdown, could irritate the user base that Twitter is relying on to click ads and do all the other things it is planning around monetization. Ultimately, the company could ruin the experience that made Twitter so compelling in the first place, in the same way that MySpace and Digg did.

There are plenty of reasons why MySpace failed, including the conflicting desires of a giant corporate owner like News Corp., but it also started to hemorrhage users because it focused more on monetization through ads and other elements than it did on maintaining a good experience for users. Digg did something similar — in an attempt to build a bigger company and leverage its user base for profit, it added a whole range of “services” and features that were designed mainly to appeal to corporate customers and advertisers. The end result was a wholesale desertion of Digg for other communities like Reddit.

Twitter has a tiger by the tail — it has an active user base in the hundreds of millions, it has become an almost indispensable tool for both news junkies and the media (although this carries risks as well) and it is starting to see some favorable responses to its ad model. But it is also a community, where the users provide the vast majority of the content that is being monetized, and while screwing around with that relationship may appear to make short-term financial sense, it could end in disaster.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Rosaura Ochoa and See-ming Lee

  1. Twitter’s evolving into the web’s first true one-to-many social broadcast platform. Each incremental product change is revealing that.

    As a result, the product focus is on the tier 1 media properties and their sponsors.

    As a result, the folks who built Twitter (developers) are getting squeezed out the door.

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    1. I would certainly call Google+’s “Hangouts On Air” feature a true one (or few) to many social broadcast as well, although video instead of just text. Of course Google+ is nowhere near as big as Twitter.

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  2. Stephen Pickering Saturday, June 30, 2012

    I agree. I mean it’s a fine line. I mean Tweetbot, for instance, has made my experience so much better than I can’t imagine having to go back to the default Twitter app. On the other hand, I understand their desire to try to make it a unified experience. I think they also feel a little burned that Instagram rode on top of their platform to a billion dollar exit to their rival. (I note that @Jack doesn’t use Instagram anymore, or at least to post to Twitter) But still, they have to see it as, Instagram added value to Twitter, since Twitter in house couldn’t provide a comparable and as fun photo service. I don’t know what the answer is. My gut tells me that they are the core Utility and should give free reign to devs. Maybe they should do something like apple, have an SDK and take a cut of dev apps and let them go to town.

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  3. The apps, the cross-platform postings are things that no social media network can avoid. The “addiction” to Twitter is because of the apps. Take them away, make users access Twitter ONLY through their official channels and make users stick them and poof, everyone will be “cured” of this addiction. I hope Dick doesn’t act like a dick.

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  4. Thrid party apps or the cross-platform postings are the reasons why people are “addicted” to Twitter. People want cross interaction across their social media networks. Take them away, make them access your network only through your channels and take the liberty to move out – move in seamlessly and poof! You’re out of the game. Hope the sages at Twitter understand this simple mantra to existence.

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    1. Agree, Ashutosh — thanks for the comment.

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  5. Franklin Graves Saturday, June 30, 2012

    I enjoyed your incorporation of real tweets from the interviewers you included in the article. Nice technique!

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    1. Thanks, Franklin.

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  6. Twitter, Facebook, and google are all in a race to become the world’s largest ADVERTISING–DUMP, add GEOCITIES (social media site from the 90’s) and EFNET (irc network) to the DIGG/MYSPACE
    list of examples. GOOGLE pulled the same twitter crap with their translation API’s a couple of years back

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    1. Matt Zuvella Sunday, July 1, 2012

      You can honestly say that Facebook, Twitter and Google are nothing more than advertising dumps? All 3 of them have changed the world for the better in more ways than one.

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  7. Shayon Mukherjee Saturday, June 30, 2012

    Technically speaking developers are your real customers. Twitter needs to understand few things really deep.

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  8. Matt Zuvella Sunday, July 1, 2012

    Thorough article. But anti-user moves didn’t kill Myspace and Digg alone. Facebook and Reddit killed them. Their users had a place to so when they made some unfavorable moves, they jumped ship. There is no other ship in the Twitter race and they know it.

    And there is a huge difference between developers and users on Twitter. Let’s say Tapbots pulled Tweetbot (which they won’t, they are making $$$), that is what 0.5% of the Twitter user base?

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    1. I think it’s dangerous to think that one has no competition — both MySpace and Digg thought that way, and I think it accelerated bad choices on their part.

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    2. John E. Bredehoft Sunday, July 1, 2012

      Perhaps Twitter does have competition. Let me provide an example.

      Ever since the San Diego fires, my assumption has always been that if you want to learn about a breaking news story, Twitter is the place to go.

      Last October, when I said as much, I was challenged by Paul Brocklehurst, who said:

      “I would imagine much better coverage would take place for the ICS/Nexus Prime launch on Google+ than on Twitter. What does everyone else think?”

      Since the launch was that very evening, I was able to compare the coverage of the launch on the two services. While Twitter had more comments, Google+ (which, if you’ll recall, is supposedly dead) had a number of comments at the time of the launch, and the comments that it had were more substantive.

      http://empoprise-bi.blogspot.com/2011/10/empo-tymshft-i-was-wrong-google-may.html

      In short (heh), a service doesn’t have to be limited to 140 characters to compete with Twitter.

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  9. This is actually good news if Twitter also delivers user support features that would supplant 3rd party developers. It’s a big gamble but Twitter’s always had big plans for its platform. The better way would have been to establish working groups with 3rd party developers to agree on parameters that would allow Twitter to pimp out its platform without burning bridges……

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  10. Christopher Rizzo  Sunday, July 1, 2012

    I just hope Twitter doesn’t ruin the experience, what makes Twitter great for me are awesome apps like Tweetbot, if that was to be handicapped in anyway my experience would suck. Right now for me, Twitter is the easiest way to communicate with people, find breaking news or other interesting tidbits. I do it all through Tweetbot!

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