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 added):

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

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 apps).

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 recently upgraded). 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 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 altogether.

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 headlines, 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 reputation

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 Arment)

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 altogether.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments