Storify, the San Francisco-based service that allows journalists and others to curate content from social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, has launched a new design that focuses on highlighting content that has been shared by Storify users — making it easy to see what the most popular tweet about Hurricane Sandy was, for example, or the best photo of the Israeli attack on Gaza. As nice as the new features are, however, there are still two significant questions hanging over the startup’s head, both of which involve Twitter: namely, what happens if Storify runs afoul of the social network’s new API rules, and what happens when Twitter decides to release its own curation tools?
When Twitter first released its new API rules in August — and changed what had been guidelines into hard-and-fast requirements about the way tweets are displayed, among other things — the company specifically said that Storify was an example of a service that added value to Twitter in a useful way, and therefore wasn’t at risk of being shut down or restricted like some other applications. Although the infamous “quadrant of death” graph that was published around this time made it seem as though Storify could be caught by the new restrictions, director of platform Ryan Sarver said that Storify was safe.
When I dropped in on co-founders Burt Herman and Xavier Damman recently in San Francisco and asked them about the potential for future conflict with Twitter, they said they were happy that the company had highlighted them as adding value, but both still seemed somewhat uneasy about the future — although Damman’s earlier response to a similar question (asked on Twitter, of course) shows that he sees any competition from the company as a challenge rather than a disaster:
Xavier Damman (@xdamman) September 22, 2012
Trying to become less reliant on Twitter’s API
I asked Herman about both of these potential issues in a follow-up phone interview — an audio recording of which is embedded below — and he said Storify believes that it is doing something very different from what Twitter might do if and when it offers curation tools, and that it is also about much more than just a way to curate tweets. Herman also said that the company is working on making it easier for users to pull in tweets without having to go through the Twitter API, and that it sees tweets as public information it should be able to gather however it wants to:
“It’s certainly Twitter’s right to do what they want to with their API, and so the more sustainable solution for a company is to figure out ways of doing what they need without using the Twitter API… We don’t want to be reliant on anybody — we want to be the place where you can collect public quotes from any service on the web [so] we’re hoping to make that easier and at the same time not be dependent on anyone’s API.”
That kind of reluctance to integrate too much with Twitter is probably the single biggest negative outcome from the company’s recent changes. For startups like Storify, deciding where to focus their energy is an important task, and the uncertainty around what Twitter might do in the future makes it difficult to know how to proceed. If it could change its mind so suddenly about which apps or services it should support, what would stop it from doing so again?
So one risk for Storify is the potential for unknown future changes to Twitter’s API rules that would leave the service — and its users — hanging, and force the company to either turn off some features or restructure the way it does things in order to get onside.
Storify wants to curate more than just Twitter
A related issue is that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has talked about how the company wants to offer journalists and media organizations tools that will help them curate tweets more easily, the way that Twitter has been doing for its media partners during official events such as the Summer Olympics or the federal election. That sounds an awful lot like what Storify does. But Herman says he isn’t concerned:
“We’re not just tied to Twitter — we really want to be a curation tool for all of the social web, and that includes Instagram and Facebook and Tumblr and YouTube and Flickr and Vimeo and whatever else comes along… it is true that Twitter is a great source of real-time information, but there’s definitely more out there.”
Herman also noted that Twitter’s recent attempts at curation for specific events such as the Summer Olympics and NASCAR seemed to be more devoted to a real-time or social TV experience, and that Storify sees a big part of its value as being the ability to highlight content after an event. “We’re used for real time too, but we’re also about being a record of something that is lasting, not just a reaction in the moment,” he said. “So these are the best things people are saying or photos that are being posted about the topic — things that stand for more than just the second you happen to glance by.”
The Storify founder said that a large proportion of the content within the service still comes from Twitter — perhaps in part because tweets are so short that it’s easy to include a lot of them in a Storify module, whereas people likely wouldn’t include dozens of videos or photos. But it’s also true that the real-time nature of the Twitter stream and the speed with which it flows by is one of the main reasons why curation tools like Storify are so necessary, and that makes it feel as though the two services are joined at the hip. Whether Herman and Damman can successfully separate them remains to be seen.