No free lunches on Twitter

2012/8/18

Twitter’s new rules for third-party developers have spurred an online uproar.

After the company imposed stricter rules for its application programming interface, or A.P.I., on Thursday, engineers and developers picked up their virtual pitchforks and took to Twitter and blogs to decry what some described as a “bait and switch.”

Via the NYT's Bits blog.

Many people knew this was coming, but expectation is different from the cold reality of the announcement by Twitter about the changes it is making to the way 3rd party tools plug into the Twitter engine. Critically, they reiterated that developers 'should not build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience'. The changes they are making include introducing API controls that will limit other use cases - e.g. tools like Tweetbot, Flipboard and maybe Storify (although they claim not). Instead, they want to encourage tools that are intended for business or services that use Twitter content for social influence ranking.

So what does this actually mean moving forward for Twitter users?

There are two things to understand from this move by Twitter. Not only is this about limiting choice around the user interfaces people are able to use to interact through Twitter, but more critically it is a sign of where Twitter see their future revenue streams coming from: Advertising.

For many users of Twitter, this may make little or no difference. They either aren't using non-Twitter provided apps or tools to interact with Twitter and the Twitter stream and/or they don't care if more advertising appears. After all, advertising hasn't really done much to limit people using Facebook. And of course, both these services are free and are provided through massive cloud infrastructure that serves millions of users around the globe.

The alternative is that they sign up for a service like identi.ca (open source, aka Status.Net), Yammer (perfect for professional interest groups) or join the new subscription based app.net (US$50 per year). But considering the critical mass that Twitter has, for the average user I just can't see that happening right now. I mean let's face the fact that most users prefer simple platforms over open standards that would enable a free, distributed version of Twitter (and as far as I can tell, startups like app.net are just reinforcing that model but without the advertising).

For developers of 3rd party Twitter 'consumer' apps, the issue is somewhat different. Those that play strictly within or by Twitter's new rules of engagement may still have a chance (i.e. if they reinforce rather than block Twitter's advertising model). I noticed Tapbots (the developers behind the excellent Tweetbot, which I use) have tried to calm things down with an aptly titled post, Don't Panic:

There’s been a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt generated by Twitter’s latest announcement. I wanted to let everyone know that the world isn’t ending, Tweetbot for Mac is coming out soon, Tweetbot for iOS isn’t going anywhere.

This could be wishful thinking on behalf of Tapbots. Either way, it is true that we've got a bit of time before things really start to change.

If you are a brand of course, you'll only care if the effectiveness of advertising and engagement on future state Twitter doesn't provide return on investment. It may be that Twitter (and indirectly its biggest sponsors) will want to get their fair return on any earned attention too, so perhaps the overall cost of doing business on Twitter will increase as well.

Should we care about the changes?

On balance then, is there really much to worry about? I should say right now that I fully support Twitter's right - as a private corporate entity - to build a platform and develop a business model around it. As many people have pointed out, for those complaining about the changes this is the risk of playing within such a platform and its the same issue for users and developers around other popular platforms, like Facebook, etc. After all, all the people and hardware that is Twitter needs to be paid for in someway.

But there are some points worth considering:

When we take all the three issues above into account, the biggest risk I see for Twitter is that they implement their future advertising model badly - both in terms of the user experience and also their relationship (as we see in the traditional media) with meeting the demands of their advertisers. They could get this right (well, right enough at least), but it could also turn into something that in the long term the average Twitter user just isn't prepared to stomach.

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