I suppose that this is one of those things that should be expected as something in this modern web age grows from “cool startup” to “well, we actually need to make money off this business”. It’s the inevitable fork in the road that any web service honestly hopes it has to deal with. We seem to be rapidly approaching that with Twitter, which released some new guidelines that may change the complexion of the service entirely.
Now I should preface this all by saying that a lot of people aren’t going to really care about this. Most may not even notice these changes. I’m fairly certain that the majority of current Twitter users access the service via the website or one of the official mobile apps. They have no idea what an API is or how that affects them, and they probably will never care. They just want to hear the latest 140 characters of wisdom and guidance that their favorite celebrity is proffering, or see what their favorite company is up to.
I, only the other hand, am not pleased with this at all, on a number of levels. First of all, the stock Twitter experience sucks. The website is blah, the mobile apps are unappealing and basic, and there are a lot of developers doing wonderful things that the folks at Twitter HQ are either unwilling or unable to do. I never ever use the Twitter website. All of my access comes via app (for the record, I use MetroTwit on all my Windows machines, Tweetbot on my iPhone, and the Tweetbot alpha on my MacBook). I like apps because I can control how I see things on my own terms. I want to be able to follow who I want and see what I want to see with a minimum of fuss. Maybe that makes me a part of a small minority, but it matters to me. The fact that Tweetbot and Echofon (another popular mobile app on a few platforms) were called out by name in the same sentence as developers being told not to make apps that “mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience” is unsettling, at best.
The bigger issue to me is what I think this represents. Twitter is a very different service than it was three or four years ago. I believe its adoption by the business, celebrity, and sports worlds is (both purposefully and inadvertently) driving this change. Consider what I said before. A lot of people want to follow their favorite celebrities on Twitter. Hell, most every celebrity from A-listers to people who had five minutes on a reality show have a Twitter account (although it still kind of baffles me that millions of people live and breathe on every 140 characters that Kim Kardashian turns out). Turn on the TV, watch almost any show that puts up someone’s name and it will include their Twitter handle (even the news!). Shows try to influence chatter in the Twittersphere by putting suggested hashtags on screen during the show itself. Then there is the growing corporate presence on the service as well. Most every major product, service, and company has a Twitter account. They now hire people to do nothing more than Tweet about stuff involving their company. All in all, I have no problem with any of this. I follow my fair share of celebrities, and Twitter can be a very good way to get customer service or help with issues from a company. My concern is that due to this profound shift in how the service works, the marketing department has taken hold of the switch, and that is not a good thing. This most directly comes across in the section that talks about how Tweets need to be displayed, that they need to work a certain way and look a certain way. That smells an awful lot like making sure that corporate heads who have partnered up with Twitter want a fuller control over the way things work there. Let’s also not forget the banning of the journalist that was super critical of NBC’s Olympics coverage that came right on the heels of Twitter partnering with NBC for the Olympics. Again, it’s unsettling.
Then there’s the money aspect. If you go to the Twitter website, or use an official app, you will start to see “promoted” tweets from brands in there. I went on my Droid (which serves as my alarm clock and has the official Android app on it) and was greeted with a “promoted” tweet for Yoplait. You don’t get that with third party apps. Now, it is true that Twitter needs to keep the lights on. Servers, storage, and bandwidth are expensive and the service needs money to keep growing (and avoid the dreaded fail whale), but the way they’re looking to do it is kind of stark and uncool. Their goal has obviously shifted to funneling their userbase through their official channels so they can totally control the advertising revenues that the service creates. I’m sure it displeases them when third party apps show their own ads and they don’t get any of that money for it. It’s just too bad that their experience is subpar, and they show little desire to make any actual fixes for it.
In the time since I started to write this, the point really got hit home when Tapbots, which makes Tweetbot, had to pull the alpha version of their software for Mac because Twitter would not work with them on the external client limit. Even in an alpha state, I found that Tweetbot runs circles around the official Twitter client for Mac. I don’t think there’s a clearer case of writing on the wall about Twitter’s future than this.
Without a doubt, we’ve seen Twitter (the company) enter an interesting period of transition. It’s put itself on the same solid ground as Facebook as the go to social media experience of the world at large (as solid as such a thing can be). It has worldwide recognition. Everyone uses it. However, this period of transition is going to be tricky because we could see the needs of Twitter (the company) totally ruin Twitter (the service). Hip early adopters have already fled to places like app.net and more will eventually follow to other places and services if the experience falls to shit because they wanted to make a few extra bucks. I’m not sure how this turns out, but that bird may end up dead faster than we know.