We’ve written before about the evolution that Twitter has been trying to engineer over the past year or so — transforming itself from a network with an open ecosystem into one that is much more controlled, a change that has led to much criticism and unease. The latest step in that process came Tuesday, with the launch of new features for Twitter’s “Cards,” which allow certain services to add extra content to expanded tweets. While many developers have greeted them with open arms, the future of Cards as a platform is one in which Twitter is firmly in control, and that comes with some obvious risks.
As my colleague Eliza Kern noted in her post on the new features, Twitter has given third-party apps the ability to add “deep links” to content inside a tweet, so that — for example — if a user includes a link to a photo from Path or Flickr and someone reading that tweet has the Path app or the Flickr app installed on their device, clicking the link launches that app and takes them directly to the content (a link to a download page for the app can also be included).
Twitter can help with app discovery
The benefits of these new features are clear, as Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures (one of Twitter’s backers) and others have noted. For services like Path, one of the hardest problems is discovery — in other words, letting people know it exists, and also making it easy for users to find interesting content within the app. Twitter’s new Card features provide a potential solution for both of those problems, and since the social network has an active-user base of close to 250 million, it could give some services a substantial boost.
The downside of this approach should also be obvious, however, especially if you notice that among Twitter’s partners for these new features there are names like Path and Flickr, but no Instagram. Why isn’t the largest photo-sharing service included? Because it is owned by Facebook, and Twitter cut off the app’s access to a key feature last year — namely, the ability for users to find Twitter friends who also use the service — and Instagram subsequently removed Card support. The company also cut off Tumblr’s access to the same feature, even though Tumblr was an early partner on the Cards rollout.
This is the fundamental difference between Twitter’s current approach to being a platform and its previous approach. In the early days of the service, up until mid-2011, Twitter seemed happy to be at the center of a more or less open ecosystem — one which allowed virtually anyone to make use of the company’s APIs to display or make use of tweets. Many services and apps (including Instagram) grew by piggy-backing on the network in this way.
Then came what one Twitter investor has called a “holy s*** moment”: Bill Gross — founder of what was then called Uber Media — started buying up Twitter clients (including an attempt to buy Tweetdeck, which Twitter ultimately acquired) and appeared to be preparing to launch his own network, one that would make use of tweets combined with a third-party advertising model.
Twitter’s control is a double-edged sword
These moves by Gross and others posed a clear threat to Twitter’s ability to monetize its growing user base — something that was becoming more and more crucial given the multibillion-dollar market value the company had developed after several rounds of financing. So the company started tightening the screws around its network: restricting access to the API, changing what were display “guidelines” into “requirements,” and generally exerting much more control over who got access to the company’s data.
Such decisions caused a firestorm of controversy in the third-party developer community, with some complaining that Twitter had “killed” their businesses. Now, the company is clearly trying to repair some of that damaged goodwill by offering third-party apps and services preferential access to the network, and features like Card deep links — replacing the open ecosystem approach with one that is more a velvet rope: only official partners allowed.
This approach makes sense for Twitter, since it needs to generate revenue from its network, and presumably intends (or theoretically could) collect fees from partners for the additional features they are getting with Twitter Cards, which can also include music links and other content. And as noted above, it makes sense for apps and services like Path to cut a deal in order to get more reach — but just like building integration into Facebook or Apple or any other controlled ecosystem, developers should be aware this is a double-edged sword.
In other words, such an arrangement will likely look like a win-win so long as Twitter thinks you are beneficial to its network. The minute it sees you as competition, it will suddenly become lose-lose — and whatever you have invested in that ecosystem will vanish.