Yesterday Twitter announced the much-dreaded update to its API. To perhaps, 99% of the people on Twitter, this didn’t even register, especially if it didn’t trend, and especially so, if it didn’t involve levying a charge to use Twitter. However, the geek world  was up in arms since it severely limited which and how third-party applications could use Twitter.
Unlike email or any open-web protocol, tweets are a proprietary medium and Twitter still is a private company funded by investors in spite of the ubiquity of tweets so no one is claiming that the changes are not permissible. Unfair, unethical, and uncalled for maybe but definitely it is within Twitter’s rights and realm of possibilities to have implemented them. In fact, such changes have been expected for a long time given how long Twitter has existed as a free service and utilized by several applications and third-party services to generate revenue when Twitter itself hasn’t figured out how to. The party was going to end sooner than later as Twitter’s investors were desperate to get a return on their investment. Twitter basically had two options — charge users for the service or cozy up to advertisers and ‘sell’ their users to promote products. No web company has started out free and gone with the first option. There are a few that offer limited service for free and charge for the full buffet of features like Flickr, etc. But Twitter’s largely casual users will instantly quit even if they charge a single dollar and no advertiser wants fewer eyeballs. So Twitter went with the latter option i.e. of creating a unified experience across all the mediums you use to access Twitter and block or limit those third-party services/apps that don’t offer that experience.
Geeks are basically angry that they had helped Twitter gained traction by promoting the hell out of it and even creating most of the syntax like the @ reply, the RT, hashtags, and even apps for smartphones and tablets that now define the Twitter experience. On the face of it, they are right. Twitter wouldn’t be what it is today without the ardent geeks and developers who used the service when no one did and created tools to make it better accessible. However, it was always known that Twitter is a private company and no one was getting a stake by creating these tools. Most people did it to better their experience of Twitter and some even profited immensely by creating and selling apps for the iPhone and the iPad. One of the apps, Tweetie was bought by Twitter and made into an official Twitter app. I’m sure Loren Brichter didn’t mind that. So this sense of entitlement or even crying foul that they have been taken used doesn’t hold water since at the time, the developers did it for their own good without expectation of reward (from Twitter).
Some developers expecting this change had already embarked on creating their own Twitter clone, App.net, complete with @ replies, retweets, and hashtags but opted to charge $50 per year to use it. This, they argued, would help keep away the advertisers and also fund development of this service. While a noble endeavor, I think even the founders are aware that this is an extremely limiting service. While I may see value in forking out $50 for an unrestricted Twitter-like experience without ads, but will my followers or the people whom I currently follow on Twitter? Even if less than half of them (overly optimistic estimate) paid $50 per year to switch, I would still miss out on several that makes my Twitter experience enjoyable. Unlike the developers and geeks who sing praises of App.net, I have lot more friends in the non-developer/geek circle (cirle? Oh hai! Google+).
Even if twitter bans 3rd party apps, I know I’ll still be here. I am here for my friends. Apps are secondary.
— Chaitanya Adgaonkar (@shaitaanya) August 17, 2012
App.net may suffer from the same malaise that afflicts Google+ and prevents it from being the next Facebook i.e. none of the friends on Facebook will ever bother to switch to Google+ since none of their friends are on Google+. Twitter, as Chaitanya says above, is about the people I follow & the people that follow me and if they aren’t around, I’m not going to hop over to App.net and tweet in my own echo chamber. Sure, some of my favorite apps like Tweetbot might be severely restricted (Although Paul Haddad, Tweetbot developer, says we have nothing to worry) thus slightly diminishing my Twitter experience but it will not be that bad as to make to switch to a service where I know nobody. Perhaps if Twitter degrades more then I will reexamine my choices. I’m not even averse to seeing occasional ads in my timeline since I recognize the need for a company that provides a valuable service to earn money to keep its lights on. I would like if Twitter offered me a choice to pay to turn the ads in my timeline off but I guess, they think they can earn more off ads than from any subscription fees. If anyone feels different, they are free to launch their own Twitter-like service, like App.net is doing. But right now, it seems the developers who actually develop Twitter tools are not that worried so it does seem like a tempest in a teacup.
Companies rise and fall almost every day. Twitter has lasted this long because it brought to the web a different experience and a new mode of communication. There is no barrier to entering this market and creating even a better tool (Pownce tried and failed) with perhaps better privacy controls but ultimately people will choose a social network or a news source where most of their trusted friends or people are. For example, Branch and Medium already are two exciting new services (currently invite-only) that I’m looking forward to and although I bemoan the demise of traditional blogging, I understand that nothing is permanent except change.
- I’m not using this term in a derogatory manner. If you have an alternate word to describe the demographic, let me know [↩]