What has Twitter become?

Restricting developers undermines the ecology that made Twitter valuable.

TwitterAt O’Reilly, we’ve long believed that one criterion for long-term success is creating more value than you capture. When you do so, you create the possibility for an ecosystem that’s larger than you are. You create a healthy environment in which you, your partners, and even your competitors can thrive.

Twitter, long one of my favorite companies, has turned the corner. After creating a very healthy ecosystem of third-party apps (standalone, web, and mobile), they’ve decided they need to shut down the market. In a post to Twitter’s developer forum, Ryan Sarver (@rsarver) clarifies Twitter’s terms of service and says new Twitter clients are unwelcome and existing clients ought to watch their backs. Further down in the thread, Raffi Krikorian (@raffi) steps in and does some damage control. While Raffi does a good job of moderating Ryan’s heavy-handed statements, I don’t think the position changes much. “No” becomes “it’s a bad idea to create a business where you would have to bend at the whims of another organization.” Exactly. When you create an ecosystem, you have a responsibility to that ecosystem. Perhaps it’s an ethical responsibility rather than a business responsibility. But that ecosystem is as much responsible for your growth as you are for its, and subjecting it to your whims isn’t prudent.

I’m personally saddened, at least in part because I’ve used Twitter as an example of how to build a successful data ecosystem. It’s a system that has contributed substantially to Twitter’s success, in a way that can, and should, be emulated. If you build the ecosystem successfully, the opportunities will come.

But now, Twitter has decided that it would rather not compete with its many children. Why? The reason given is that consumers are confused, and Twitter needs a consistent user experience. This reasoning strikes me as wrong-headed. Consistent user experience is a red herring. Is anyone confused by the diversity of user experience that’s out there now? It’s a throwback to the time when Word files only worked with Microsoft Word and WordPerfect files only worked with WordPerfect. But that was a pre-web world, and that’s not how the web works — never has been. If that’s what the future holds, we’ve got much bigger problems to worry about than net neutrality.

Are users stupid, silly, weak creatures who are easily misled? I don’t think so. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the proliferation of bad software guarantees that we’ll get some good software and occasional brilliant software. Twitter is ultimately a data publisher — and the many ways that data can be used is what makes the data publishing business interesting.

Twitter states that 90% of their users use an “official” Twitter client at least monthly. I’m sure that’s true, but it’s also misleading. I easily use a dozen Twitter clients, including clients built into other apps. While I use an “official” client daily, it’s probably under 10% of my total use. And that’s certainly part of the problem. I’m sure that Twitter is feeling pressure to find a viable business model to justify billions of dollars of valuation and hundreds of millions of investor capital. Promoted trends, tweets, and follower recommendations might be viable, though my reaction is often “You’re kidding; why would you even think I’d want to follow X?” Offered a choice, I’d rather not see them — and the clients I prefer don’t force me to see them. Is that the real issue? Other clients aren’t displaying “promoted” topics or users? Other clients give users choices that Twitter would rather they don’t have?

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Are other business models for Twitter conceivable? Of course. In Twitter’s early days, I suggested to Blaine Cook (@blaine) that supporting private corporate Twitter networks was a possibility — a route that was latter taken by Yammer, and where there’s probably still a significant opportunity. Selling the “firehose” is also a possibility, and something that’s already happening (with Gnip the preferred reseller). Analytics services, facilitating customer service — these are all legitimate opportunities for Twitter. I’ve been surprised that they haven’t gone after them.

I am not saying that Twitter has no right to enforce some rules on the playing field it has created. Specifically:

  • I have no objection to Twitter enforcing rules protecting the privacy of users, or restricting the proliferation of spam and malicious content. A client that edits tweets, changes profiles, or does anything else without the user’s permission should expect to be barred from the service.
  • I also have no particular problem with Twitter competing with its ecosystem. There was some angst about Twitter “eating its children” when it rolled out the “new Twitter.” Tough. For a long time, Twitter’s own clients were sub-standard. Twitter has every right to build the best client they can, and to get as many users as possible to use it, as long as they maintain a level playing field. They only cross the line when they say “we won’t tolerate any more competition.”
  • And I have no problem with Twitter saying that there are perhaps too many clients (I wouldn’t disagree), and suggesting areas in which developers who want to do something unique can experiment. Sarver offers a few such areas: publisher tools, tweet curation, realtime data analysis, etc. But here’s the rub: if you’re building publisher tools or selling analytics data, what’s to prevent Twitter from deciding they want that business three months from now, and shutting down the competition? Given the way Twitter has behaved toward its client ecosystem, I would certainly be nervous about starting an analytics business based on Twitter data, or funding such a business. Will the rug be pulled out from under me a few months down the road? I don’t know. Quora analytics, anyone?

But while Twitter can enforce rules on their playing field, they shouldn’t say it’s our field, it’s our ball, everyone else go home. And while there are plenty of uninteresting, dull clients, there is plenty of possibility for innovation. A year or so ago, I saw a Twitter client that displayed all incoming tweets on a map. Last night, I came up with several ideas for interesting, useful clients: threaded clients, clients that display tweets in the context of the user’s social graph, clients that use artificial intelligence techniques to find tweets that will be relevant and interesting. (Sort of like my my6sense, but for Twitter.) There’s no shortage of ideas. As Raffi says, developers ought to think big, not just come up with dull clones that simply display timelines. But he and Twitter are missing a fundamental law of innovation: you can’t tell people where (or how) to innovate, and where not to. Innovation just doesn’t work that way. The best way to prevent “think big” innovation from happening is to cut off the small ideas.

Twitter’s limitations on research (specifically, whitelisting and redistribution of raw data) are also troubling. Using social sites as a primary source for research is an important trend that we’ve been watching and publishing on, particularly in 21 Recipes for Mining Twitter and Mining the Social Web. While I understand Twitter’s restrictions on redistributing data for commercial purposes, and perhaps a desire to prune the number of users who can pull a large datafeed, it seems — as Inside Higher Ed argues — that these changes hurt academic research more than anything else. Twitter has been an enormously useful channel for finding out how history unfolds. Gephi.org has a wonderful visualization of the progress of the Egyptian revolution through Twitter tweets, and I’ve seen much similar work. Is this kind of research still possible, without buying a datafeed that a student or an underfunded department might find prohibitively expensive?

Screenshot from Gephi.org's visualization of Egypt tweets
Screenshot from Gephi.org’s “The Egyptian Revolution on Twitter.”

Again, I see no problem with Twitter restricting commercial access. If you’re making money from the Twitter stream, you shouldn’t expect the stream to be provided as a free service. It isn’t difficult to write terms of service that distinguish between research and commercial use. Pure research is symbiotic, not parasitic: that research is one reason that Twitter has its multi-billion dollar valuation. In addition to informing us, it demonstrates what you can do with the Twitter timeline, and shows opportunities that Twitter (and others) can cash in on. We’re only now realizing what Twitter can teach us. Is it time to shut down further experimentation?

We have seen many companies thrive by creating more value than they capture. Twitter was one of the best. But once you’ve given something away, it’s hard to take it back, particularly if it’s something as fundamental as the right to create innovative software or to do academic research. Has Twitter said that developers can’t innovate? No, but they’ve demonstrated that they might tell you your innovation is out of bounds somewhere down the road. It’s disappointing to see Twitter undermining the ecology that made it valuable in the first place. Twitter would not be the company it is today without Tweetie, TweetDeck, TweetGrid, and many, many others. Likewise, Twitter won’t become the company it could be if it cuts off scholars’ ability to learn from its timeline. It remains to be seen whether a company that captures more value than it creates will inevitably stagnate. But if so, Twitter will be an unfortunate lesson, and we’ll all be the poorer.

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  • Both Facebook and Twitter has developed brilliant social functions that was not availible before, by neither email nor SMS. Since then lots of companies has included interfaces to Facebook and Twitter, mobile phones is one example.

    But in the end the terms of usage are desided by the content provider, and they want to capitalise on there investment. Last month, Google changed so that Facebook contacts no longer syncs with Android contact list, because of Facebook does not allow users to export contacts.

    Twitters move shows how dangerous it is to base a companys ecosystem on another companys benevolence. Is it time for an open source version of Twitter?

  • bob

    Twitter provides some useful data for some researchers, but it (like most internet companies) has yet to produced one penny of actual value. When I say value here I’m talking about the kind of value that pays for servers and bandwidth and salaries and electricity bills. Facebook and Twitter are massively over valued by this standard. These companies may have created ecosystems, but the purpose of an ecosystem is to allow the entities that make it up to survive, not to produce a surplus to be siphoned off; not to create extra value. An ecosystem is its own purpose.

    Twitter is trying to reign in some control over their ecosystem. Twitter is trying to exploit their environment to extract a profit. If you can’t monetize your environment it doesn’t matter how rich your ecosystem is. If you can’t export value, if you can’t create a profit, then sooner or later the river of VC money dries up and you go extinct.

    There are only two companies on the internet that are really worth anything: Google and Amazon. Likewise there are only two business models that have ever made anyone money (other than casinos): selling things and selling ads. Google created an ecosystem and then leveraged it for advertising sales. Amazon sells physical and digital goods (Amazon’s ecosystem is the economy). You sell things, or you advertise things. In the ecosystem of the real world if you are not moving product you are just waiting to go out of business.

  • @Magnu
    “But in the end the terms of usage are desided by the content provider”….

    This is where I think both twitter and facebook have fooled all of us.
    We the members of these “communities” are the content providers and therefore should be the ones deciding the terms of use.

  • “Twitter states that 90% of their users use an “official” Twitter client at least monthly. I’m sure that’s true, but it’s also misleading.”

    I can vouch that I was one of these 90% for the last two months. I switched from the iPhone to an Android device, and used the official Twitter client. Then when the updated official Twitter client came out a month ago, I used that about three times until the many problems with it sent me in search of a third party client, and I ended up with Twicca.

    At the same time Twitter made the announcement about banning UberTwitter. I’ll never forget my tweet that day – “Twitter bans UberTwitter, releases broken official Twitter client”.

  • With Twitter’s attempts to control their ecosystem, I am hopeful that people and developers will smarten up in their decisions to provide so much content to these sites and support them with their growth. Maybe this will be a catalyst for people to copy Diaspora’s attempts at creating an open-source Facebook to create an open-source Twitter.

  • Ecostupid

    This really proves the complete and undeniable obsolescence of the term “ecosystem”.

  • dmbass

    “Are users stupid, silly, weak creatures who are easily misled? I don’t think so.”

    Explain everyone who buys Apple phones! LOL.

    (You can actually apply this statement to any phone and it will be true)

  • Park

    @Magnus: There already is an open source (AGPL) alternative: Identica (since 2008), running the software Statusnet. All Statusnet installations can speak to all other Statusnet installations(or other software that communicates through Ostatus) as well as push messages to Twitter. A good attempt at actually getting some interoperability and standards into microblogging. So far, I like it, and wish it the best of luck.

  • fjpoblam

    “consistent user experience” is the same tired excuse Apple uses for its walled garden approach to its iP* series devices. To me, it indicates the plateau of adventurous creativity. It says they have entered a realm in which past accomplishments must be protected for cosmetic reasons: hubris.

  • If you were admitting it was dumb to ever think that Twitter, Facebook, Yammer or any of them were going to provide you a long-term platform for delivering value to your consumers, then I’d accept this article. As it stands–get over it.

    @Park: +1 to Identica

  • Mike – Couldn’t have said any of this better myself. This is a really nice synopsis, and I’m glad someone wrote it up in a well trafficked forum to draw the attention to it that it deserves. I’m in agreement with your points about how Twitter can compete with their own ecosystem, and frankly, I think that they should want to have the best Twitter client. At the same time, I also agree with Raffi that developers shouldn’t create 1,001 Twitter clients and keep reinventing the wheel. Unless you have a revolutionary idea or an evolutionary feature that revolutionizes the UX, that energy could be better spent elsewhere.

    I think that perhaps the most troubling thing about it all is something you pointed out: Twitter has probably lost a lot of trust from the developers who helped make them what they are today, and any sane person will think twice before trying to do something spectacular on their platform for a while.

    All that said, I think there’s another long-winded point to be made here that highlights how *really* ironic it is that Twitter believes that twitter.com and Twitter for iPhone are so great that everyone else should just stop bothering to make clients (and go as far as to suggest that it’ll be really difficult to succeed if you try.)

    It’s actually the case that the official Twitter clients that I’ve used recently are *far* from adequate for one simple reason: all it takes is for you to follow more than a couple dozen people and then guess what? You can’t keep up with it all unless all you do the entire day is sit around and watch people’s updates fly past you. To put it another way: a chronologically sorted timeline that fills up faster than anyone can possibly process it is an anti-feature and a promotes a really poor user experience — and that’s saying it nicely. I’m really surprised that Twitter themselves haven’t realized this and at least made a mild attempt to do something about it already. And I’m surprised that people have put up with not having these features as long as they have.

    If you step away from your desk or go offline for any reasonable period of time and expect to catch up on all of those tweets you missed, well….good luck. I don’t know a single person who is going to sift through hundreds of tweets since Twitter is a “fire and forget” type of system anyway. At the same time, nobody really wants to miss something important so most people end up skimming them and probably consume 5-10% of them in some kind of ad-hoc fashion — or maybe using a list if you’re sophisticated enough to curate your friends into logical groupings.

    What could fix all of this? How about a Twitter client, official or not, that uses some basic data to drive analytics that distinguish the content you *really* care about from everything in your timeline so that you can get a reasonably personalized experience and read your tweets in a prioritized and summarized manner. For example, how about adding a little slider to the bottom of my timeline that I can drag? One one end is “everything” and on the other end is “stuff i rally care about.” In between would be varying levels of serendipity. Simple and effective. Not rocket science to implement either, though some implementations are bound to do far better than others depending on the underlying sophistication.

    To summarize, giving me a chronologically ordered timeline that almost boils over every single time somebody wants to fire off a random thought about something really isn’t helpful, and it’s a shame that Twitter actually thinks that the user experience they provide on twitter.com or in any other client they officially offer is adequate. It’s far from adequate. There’s a lot of money to be made in nailing the right UX for information overload, and it’s borderline maddening that Twitter has had the audacity to suggest that no new players are welcome in the space.

    In all honestly, you could take sample code from Mining the Social Web and 21 Recipes for Mining Twitter, and if you’re sufficiently competent, you could assign relevance scores to tweets that are pretty darn good in a weekend. Creating the UI to display and filter them would be trivial. And that’s not a shameful plug for my books. It’s simply true, and I’ll likely spend the better part of the weekend proving it.

    Oh, but wait a tick — I probably won’t be able to monetize it by building a client since the bar is so high, and if I wanted to try and get investment and try anyhow, I’d have my work cut out for me. I’ll have to craft a business plan that mails people daily digests and/or create a ‘read only’ Twitter experience on the web that isn’t really a “client.”

  • I came to Twitter use quite late (about 9 months ago). I’m a user, not an enthusiast or early adopter.

    I’m a mobile industry analyst and use it to promote my opinions, blog posts and ideas. I use it purely as a business tool. I’m still only a grudging believer that it creates any value for me whatsoever. In fact, the time I spend on it probably makes it value-negative, apart from the one single business lead I’ve had which actually led to a paid consulting engagement.

    As a “non enthusiast” I have absolutely zero interest in hunting around for the “best” client. It’s a boring chore. It either works “out of the box”, or I won’t use it at all. By the same token, I use Facebook’s app and web page – I’m not interested in interacting with web services via some 3rd-party software.

    I probably represent the mass market that Twitter is chasing. While I can see the “value” that’s been created by the raw Twitter APIs in the past, I’d rather Twitter focuses on earning revenue so that it becomes more useful for *me* in future. That probably means it has to control the user interface much more – fragmentation is hard to monetise.

    If it annoys the enthusiasts, so be it. I’d support car manufacturers who discourage aftermarket tuners too.

    Dean Bubley

  • It’s ironic how in 2011 Microsoft looks always it is/was more open than the current web companies such as:
    – Twitter with this policies.
    – Google without a [deprecated] search engine API.
    – Facebook API limitations.

    I always tell the same story: we sell a product that is the result of reverse engineering work on some of the Microsoft products. Before Windows 7 release one guy from Microsoft QA contacted us if we want some help in supporting Windows 7!

    Beyond specific Microsoft closeness cases, I think Microsoft is more closer to open source technologies than to these “web platforms”.

    • I don’t know that I’d go as far as you, but I certainly agree that Microsoft has learned a lot (and is still learning) about openness and about treating their developer community well, since the mid-90s.

  • Ah!, I forgot something at the end:

    … And these web platforms are all based on free open source software (without AGPL licenses), more irony.

  • Jason

    Twitter’s shooting itself in the foot here. As much as I find them useful, they’ve demonstrated that they can’t keep their service stable, let alone innovate. All the great ideas for harnessing Twitter’s strengths — including Mike’s in the post above — come from outside the company. I’d like to see them cut most of the staff, sit back, and start charging third-party clients to republish the stream and mine the analytics.

  • The sad truth is that twitter used to cite the fact that 90% of twitter usage came from THIRD-PARTY clients and services as proof of the efficacy of their ecosystem model.

    That they are now attempting to share the exact opposite data (i.e., 90% coming from twitter.com and twitter-owned clients) is indication of how completely they have betrayed the trust and investment of their ecosystem.

  • I never thought I’d see anyone out Prodigy the headline, “Prodigy to Charge per Email.”

    twitter says to Startups, Angels and VCs everywhere:
    “The need for business model innovation goes way done once you realize that tricked developers are so much cheaper than hired ones. #suckers”

    Sadly, the lesson of twitter: caveat fidelis (believer beware)

    What we positively must know now:
    What did the institutional investors (such as the T. Rowe Price led group) know and when did they know it?

    I’m no lawyer, but my guess is the region between shameless skullduggery and financial fraud might not be one Wallstreet’s biggest players want to be anywhere near in this post Great Recession world of ours, especially while the founder-perpetrators find (scramble for) other gigs.

    – “The Next 10 Amendments”

  • Gretchen Lively

    I especially like the irony of the tweet button at the top of this article, and the bonus of how many people have tweeted it.

    • Yes, I’ve noticed the irony. But that really just points to the fact that Twitter is an essential service. As someone said in one of the many other blogs and articles on this topic, Twitter is almost a public utility.

  • SuperMac

    I find this hypocritical and appalling because the official Twitter clients ( iOS and OS X) are based off a 3rd party client that they purchased and rebranded.

  • Regarding a my6sense client that ranks tweets, the good news is that you can rank tweets in my6sense for both Android and iPhone. We even delivered a Chrome extension for Twitter.com that does just that. Find the links on our blog! Happy to live in the Twitter ecosystem.

  • Twitter is doing something because in my personal experience, there are a number of applications developers who violates their TOS such as the number of follow and unfollow, characters beyond 140, privacy issues, etc.

    It has also become the haven for spammers.

  • I think it was only a matter of time till this happened. Like someone said earlier: Open Source twitter anyone?