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Summary:

One developer who has been creating custom Twitter applications for corporate clients says the network’s crackdown on use of its API makes him afraid for his livelihood, but could also damage the company’s long-term prospects if enough people like him start looking for alternatives.

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There’s been a lot of debate lately about how Twitter is closing down access to the network by outside services, and the impact that has on the broader ecosystem — something former CEO Evan Williams talked about with me on Twitter yesterday — but there hasn’t been much written about how that affects individual startups and developers who have built large parts of their businesses and lives around the Twitter platform. In an attempt to get a better view of what it looks from the inside, I talked with a developer (who didn’t want his name used for obvious reasons) whose business is based almost entirely on the Twitter API, about how he believes the company is essentially strangling his livelihood. He also argues that while this may seem reasonable in the short term, it could backfire badly.

The developer in question — whom I will call Dave — has at least a couple of decades experience with databases and programming of various kinds, both on the consumer side and the corporate side, and has been involved in at least one failed web startup (not Twitter related). For the past two years, he has been working full-time doing consulting projects for large and small companies, non-profit organizations and others who want to integrate or work with Twitter. Much of it is “data-mining, data collection and analysis, aggregation and curation, auto-following” and related services, he said. In some cases, companies wanted custom widgets that pull in tweets from influential people within certain topic areas.

“I love the service, but I hate the company”

Dave said that he loves Twitter the service, but hates what the company is doing to him and developers like him by restricting what they can do with the API — and also the fact that Twitter seems to be playing favorites with whom they decide to shut down (such as Instagram and Tumblr) and whom they decide to play ball with. “I had a very successful consulting business,” he said. “It wasn’t very big, it was more of a lifestyle business, making about $15,000 a month. And Twitter killed it — they killed it cold.”

The developer said that within a few days of the blog post by consumer-product lead Michael Sippey, which described the new terms of use for the API (and which Dave refers to as a “bug bomb”), all of his corporate clients said they were cancelling their projects — “Every single one of them. I think they just didn’t know what was going on, or whether they would be affected, so they just stopped.” Some clients have come back, he says, but now he is nervous about whether Twitter will shut down or restrict his access:

“They have a big kill switch — anyone at Twitter can kill me in a second, they can turn off any of my applications any time they want. They can kill all my apps and shut off all my paying clients, and they’ve done that. We’re all terrified of them — we won’t say a word.”

Actively looking for Twitter alternatives

Dave says he is looking at alternatives like App.net and anything else that can make him less reliant on Twitter, and he said that he expects many others like him are doing the same, because they sense that Twitter is closing down the network and trying to control more of the content in order to monetize it through advertising, and that they will just be collateral damage in this battle:

“I’m not going to go to my clients and say you have to switch to App.net or something else, but I am looking hard at it. My sense is there will be three or four of these guys eventually — and a couple will be good technically, so the developers will migrate. Within two years one of them might be bigger than Twitter, especially if all the cool apps and services are built on it, and then the scary thing for Twitter is one of them is going to get bought by someone big.”

Some have argued that the third-party developer dissent over Twitter’s moves is overblown. Anil Dash has called the idea that outside services matter a lot to the network “nerd triumphalism.” But Dave says that there has always been a symbiotic relationship between the company and outside developers — one in which both sides benefitted — in part because the service was so troubled in the early days and needed a lot of help and expertise that it didn’t have. And they were glad to have that help, he says, but that attitude started changing about a year and a half ago:

“The reason why I was a full-time Twitter developer instead of a Facebook developer is that Facebook people were really nasty and extremely competent technically — which is a dangerous combination — whereas the Twitter people were really nice and largely incompetent technically, as was obvious to anyone who ever tried to use Twitter.com. So they needed us, and they knew they needed us. They would go out of their way to try and help make things work.”

In some of his more recent conversations with Twitter, however, Dave said mid-level administrators were all of a sudden telling him what kinds of services and sites he could build — even if what they were describing had nothing to do with the actual terms of service — and threatening to shut his custom applications down if he didn’t comply.

Is Twitter becoming the new Microsoft?

When it comes to the longer-term implications of Twitter’s moves, Dave says he understands that the company needs to make money to satisfy its investors, but he warns that the impact on the broader ecosystem could be severe and long-lasting. While the impact on users might be minimal, he says, a whole freelance labor force of thousands or even tens of thousands of outside developers and consultants could wind up turning on the company, and that could have serious ripple effects for Twitter:

“Everyone is fixated on consumer clients, but the reality of Twitter is that lots of third-party consultants like me integrate corporate business practices with Twitter. That level of integration is invaluable for Twitter — partly because inertia has a huge impact on corporate software, so once it’s integrated it’s there forever. And Twitter didn’t pay for any of that stuff. So who got more out of that relationship? Twitter got a huge amount of value from it. And now they want to kill it.”

By trying to control too many of the levers that involve revenue, Dave says that he is afraid Twitter could significantly impair the value of the network. “I know they need to make money,” he says, “but they don’t need to make 100 percent of the money.” In the end, Dave says that he believes Twitter will continue to grow and lots of people will use it — and even developers like him will continue to integrate with it. But the whole time, they will be looking for an alternative, and that will be damaging in the long term:

“Everyone keeps making parallels to Apple to explain Twitter’s attempts at control. The real historical analogy is Microsoft. Think back to the early Nineties, and you’ll remember the universal hatred for Microsoft, even though 95 percent of people used their products constantly. When the web appeared, it was viewed by developers as a way to escape Microsoft. Vicious bullies always lose. It just takes time.”

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

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  1. “they sense that Twitter is closing down the network”.

    It would be nice if twitter closed down completely. Productivity in the U.S. would increase, and mistakes by distracted workers would decrease. Engineers working on twitter related start-ups would have to find other jobs, but that would be good, also, as they might create something useful.

    1. Funny but instructive!

    2. Yeah I guess open communication of the type Twitter provide worldwide is just useless, especially in countries where freedom is lacking.

      1. Countries where freedom is lacking blocks twitter, facebook, and most social networks anyway…

    3. That is so very true!!!

  2. The early nineties was a time when Microsoft was seen as a champion of the enduser. Someone is forgetting their history, which really deflates the whole argument (I don’t actually see much of an argument, or a rationale for this article, to be honest). Microsoft was the one trying to free us from the tyranny of the Linux geeks and NetWare freaks who controlled all the microcomputers and MIS back office. Microsoft actually brought us an easy-to-use TCP/IP stack and allowed the MIS department to start running Intranets. Giving these large quotes (without analysis) over to someone with an ax to grind. Is that really useful or informative?

    1. Khawar Nehal khawar.nehal@atrc.net.pk jeffmcneill Friday, September 7, 2012

      As far as I remember. I was there at the time. M$ was pushing NetBeui as a WAN option when it could not route. TCPIP was forced onto them because of the pervasive of the Internet which was not really helped much by M$. M$ was still doing MS word and trying to compete with Word perfect 6.0 so they called MS Word 3.0 Word 6.0 to compete and lie to the masses. Proof of what I am saying ?
      See the back slash in M$ OS and almost all M$ products related to the Internet. The back slash was a special character for the Internet / Unix area which should not have been considered as a pushed replacement for the normal / like in http://. If M$ wanted to comply and push the internet they should have said http:// not http:\\ from birth. Now M$ still looks like http://C:\Users\Docs …. Blah blah blah. If you do not know computer history, please do not teach others. M$ tried to resist Novell netware´s IPX, TCPIP and Appletalk by attempting to push NetBeui. They were forced by 1960´s existence of the Internet to accept it because TCP/IP and http:// would not incorporate their backwards moving backslashes and netbeui in the protocol stack. Also M$ as not and is still not compatible to most TCP/IP related protocols in order to attempt to make their products seem to work among themselves. Ask any email or ISP administrator. I have made many ISPs so I know what compatibility means. We have to interoperate all systems from apples to zorro slots.
      Regards,
      Khawar
      khawar@dubai-computer-services.com

  3. I think App.net (currently in Alpha) is growing fast enough that it, as you and Dave have eluded, could soon take over where Twitter is failing today. The main thing Twitter Co. fails to grasp is that all it takes for users to switch to a better business now, is clicking one little “install” button in the App or Play Stores. Updating all the other old dependencies with internal marketing systems and site scripts… well, that may be another story…

  4. The issue of control and companies locking their API’s always comes up and of course developers and 3rd party users of a company’s API always think that a company is being unreasonable. And many times the companies involved have a point as often their API is being used poorly or in ways that violate the necessary controls and restraints that a company must have in place.

    That being said from what I’ve seen Twitter is going beyond reasonable control and basically becoming a closed API locking out all but a few select developers. That is both unreasonable and unfair as it was the outside developers that had a lot to do with making Twitter what it is today.

    All one has to do to appreciate what 3rd party developers have done to make Twitter a richer environment is look at the interfaces they provide and look at Twitter’s own interface. Sites like HootSuite and other 3rd party programs provide multiple time lines as well as multiple Twitter follower lists all at the same time on user defined tabs. While Twitter provides an interface that shows one time line at a time and requires clicking around all over the place just to switch between a users direct mail box and a list all of which you will see one at a time.

    So I can assure you that power users who follow or are followed by only a few hundred people could never handle Twitter in any way that would make it a very usable service without outside development. And that 3rd party development accounts for most if not all corporate use of Twitter’s API again shows that Twitter has done little to improve access to their API themselves.

    Taking that all in to consideration Twitter should think very carefully before they continue down the road they are on. As there will come a point that outside developers will give up fighting for even the most basic access to Twitter’s API and turn to other areas of development that they can rely on. And “Dave” says that time will soon be here I and other users of Twitter can only hope they hear and consider what he’s saying.

  5. I think I might be only one who is thinking – its their service/platform they can do whatever they want. Who are you to start complaining? Don’t like their policies don’t use it. While I have not read the Terms of the developer program I’m 99.9999% sure it probably specifically states they can do this if they want when they want.

    Building a business solely on someone giving you access via API for free sounds like a pretty bad business decision.

    Now on the other hand they did sh*t on developers by doing this and I do think that without developers they would not have grown nearly as big or as fast as they did. But what goes around comes around right?

    1. Any independent developer who bets his livelihood on a single platform that is very immature and is still figuring itself out and how it plans to grow up is just being stupid. No one should put all their eggs in one basket and then complain when it doesn’t work out. This is America, Twitter is not some government utility for developers to build their businesses on top of. It’s a private company with investors and shareholders that want it to create value. This is so obvious, I’m surprised how much coverage this issue still gets.

      1. thank you i’m glad i read your comment first i was about to repeat it. why would a tp ever think they are a part of a company. and what do you care as a tp if twitter paid for it or not. i use twitter, they haven’t sent me a billing statement yet! i like it more than any other,ppl all over the world talk & share.
        your guest here is slayerwulfe thank you for having me.

  6. It’s simply inevitable. As companies grow and seek to define their business models, profit and please investors, they become less cool. Remember Microsoft was cool when IBM wasn’t, Facebook was really cool in the early days, Apple was always a champion of the different before they became egregiously greedy and evil. Paypal is not my pal anymore. Now Twitter is showing signs of turning the dark corner. Oh well…..

  7. markleiser.phd.law Saturday, September 8, 2012

    Reblogged this on #Hashtag – Thoughts on Law, Technology, the Internet, and Social Media and commented:
    “Twitter killed my business” An inside look at the ecosystem crackdown
    There’s been a lot of debate lately about how Twitter is closing down access to the network by outside services, and the impact that has on the broader ecosystem — something former CEO Evan Williams talked about with me on Twitter yesterday — but there hasn’t been much written about how that affects individual startups and developers who have built large parts of their businesses and lives around the Twitter platform. In an attempt to get a better view of what it looks from the inside, I talked with a developer (who didn’t want his name used, for obvious reasons) whose business is based almost entirely on the Twitter API, about how he believes the company is essentially strangling his livelihood. He also argues that while this may seem reasonable in the short term, it could backfire badly.

  8. This appears to be a really long, verbose advertisement to rationalize App.net.

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  10. Surely there should be s better way of making money than the steps twitter is making. Time to try out App.net

  11. like it or not its a free market you as a business are not “entitled to free services isn’t that what they tell the people who struggle today? well eat hammers hypocrites how do they taste?

  12. Bozhidar Bozhanov Wednesday, September 12, 2012

    Yup. I’m sort-of Dave. (my case is succinctly explained here http://web.bozho.net/?p=223)

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