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Why Twitter Should Think Twice About Bulldozing the Ecosystem

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In another shot fired across the bow of the Twitter ecosystem — or another volley in the ongoing Twitter wars of 2011 — the company has come out with new terms on which all developers must operate, which makes it clear that Twitter plans to own the majority of the value in the system, and relegate third-party apps to the periphery. As with the company’s other recent moves, including shutting down misbehaving apps, the response has not been friendly from many parts of the network. And while Twitter can probably get away with this kind of behavior, it is taking a real risk of losing much of the goodwill it has built up over the years.

Critics have accused the company of “nuking” the developers and services that helped it achieve its early growth in its drive to monetize its network, in much the same way that Hunch founder and angel investor Chris Dixon criticized the company last year for “acting like a drunk guy with an Uzi” after it acquired Tweetie. Some have given the company credit for at least laying out the rules in a clear manner with its latest API update, since much of the developer community has been unclear on what was permitted and what wasn’t, but those responses seem to be in the minority.

The point has become clear by now: anyone who is still under the impression that Twitter is the friendly, touchy-feely company that co-founder Evan Williams used to run — the one that admitted it “screwed up” relations with developers by moving too quickly — is living in a dream world. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo may have been a standup comedian at one point, but he is a businessman now, and Twitter is determined to do whatever it takes to come up with a business model to justify the huge valuations it is getting.

As MG Siegler has pointed out, what Twitter is doing is just business and not personal — but there is a reason that most businesses don’t operate the way the Mob does (other than the fact that killing people is illegal, of course). Acting that way, by routinely kneecapping people or setting their businesses on fire, is a risky proposition. Even if you *can* do it, it’s not clear that you *should* do it, especially if some of your business depends on goodwill (as opposed to fear), as Twitter’s clearly does, and especially if a large part of your success is due to that larger ecosystem.

Without the help of third-party apps like Tweetie and Tweetdeck, the company likely would not have been nearly as successful at building the network (and a ready-made client like Tweetie certainly wouldn’t have been sitting there waiting to be acquired). But the ecosystem didn’t just build demand for the network — it also helped build and distribute the behavior that now makes Twitter so valuable: the @ mentions, the direct messages, re-Tweets and so on, none of which were Twitter’s idea originally. That created a huge amount of goodwill, and led to the (apparently mistaken) idea of an ecosystem.

It’s all very well for Twitter to claim ownership of all those things now, since it is their platform. And obviously there are businesses that can get away with being arbitrary or dictatorial — Apple is well known for such behavior, after all, and it is one of the most valuable companies on the planet. But this only works over the longer term if your product is so unique and compelling that people will put up with it. Is Twitter in that category? Perhaps. The company managed to grow at an astronomical rate even when it was suffering repeated outages, because users (including me) were so addicted to it. That may have made Twitter a little cocky about how necessary it is.

It’s also true that there isn’t really much competition when it comes to micro-blogging, or whatever we choose to call Twitter. Open-source options such as have tried to get traction, and programmer Dave Winer has been lobbying for and trying to jump-start an open Twitter alternative for some time — even before the company made it obvious that it was planning to “prune” the ecosystem. So far nothing has come along that can compete, but Twitter’s behavior could serve to boost those efforts substantially. And there would be definite benefits to an open system — not just in terms of features, but for when governments decide to order companies like Twitter to release user information to the State Department about their espionage investigations.

In the short term, Twitter seems likely to get away with throwing its weight around and dictating the terms on which developers — and users, to a large extent — can access or make use of the network. And maybe the network has grown to the point where none of that matters any more. But sometimes when you bulldoze an ecosystem, what you wind up with is a lot of weeds and a corporate mono-culture in which growth no longer flourishes, and in some cases that growth subsequently moves elsewhere. That’s a risk Twitter seems willing to take — whether it is the right one remains to be seen.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Umberto Rotundo

42 Responses to “Why Twitter Should Think Twice About Bulldozing the Ecosystem”

  1. I was a fan of Twitoaster, a conversation service for Twitter, that has now been killed by Twitter (IMO). GigaOm wrote about Twitoaster in the past as service with potential. The owner started working for Twitter in 2010 and now has stopped the service (for lack of time). Yeah right, many people offered to take-over, but no response!! Twitter does not really motivate new development, when pushing services out from the market.

  2. I felt pretty outraged at the beginning as well…until I realized that I still can use Ubersocial, hootsuite, and

    There still is an abundance of choice. Despite its irksome moves, Twitter remains an open book.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to tryout the remaining Twitter clients before they all go the way of the dodo.

  3. David Chu

    An analogy I would make is retail distribution in developing countries.

    Early on when a country is still developing, much of the trade is done by import/export companies. These companies are usually small relative to the big players. They lay down the foundation and set up distribution channels and are rewarded with high margins for the risks that they are taking. As the country and becomes more stable, the Big Box retailers see the opportunity and begin to move in themselves, driving down margins and eventually driving the early import/export guys out of the market.

    As a developer, you should never step in between a platform and it’s revenue source. Twitter has decided to sell ADs. They will drive out anyone who tries to step in between them and their revenue source.

    • David, I like your analogy but it doesn’t go far enough because the issue here isn’t distribution platforms and revenue sources, it’s TRUST and the violation of it.

      When venture capitalists violate trust by saying one thing and doing another, it makes the stack of social media cards crumble faster than a third-world-dictator.

  4. First let me say how wonderful it is to see such open, lively, intelligent discussion here, thanks to everyone who commented above. I think this news is quite a shame! I saw Twitter as one of the companies at the forefront of creating an open “ecosystem” and letting it become something that truly belongs to the users and a platform for the success of any innovative developers. I think this mob mentality you speak of, Mathew, is very disconcerting, they could lose Goodwill quite rapidly because of the nature of their beast. They need to learn a thing or two from Facebook in terms of app development and user freedom, don’t you think?

  5. I would not have started using Twitter to its fullest without TweetDeck. It gives me a way to manage Twitter streams and people in ways that Twitter doesn’t. In fact, I very rarely visit the actual web site.

    So, Twitter has to be careful because without the great tools being built, I may not use it any longer.

  6. I use as my main Micro Blogging client, letting it handle Twitter. In other words I’ve been planning my exit from Twitter for some time now. And we are seeing other people looking to do the same. After Twitter’s latest announcement Cory Doctorow opened an account, and he let all of his 100,000 plus followers know he was doing it.

    And since Cory connects with a lot of names, like Neil Gaiman, we could see an interesting exodus from Twitter, which would kill it’s supposed value.


    • KnightGhost

      Yah, and this for Facebook is boring. That’s what I as customer can say — too boring, too pushy with ads and it in a way becomes a limitation to users. Nothing new is happening there all the same stuff and ads wherever you go which occupy all youru CPU memory if you don’t have super speedy computer. They corrupted photo album to the grounds and many more apps are way worse then they were before, they’re more confusive to customers. In one sentence, I don’t particularly like it and that’s why I like twitter more. It still provides us with quick messaging, simple interface and no complicated stuff and what I really don’t like to happen is twitter to be like Facebook. It hasn’t be even a bit alike that, or I abandon it immediately.

  7. I think we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Twitter will really cripple itself by making this move. They don’t need developers anymore to grow usage of the platform, that’s definitely true. Although they’re slowly reducing the growth of new “use cases” on the platform, essentially moving to “incremental improvement” and therefore being more susceptible to disruptive competition (see Innovator’s Dilemma)

    But an even larger problem lies into the way they monetize. Twitter’s current monetization direction is dependent on controlling the display of information at all cost. This also means they will need to make sure that information cannot be copied and at some point even need to think about some new form of DRM. But of course, the core value in Twitter lies in the rapid spreading of information which is incompatible with their current monetization strategy. Also, the flow of information is so relentless that it just cannot be stopped, especially when the attention is high and the content is “micro”.

    Whatever business model they should’ve gone with, it should’ve been aligned with this fundamental “information explosion” that Twitter has made happened in the world.

  8. As a developer, I’ve been staying clear of building on Twitter. We’ve had cool ideas, but its hard to justify the time investment when there’s a substantial risk of the platform taking their ball and going home on you.

    I agree that they have every right to control the basic user experience. Twitter can be hard to understand and use until you spend a lot of time with it. It’d be great if they improved those shortcomings. But the points in this article are right on. It’s more the ability for the platform to change the intent behind the rules. They got strong by being open, and are now cutting off apps in ways that appear developer unfriendly.

    I agree with Fred’s post about where some of the gold lies. But the threat of Twitter asking us to eat cake if the app becomes successful makes the risk/reward tough to justify.

  9. I still don’t get why people think that this is necessarily such a bad move.
    People seem to think that twitter won’t let you build new clients that mimic the official one, but that’s not really the case.

    The API ToS mentions that you can build twitter clients and the other day’s announcement only suggests that you *should* not build yet another twitter client (and goes on to mention that the number of people using third party clients has been shrinking – under 10% now).

    That means you can still disagree and build your own client, even if it mimics the official twitter client in every way.

    “Twitter will always be a platform on which a smart developer with a great idea and come cool technology can build a great company of his or her own.”

    Of course, you will have to play by their rules, and thats what everyone seems to be so upset about. But after reading what those rules are about, they seem fairly understandable. I don’t think they are being restrictive in a way that will not help you innovate.
    Things like enforcing you to use the word “retweet” instead of you own made up word seems good to me, and it looks like the kind of consistency UX they are going after.

    Also, twitter is known for enforcing those restrictions and shutting down third party clients if necessary. AFAIK those clients where VERY clearly violating the ToS, doing things such as not showing the content “as is” (modifying user’s tweets) or not specifying that some tweets were in fact ads.

    I think its very understandable that they want every user to see the same content. That’s UX and consistency. What would happen if 10% of twitter users saw different trending topics than the rest? What if some saw altered tweets?
    You could very well argue that thats up to the user, and that twitter should not be digging their nose in those issues, but you could argue the opposite as well.

    Twitter has chosen to be not an interface, but “the full experience”. Is that bad? Not necessarily IMHO. I don’t think they are doing any “evil” by enforcing certain guidelines for third party apps, especially when those guidelines seem rather understandable.

    Of course, one could argue that if those clients aren’t good enough, nobody would use them anyways, and they would stop existing by “natural selection”. In that case, why should twitter enforce such rules?
    Well, I think there might be many clients that innovate on some front and are really great because they have a number of cool features, but then they might have other “crappy” stuff like using a different “vocabulary” (like vs favourite) or alter tweets’ content for some reason (maybe ads). In that scenario I don’t think twitter’s rules would hurt, but rather the opposite.
    My point is that apps can still be innovative while “playing with the new rules” and that is hard that those “extra features” are exactly the same as those prohibited by the new ToS.

  10. Mathew, that’s a great piece. I especially liked the part about how, without an ecosystem, they wouldn’t have had a Tweetie to acquire.

    And that goes for future Tweeties, that now won’t exist.

    Further, I don’t know the guy that wrote Tweetie, but if he’s like most developers, he likes to work in a thriving, busy, competitive ecosystem. By shutting down everything outside Twitter, effectively, now the only thing guiding what’s left of the ecosystem is company politics. And it’s not a pretty thing.

    When I run a devteam, I always try to show them how good our competition is, so they are inspired to be even better. Now you just have more inbreeding, more of the internal reality of the company being reflected in the product. This does not usually lead to good places, even at the best Silicon Valley company.

  11. I must admit one of the first things I thought of when I heard that twitter have stated “no more apps, thanks” was that they are protecting their revenue streams. I recall this week gone the “dickbar” incident and the fact that most users hate it, let alone the fact that it covered tweets – now fixed. But you know what, it’s still there. The trends bar is a minor addition to the app and one that “appears” inane. But they were very careful to say that they would fix the glaring error of covering tweets but despite the user response to it – not taking it away.

    Now I know this is one app on one platform. But it provokes a question: Why leave a “feature” that users appear to hate? I would suggest that this is a potential revenue stream. Second to this what’s to stop them adding other “features” that of the same ilk? Now factor in this latest statement. I am not saying that this is the motivation but who’s to say the reasons behind it are not to protect their revenue model?

    One other scary thought; what if twitter controlled all apps or had the only app for every platform? They could do what they liked because we would not have many alternatives.

    This is more a “just say’in” comment. I might not be right by any stretch but these were my thoughts and concerns and I have a suspicion that there may be some truth in it.

  12. Mathew, regarding your title: they did think twice. First thought was “we’re going to build official apps, so watch out.” Second thought was “You know, you guys just stop. We’ve updated our ToS to make sure you know we don’t want you.”

    Couple of good links relating to this:

  13. Gotta love monopoly mentalities that believe they are more important than the network.

    Is Twitter big enough to not care? Sure for the next 18 months they are. After that? Not sure. I already have a myriad of ideas of things i would like Twitter to do that it doesn’t do now. Usually a start-up fills the innovation void that platform owners become incapable of creating over the long term. If developers abandon Twitter it is a huge risk to their business.

    Someone else is going to figure out the identity issue (importing your current followers/followed) at some point and then the switching costs go to zero –

  14. I’m not sure we can necessarily tie Twitter’s last API update to their revenue strategy. I think it was driven by their desire to see a more consistent user experience, and I don’t blame them for that. Imagine if Google had 12 different ways to a user experience.

    But I think it would have been more desirable if they had at least announced some breakthrough UI/UX at the same time in order to display their innovation capabilities. I hope they do get something out soon, because the last mobile client update didn’t cut it.

      • Over time I agree, but first, they have to get the client experience right in order to monetize later. Google had to do search well first. For Twitter, maybe it’s something along relevancy and discovery. So, I hope that Twitter succeeds in figuring out their revenue model. That’s key to their longevity.

  15. gregory

    Once you make it personal you can’t go back and make it just business. That’s what twitter is doing now. They made it personal by selling the we love developers line. Now we find that lie was just business.

    • KnightGhost

      I very much agree. Everything for developers just that you will do our users happy and even more for users and when thsi relationship is finally establish (usually on very personal level), sometimes seams all such social networks (not just twitter) would rather throw them away – both – developers and sometimes even users …

      I would lie though if I would say I had any problems with twitter as a customer (I’m not developer fortunately) but would really be unhappy if now when all is established and very well used and actually came to our habits, would be “destroyed” or any other way driven away. I believe without many of those apps we’re usnig twitter is empty and boaring – sorry, but that’s how it is from the user’s view (at least mine).

  16. Perhaps those developers would gang up, create a rival microblogging service and route their apps to connect to the new service.

    Ev Williams, the developer guy is not there anymore. What else should we expect?

  17. Should we say this is “ugly side of twitter”? I believe so. I really wonder what they will do when users start to go away or will start to be boared on there? So far so good and I love twitter, but I wonder why companies always have to negate those who helped them the most and grab all the benefit for themselves at the end? This is rude and selfish and not even a bit fair not only to those who helped but to users (customers) themselves as well.

    Whatever, I didn’t know that “ugly” side and now I’m almost sorry I do.

  18. Twitter is doing all the would-be developers a huge favor – they won’t be wasting their time developing a twitter application that might yield them ten cents an hour for their efforts, if that much, by the time people realize and accept the limitations of twitter’s value to society. Twitter is basically saying “look guys, we haven’t figured out how to make enough money to justify the ridiculous valuations being accorded us, so maybe you shouldn’t be investing your very finite time and resources on riding this wave”.

  19. Thank you for this Matthew. I’m curious as to why @FredWilson, a Twitter investor, hasn’t been called accountable for this deception.

    He of all people has led this fraud of intention by writing for example in his prominent blog that

    “you can build large businesses on top of a social platform like Facebook and Twitter. And because Twitter is so open and so lightweight, I am surprised that there aren’t more “new kinds of killer apps”

    • Fred is just one person, Gregg — he may have his own views about what Twitter should do, but they may not be shared by the company or by the board. I don’t know. In any case, it’s a little unfair to hold him accountable for what Twitter does or doesn’t do.

      • Matthew
        Who’s holding him accountable for what Twitter does? Not me. I’m not sure how you read that into what i wrote.

        I’m reproaching for him for Pied Pipering devs/entrepreneurs to the Twitter platform (read the post I reference) and not now either issuing an apology for having done so or publicly rebuking Twitter’s actions.

        If I’m wrong on that I’d like to know.

    • gregg – that post you link to is the opposite of “pied piper” i wrote it because i wanted to be transparent, open, and honest about what i saw was coming. i care a lot about developers and wanted to make sure they used their time wisely