In Defense of Twitter

Many early fans of Twitter are up in arms over recent business-driven changes to Twitter’s rules: limiting the ability of other services to access follower lists and setting future limits on the number of accounts third party clients can have.

I’m not an advocate of these changes – I would love to have unlimited access to follower lists and third party clients. However, I understand the logic behind Twitter’s moves and, frankly, they are not all that surprising given that Twitter is trying to move toward a sustainable business model.

The first limit became obvious when Twitter blocked the ability of users to pull their Twitter follower lists into Instagram. Instead of finding your friends one by one when you joined Instagram, you could leverage its connection to Twitter to instantly follow anyone who you already followed on Twitter. When Twitter blocked this feature, it was excused because Facebook had bought Instagram, and there’s an obvious competition between the two services. When Twitter did the same to Tumblr, the reaction was more fierce. Tumblr isn’t viewed by many as a real Twitter competitor, and one could argue, as John Gruber has, that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two systems. Tumblr can post announcements of posts to Twitter, provided content to Twitter while also directing traffic to Tumblr.

But is that really what’s happening? I’d argue that, in many ways, Tumblr is a Twitter competitor. It’s a system that allows users to make short posts of text, pictures, or links and share them with “followers”. Yes, Tumblr posts can be longer, but they aren’t always, and both services are evolving. Let’s say Tumblr moved more in the direction of Twitter in the future. Maybe some users stop posting to Twitter and rely on Tumblr alone. Or their Twitter stream simply becomes a list of links to their Tumblr. Allowing user to easily copy the list of people they are following from Twitter to Tumblr would make it that much easier to let Tumblr take over Twitter’s business. Many users of both systems would argue that the differences between the systems are too great, that Tumblr’s vision is different from Twitter’s. Maybe so, but what if a true Twitter competitor could do the same? Why should Twitter make it easier for a competitor to leverage the follower lists build on Twitter’s infrastructure? In the case of Tumblr, Twitter felt the risk:reward ratio was too great. In fact, I could see this feature being blocked completely for any service: there’s simply not enough value for Twitter.

Regarding third party clients, the situation is more complex. Twitter has announced that future clients will be limited to 100,000 users each, and that existing clients max out at twice their existing user base if they are already over the limit. I use Tweetbot on the Mac, iPad, and iPhone, and far prefer it to the web interface and Twitter’s own apps. I’ve paid for the iOS clients despite the fact that the “official” clients are free for one reason: they’re better. The diversity and added functionality that these third party clients have added to Twitter have made the experience far richer…for the users. But does it help Twitter?

I’d argue it did, in the early days of Twitter, because it reduced the friction to adding posts to Twitter, and made the community much livelier than it otherwise would have been. Times have changed now, though, and Twitter wants to make money. Their plan includes “promoted tweets” (ads) and more complex tweet structures called cards. There may be additional features in the works, and you can be sure that Twitter’s own clients will promote these heavily. But what about third party clients? How excited would an advertiser be if they knew that their ads could be avoided by using a popular third-party client? Maybe Twitter could take an Apple like approach, adding requirements that third-party clients support promoted tweets, cards, and whatever else they have in store. But how would this work in practice? Each time Twitter wanted to add a new feature, they would have to give developers time to respond to new guidelines instead of just pushing out an update to their own software. They would have to review the software to make sure it complies with the rules. If it didn’t, they’d have to pull the plug on a potentially popular piece of software. Twitter wants to control the experience of what Twitter is, and this necessitates blocking, or at least limiting the audience of, third party clients. These changes are a consequence of the business model that Twitter has chosen.

App.net has chosen a different model: charging customers directly. Will this model succeed? Probably not, but who knows. Maybe if it becomes cheap enough, and allows for a better experience, it will catch on. It’s up to Twitter now to ensure that the experience for the users remains compelling. Or at least, compelling enough.

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