7 Comments

Summary:

Evan Williams, the co-founder of Twitter and the company’s former CEO during the beginning of its evolution from a side project into a major social-media entity, says that the influence of the network’s ecosystem has been overstated. But is that true?

Evan Williams

As we’ve described in a number of recent posts — including one about my ongoing “love-hate” relationship with the service — Twitter has been going through a transformation of sorts recently, closing down access to the network by third-party apps and services, controlling more of the content that flows through the system, and generally irritating developers (and in many cases users). One man who knows a lot about this evolution from the inside is former CEO and co-founder Evan Williams, and he took issue on Thursday with a comment I made in one of my posts about how users and third-party apps were responsible for much of the initial growth of the network.

Some of the comments during a back-and-forth discussion we had on Twitter were interesting, so I thought I would excerpt them here, and also include a Storify collection of the debate as well. I’m hoping to talk more about this and other topics with the former Twitter CEO at GigaOM’s RoadMap conference in November.

During his time as Twitter’s CEO, Williams had to deal with the beginnings of Twitter’s transformation from a cool project into an actual revenue-generating company, as it started to acquire third-party apps and caused a backlash among developers that is very similar to the one it is facing today. Williams left Twitter in 2010 when he was replaced by Dick Costolo, and formed a startup incubator called Obvious Corp. with former Twitter colleague Biz Stone (which recently launched a new-media publishing platform called Medium) but the former CEO has remained an advisor to the company and a board member.

While Twitter was trying to figure out in 2010 which external services it wanted to incorporate and which it wanted to leave alone — a process that angel investor Chris Dixon compared to “a drunk guy with an Uzi” — Williams admitted that the company had screwed up its relationship with developers, and Twitter held a whole conference for developers called Chirp that was supposed to try and repair that relationship. In reality, however, the tensions between where Twitter wanted the company to go and how that was going to affect third-party apps remained just below the surface, and erupted again recently after moves like the announcement of new API rules and the shutting off of features to services like Tumblr and Instagram.

What role has the ecosystem played?

Our Twitter discussion started when Williams mentioned a phrase from my recent post about the company’s ongoing struggle with being open vs. controlling the network. I argued that much of the early power and growth of the network came from being open, since many of the things we associated with Twitter — such as the @ mention for users, the hashtag, and even the retweet — were not developed by the company but came from the users themselves, in many cases assisted by third-party apps. But Williams said that this influence is “a common myth but completely overblown”:

At this point, Anil Dash — who used to work for blogging platform Six Apart and now has a media consulting firm — agreed with Williams that the focus on how much of a role third-party apps played in Twitter’s success is overstated:

Dash also noted that some of the elements we associate with Twitter — even hashtags, which Chris Messina (now of Google) was the first to use on Twitter — were used in other ways on the internet before Twitter came along, and others noted that the @ symbol was also used on services such as Internet Relay Chat. Williams then pointed out that if it wasn’t for the company’s decision to incorporate and support those features, they would never have become part of Twitter to begin with.

I tried to argue that the point wasn’t to try and determine which played a larger role, the ecosystem or Twitter itself and the decisions it made (some of which irritated users, such as the decision to implement retweets in a different way). The point for me is that the relationship between users — and third-party services — and Twitter has always been much more symbiotic than it has a traditional company-user dynamic. And a big part of that was a wide-open API that let tweets flow wherever they wanted to, something Twitter has been busy shutting down.

Ethan Kaplan, a developer who is a vice-president at Live Nation and used to work for Warner Brothers Records, put it well when he said that all developers really want is for Twitter to admit the relationship is symbiotic, rather than parasitic:

And Chris Messina — who noted that the third-party app Tweetie (which Twitter ultimately acquired and turned into the official iPhone app) was the first to support hashtags — said that one of the things the company has failed to do is to make it clear who it is making all of its recent changes for. As I’ve pointed out before, it argues that it is doing so for users, but is that really the case? I have to admit that I’m not convinced.

I’ve embedded the full version of the Storify below, with as many of the comments as I could find (apologies to those whose contributions I missed). Interestingly enough, Twitter has said that the new API rules aren’t meant to apply to services like Storify, even though the company seems to fall into the wrong quadrant of customer product lead Michael Sippey’s by-now-infamous chart.

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. markleiser.phd.law Thursday, September 6, 2012

    Reblogged this on #Hashtag – Thoughts on Law, Technology, the Internet, and Social Media and commented:
    Twitter and its ecosystem
    As we’ve described in a number of recent posts — including one about my ongoing “love-hate” relationship with the service — Twitter has been going through a transformation of sorts recently, closing down access to the network by third-party apps and services, controlling more of the content that flows through the system, and generally irritating developers (and in many cases users). One man who knows a lot about this evolution from the inside is former CEO and co-founder Evan Williams, and he took issue on Thursday with a comment I made in one of my posts about how users and third-party apps were responsible for much of the initial growth of the network.

  2. I can’t really say that I know more about Twitter than @Ev does — nor that I know more about blogging or Internet culture than Dash. I do know that I’ve been using Twitter since March 2007 — and that the most avid early users of the platform gravitated to the best third party applications available. Given that the research studies I saw in 2008-2010 suggested that a small percentage of “power users” sent the majority of tweets — often using Tweetdeck, Tweetie or, these days, Tweetbot — I can’t help but feel like the importance of third party apps in Twitter’s early growth wasn’t fully recognized by Dash or Ev – as I tweeted earlier today: https://twitter.com/digiphile/status/243738440242438145

    I understand that the vast majority of Twitter users now use Twitter.com and Twitter’s apps on iOS or Android. I would be quite interested, however, is learning whether long-time power users are there. Anecdotally, I can tell you that many people I follow are using Tweetbot and old version of Tweetdeck.

    1. Thanks a lot for the comment, Alex — that mirrors my experience as well. I’ve included your tweet in the Storify.

      Mathew

    2. Alex:

      I think you bring up some rather valid points. As Mathew highlighted, there was certainly a “symbiotic” relationship between the company, its users and developers of third-party applications. I will admit to essentially trying dozens (if not more) of Twitter applications, although I still to this day use Twitter.com a bit — both from my computer and tablet/mobile device.

      With that said, this is essentially when I am just focused on my own updates. There are many times where I need to make updates for other handles that I am involved with, whether for my collaborations with IBM Smarter Computing or a number of start-ups that I advise. When I need to have access to all of them, the first and best one I reach for is Hootsuite. I used to enjoy Tweetdeck, but the new version provides more frustration than benefit most times.

      Let me provide full disclosure: I am still a tremendous Twitter fan. If I was up for relocating my family from the east coast to the west, it’s where I’d want to be and I’ve had tweets, emails and phone discussions with Adam Bain about that also. At the end of the day, I still find more value on Twitter each day than any other social network — which is probably why they like to call it “an information network.” I’ve also established some wonderful relationships with strangers I would have never met elsewhere and leaders of different industries (especially technology, social and marketing) that I have admired for many years.

      At the end of the day, it’s all about the value we gain and offer. There are indeed opportunity costs to everything. I am reading an advanced copy of Nilofer Merchant’s new book on the “Social Era.” If you get a chance, I’d pick it up when it’s available (next week I believe) — it’s brilliant and I think hits right on the point about the collaborative nature of business today — including Twitter. Have third-party applications and outside developers contributed to the growth of Twitter? Absolutely and I was a little surprised by Evan diminishing that significance. However, the internal team at the company also deserves a great deal of credit for growing the service from a mockery of “down again with the fail whale” to one of the leading ways that people connect across the world.

      What’s next? Your guess is as good as mine, but I think it all stems from a wonderful quote by Alan Kay: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Right now, I think we’re in a state of “to be determined” … but I’ll likely be tweeting along the entire way. Cheers!

      Best,
      @IanGertler

      https://twitter.com/IanGertler

      1. Thanks a lot for the comment, Ian.

  3. As much as I love twitter, they implemented features like @ and # after the users started using them and 3rd party app started to support them long before twitter did so I don’t see how anyone at twitter can take credit for them. If twitter hadn’t supported they still would be being used by twitter users.

  4. Wow. The folks at Twitter are really out of touch with their users. The official Twitter client on Android sucks. It is awful. The mobile Web client is usable, in a pinch, but I wouldn’t want to live on it.

    What make Twitter powerful is the ability to communicate from anywhere. On mobile devices, a good client is a requirement. I, and I know others as well, would not use Twitter as much if not for 3 party mobile clients.

    As for hash tags and the @ symbol, and those were in use long before Twitter officially adopted them. As were url shortener, and the inclusion of media, and etc.

    Nearly every innovation has come from outside Twitter. Maybe if Twitter would stop trying to justify bad decisions and support the user and developer base, and they’d continue to have meteoric success.

    But what do I know? I’m just a long time Twitter user who like the service and the value it provides and also supports 3rd party developers that make the experience better. Take that away and I have less reason to stick and more reason to look elsewhere.

Comments have been disabled for this post