Blog Post

Careful, Twitter — remember what happened to MySpace and Digg

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

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 (s LNKD). 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 (s NYT) 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 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. (s NWS), 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

26 Responses to “Careful, Twitter — remember what happened to MySpace and Digg”

  1. Silicon Valley

    A number of things happened to Digg. Yes, true, Digg management tried to leverage their user base for profit and appeal to corporate customers and advertisers, but they did it when the 2008 elections were ongoing and at the same time they also sold out to the hard left socialist movement. Almost overnight the Digg leadership let everyone know that they were on-board for Obama and instead of a balanced news base, Digg allowed itself to be controlled by the groups working for the Huffington Post, FiredogLake, and a half dozen other hard core leftist groups. Those seeking information in other categories other than politics, or down the middle and to the right in politics deserted Digg for more neutral places, Reddit for one. When _WE_ quit Digg, Digg turned even more socialist political interface until the cacophony from the phonies on the hard left was drowning out all other stories. Hahahaha, their algorithms quit working, and people were complaining that they were sick of politics! Hilarious….and as we all know, Digg never fully recovered. Boo Hoo…too bad, so sad. Does the Huffington Post still own Digg? Is Digg still a socialist hang out? Does anyone still go to Digg?

    I have NOT been back to Digg once since deserting it at least four months before Obama was elected, having seen that the Digg management wanted to use the portal to turn everyone on to socialism and Obama.

  2. I don’t know why Myspace failed for other users, nor do I particularly care. When I couldn’t get logged in without suffering through Matt Damon and Friends political videos, I pulled out of Myspace altogether.

  3. Kirsten Lambertsen

    I am in the camp that says choking off its partners will spell the beginning of the end for Twitter, or at least the end of the party. I can easily picture a world without Twitter. We’re all connected via so many other more meaningful channels now, and those channels all have APIs.

    I think Twitter should take a lesson from WordPress and the way that Matt Mullenweg has led it. There are ways to make money and grow the business without squeezing developers and users, even when you’ve reached ubiquity. And Twitter has not even reached ubiquity.

  4. 最终冰器红豆

    MySpace failed because Facebook target on alumni is a natural denominator of human interest, than music and art. In case of mistakes, Facebook’s track record was not much better. But it became too important for users to quit.

    On Twitter, who other than third party developers care about the API? Most people will simply ask what is API. The API was used to gather momentum and make it popular and that was done. After years there were few useful innovative use of the API anyway other than authentication and robotic tweet.

    • I think a lot of people like using non-official apps like Tweetbot and being able to tweet or distribute their tweets to other apps and services — I think Twitter needs to be careful about how much it clamps down on that kind of experience, that’s all.

  5. Christopher Rizzo 

    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!

  6. 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……

  7. Matt Zuvella

    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?

    • John E. Bredehoft

      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.

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

  8. Risc_it

    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

    • Matt Zuvella

      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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. Stephen Pickering

    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.

  12. 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.

    • Alex Murphy

      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.