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”:
@mathewi "virtually all of the network’s power and growth has come from outside the company itself"—a common myth but completely overblown—
Evan Williams (@ev) September 06, 2012
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:
@mathewi I think the "Twitter was made by third party things" is mostly nerd triumphalism, not factual. Shaq did more than any indie app.—
Anil Dash (@anildash) September 06, 2012
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.
Evan Williams (@ev) September 06, 2012
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:
Ethan Kaplan (@ethank) September 06, 2012
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.
Chris Messina™ (@chrismessina) September 06, 2012
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.