What I Learned at Twitter's First Chirp Conference

Twitter’s Chirp conference this week was ultimately an overdue kickoff of the company’s developer community. With more than 100,000 applications created on its platform to date, it’s frankly amazing that Twitter hadn’t formalized its road map and addressed competition with developers before. Here are the excuses: Twitter is small and young. Twitter has had trouble enough scaling to meet demand and stay online. Twitter never anticipated the ways people would use and extend it. All fair. Though with $160 million in the bank you’d think the company could have been a little quicker and savvier.

Twitter CEO Evan Williams speaks at the company's Chirp conference

But I think another factor is that Twitter has been a center of attention for most of its life, with everyone from celebrities to governments to social mediaites to developers demanding its time. “They have to be diplomatic so they defaulted to silence in their diplomacy instead of listening,” said Laura Fitton, who in running the Twitter tool directory Oneforty has become a de facto spokesperson and liaison for the Twitter developer community.

That Twitter has been out of touch was obvious on the first day of Chirp, which was billed as a developer conference but content-wise was all about business and media. Fitton called the Twitter executive keynotes “spinmeistery.” “Where was the code?” asked Orian Marx, developer of Fusebox, an app he called “a TweetDeck killer.” “Those morning speeches were a little too long for me,” said Danielle Morrill, the director of marketing for Twilio, who’s working on a “Tweet-to-call” application herself. Worse, the event itself was held in a theater, with the audience in darkness — not exactly a collaborative atmosphere.

Twitter investor Chris Sacca did an admirable job in the last session of the day (video embedded below), asking tough questions of a gaggle of Twitter executives onstage and voicing developer concerns about competition and support. Though the Twitter execs may have been a bit too punchy and silly, they did finally get to the point. “The thing I learn time after time is that if people don’t have visibility the natural reaction is to think it’s nefarious,” said CEO Evan Williams. “While there is some natural tension [between a platform and its developers], I think we can communicate a lot better.”

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Watch live video from Twitter Chirp Conference on Justin.tv

Five days before Chirp, Twitter announced it had acquired the maker of Tweetie, an iPhone client that will bring it into direct competition with other client developers. That made people who build businesses on the Twitter platform nervous, unsettled and angry. “Having the Tweetie acquisition then may have not been the greatest headline-producing strategy,” said Twitter VP of Product Jason Goldman. “But from a communication transparency perspective it was awesome — we can talk to you much more directly.” So in a sense, Twitter was forced into honest and upfront communication by its own actions.

The company promises that it will do better in the future; for instance, platform head Ryan Sarver promised quarterly platform updates, to be available on video. Sarver, by the way, was the breakout hit of the conference, offering frank and practical information about the things developers were there to hear about. (Fittingly, he was Foursquare’s “mayor” of the Chirp Hack Day when I checked in this morning.) And already, the second, hands-on day of the conference was held in a much friendlier open space at Fort Mason. Even if the awful acoustics made attending sessions difficult, the beanbag chairs were a much better setting for actual conversations. Plus, there was a tweeting taco truck!

In the future, expect Twitter’s blanket justification for its actions to be that it’s trying to build a bigger pie for everyone. “The best thing we can do for you guys in our minds is to grow the user base. That’s going to create an order of magnitude more opportunities than exist today,” Williams said in his keynote. Sure, it’s an excuse, but it’s not just talk; the company will be giving developers half of its revenue when they participate in its grand new ad product, Sponsored Tweets.

So now that it’s all said and done, here are my practical lessons from Chirp.

Where Twitter will compete with developers:

* The company will release its own Android client (Williams said he tried to have the announcement ready for the conference but couldn’t talk more about it, which sounds a lot like they’re trying to close an acquisition).

* Twitter will release a full link shortener soon. “It’s absolutely stupid that a user can’t put a URL in our box,” said Williams. Users of Twitter’s own web and other apps won’t be offered a choice of which link shortener to use.

* Hosting images is not in the company’s “immediate plans,” Williams said, but defined the time period as “this quarter.” So it may be coming fairly soon. Twitter does plan to make it easier for developers to manage media.

New tools Twitter will offer developers:

Sarver said developer tools will include places, annotations and actions from user streams. The company has also made its developer resources much better and opened up some of the technologies it’s used to scale. Sarver said Twitter won’t try to treat some developers preferentially, but it will necessarily try to learn which ones it can trust and give better indications of where it’s going to everyone. Expect to see a more structured agenda for communicating Twitter’s road map coming soon.

Will investors continue to put money into Twitter ecosystem startups?

Twitter invited super angel investor Ron Conway to open its second day, and he rallied those present with the promise that he’s still bullish on companies in the Twitter space. “In five years there will be a billion [Twitter] users, and five public companies in this sector, and one of you here will be CEO of one of them,” he said. Of course that optimistic attitude isn’t going to extend to every investor. “I’ll be honest with you: I’m not buying all the feel-good, make-love-not-war stuff,” said Mike Hirshland of Polaris Ventures, an investor in companies like Thing Labs and Automattic, on Chirp’s VC panel.

What Twitter-based opportunities remain?

Some of the ideas thrown out by Twitter executives and potential investors at Chirp include:

* Building on top of Twitter’s cheap international SMS deals (Williams)

* Helping publishers integrate with the @Anywhere platform (Twitter COO Dick Costolo)

* Giving users good reasons to share their locations (Sarver)

* Analyzing all the data thrown off by Twitter’s users, encouraging users to share more personal information like on Blippy and Swipely (David Pakman of Venrock)

* High-touch business applications, agency businesses, analytics and something like Groupon for Twitter (Peter Fenton of Benchmark)

My big takeaway: Before this week, Twitter was its ecosystem’s keeper; now, it’s really a company. While it may not be a great time to be a well-funded Twitter client maker like Seesmic, the companies that are getting off the ground post-Chirp have the promise of surer footing and better guidance. Smaller startups and development shops have reason to hope that Twitter will buy them as it staffs up in a hurry in order to tackle the market, as it’s doing now. The company has made four acquisitions to date and it’s clear more are coming soon.

But to some extent, this will all just be talk until a startup that’s not named Twitter creates a big Twitter-based business.

Feature image courtesy of Scott Beale/Laughing Squid.

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