Analysis: Twitter API changes could scare off developers and users

Elliot Bentley

How much of their trademark openness will Twitter sacrifice in order to monetise their platform?

We’ve known for a while that Twitter’s third-party apps are
under threat, but further alarm bells were triggered by a blog post
last friday from Twitter’s Group Product Manager Michael Sippey on
vague upcoming changes to Twitter’s API.

The post is full of marketing buzzwords and fluff, discussing
“creating new opportunities to build engaging experiences into
Twitter” and “features that bring people closer to the things they
care about” – or in plain English, advertising. Boil away this
rubbish, though, and the key message of the post is this (emphasis

“You need to be able to see expanded Tweets and
other features that make Twitter more engaging and easier to

Expanded tweets are, as the name suggests, tweets with more than
just the regular 140 characters, appearing as ‘cards’ with
a Facebook-style link, photo or YouTube video. Though some of this
is already possible on Twitter, these differ by being expanded in
your feed by default, and are only an option for “sites
with great content and those that drive active discussion and
activity on Twitter”
. Coupled with already-prevalent promoted
tweets, they’re part of Twitter’s slow introduction of advertising
to their service.

The bombshell is this: third-party clients, which are already

being shown the door by Twitter
, are not (yet) designed to show
these expanded tweets. But even worse for Twitter, these
third-party clients might allow users to hide promoted and expanded
tweets, doing for Twitter what AdBlock Plus does already for the
rest of the web. (It’s worth noting that AdBlock Plus already
does block promoted tweets
, but of course not on mobile

Friday’s blog post is vague about the exact changes to Twitter’s
API, promising only “stricter guidelines”. The general consensus
appears to be that ‘read’ access to tweets will no longer be
allowed – as indicated by the sudden disconnect from long-term
partners LinkedIn, who from Friday no
longer display tweets on their site

Some have wondered if
Facebook might be an exception to the rule
, allowing publishing
of tweets to profiles (especially since this functionality was
). Let’s not forget, though, that the Twitter app on
Facebook is developed and controlled by Twitter themselves. In
addition, it doesn’t act as a replacement client – no-one visits
Facebook to view their friends’ tweets, after all.

No, far more at risk are clients like Tweetbot, Hootsuite and
Echofon – those that could potentially replace official Twitter
apps and Twitter.com as the place you go to in order to access
Twitter. We’re hoping that Twitter’s “stricter guidelines” will not
mean blocking out these useful apps altogether, but forcing them to
carry Twitter’s advertising in approved formats. This would
probably mean locking down the API to approved apps only, however –
still a restriction too far for many developers. As for LinkedIn,
it seems unlikely they would agree to display Twitter’s advertising
on their own website – hence the disconnection.

There’s nothing wrong with advertising on the web per se. After
all, Twitter isn’t a charity, and it needs to make money somehow.
The problem is that Twitter established itself, and in many ways
still prides itself, with a reputation for being open and
developer-friendly. This led to innovative products like Tweetie
and TweetDeck – which Twitter liked so much, it snapped them up

Ryan Sarver, head of Twitter’s Platform Team, admitted back in
March that “a lot of Twitter’s success is attributable to a diverse
ecosystem of more than 750,000 registered apps”. Unfortunately

in the very same post in the developer forum
, Sarver infamously
wrote of the need to “move to a less fragmented world, where every
user can experience Twitter in a consistent way”. The message was
clear: having in part relied on developers’ hard work to establish
Twitter in the first place, the company had become large enough to
cut them out.

Despite making
, the change in policy had little effect at the time;
only now are we beginning to see its potential effects. Developers
are already bracing themselves and looking into
ways in which they might be able to dump Twitter
before it
dumps them.

It will also be interesting to see how this statement affects
Twitter’s recent open source drive, which has seen numerous
projects such as Cassandra client Cassie and Cascading library,
Scalding (both Scala APIs) unleashed out into the open. Twitter
have also been proud to proclaim the Innovator’s Patent Agreement
(IPA), safeguarding the developer’s API innovations being used as
pawns in a corporation battleground. Whilst we don’t see Twitter’s
open source ambitions being curtailed, this might damage their

The bigger picture, though, is that Twitter has grown up and become
part of the establishment, no longer an exciting, trendy service.
Further attempts to monetise its userbase it may find resistance
and boycotts; unlike Facebook users, Twitter users fight back
against features they dislike, such as the mobile app’s quickbar
(which was killed, appropriately enough, by Twitter users showing
their discontent with the #dickbar hashtag).

(Courtesy Marco

The quickbar controversy is a great example, because in this
case Twitter users also began boycotting the official app, in
favour of third-party clients which didn’t include this overbearing
advertising. If Twitter has its way with the locking-down of its
API, though, next time its users rebel, they won’t be able to just
switch to another client. They’ll go to another social network

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