If you are a Twitter user, you have probably heard about the sweeping changes made by Twitter to the Twitter API ToS (Terms of Service). In one fell swoop, Twitter’s platform lead Ryan Sarver outlawed all new Twitter clients. The justification offered was that Twitter wants to provide a consistent user experience in order to avoid confusing users. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Twitter’s real motivation is something a lot less noble.
Back in 2009, when Twitter was experiencing tearaway growth, the billion dollar question in everyone’s mind was how will Twitter manage to generate enough revenue to become profitable. Two years on, we have a better idea. Besides selling access to search engines like Google and Bing, Twitter is using various promoted products (promoted trends, promoted accounts and promoted tweets) to generate revenue. The recent inclusion of the #dickbar in the iOS app suggests that Twitter is about to get more aggressive about monetization. Unfortunately, if a large number of users continue to prefer third party apps, Twitter might find it harder to generate enough revenue. And, that is the single biggest motivation for Twitter’s recent ToS changes. If maintaining consistent user experience is all they were worried about, they could have easily made third party apps fall in line by introducing a few additional clauses to the ToS, instead of abolishing them.
MG Siegler has done a comparison of the old ToS with the new one. The most telling bit is that Twitter has gone from wanting to empower our ecosystem partners to build valuable businessesto empower our ecosystem partners to build valuable tools.
As you might expect, most developers aren’t bemused. Twitter started off as simple service intended for sharing what you are currently doing with your friends. Now, it is being used for everything from organizing protests to proposing one’s girlfriend. Twitter itself has gone from asking “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?. The credit for the evolution of Twitter lies with its ecosystem, which includes both users and third-party developers.
Fred Oliveira eloquently explained why the recent ToS change is a #dickmove in an open letter to Twitter. Twitter’s dramatic change of policy will not only anger developers, but also users. To quote Oliveira:
Lack of trust (like what developers are feeling right now) trickles down through the ecosystem and to the users’ ears.
I just don’t see this as a time when you can just tell developers you don’t need their clients anymore. Find ways to monetize your service by putting up sensible rules and guidelines, not walls.
However, there is another issue that Oliveira missed. From the very beginning, it is the ecosystem that defined and redefined Twitter. The list of features that were first seen in third-party clients and were later adopted by Twitter is fairly lengthy. It includes features like retweets, trends, lists, flickr integration, YouTube integration, URL shortening and so on. In brief, Twitter clients have been responsible for major innovations, and they have helped shape Twitter. By preventing the entry of third-party apps, Twitter will also be stifling innovation.
Twitter raised large sums of money in its funding rounds. It is obviously under pressure to start generating serious revenue soon. However, it seems to be willing to betray developers, annoy users, and damage the entire ecosystem in the process. The big question is can they afford to continue pissing off developers and users? Is the core product compelling enough to make users and developers stick around irrespective of Twitter’s betrayal? I have a feeling that if Twitter continues to be irreverent towards developers, in the long run, these very decisions might come back to haunt Dick Costolo and Twitter.