The rise of social media has been a boon for developers. Thanks to open platforms and APIs created by companies like Facebook and Twitter, developers have been able to help grow, and at the same time piggyback on, the success of some of the internet's most popular online properties.
But is the marriage between these properties and developers destined to come to a messy end?
Last week, Ryan Sarver, an employee who works on its API essentially informed developers with Twitter clients of their own that Twitter is breaking up.
In an announcement posted to the Twitter API Announcements Google Group, he wrote:
He went on:
Developers have told us that they’d like more guidance from us about the best opportunities to build on Twitter. More specifically, developers ask us if they should build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience. The answer is no.
Twitter isn't shutting down developers already offering client apps. It says it is working with them to ensure that they understand the rules. But Sarver did offer a warning which some might construe as a veiled threat:
"You can continue to serve your user base, but we will be holding you to high standards to ensure you do not violate users’ privacy, that you provide consistency in the user experience, and that you rigorously adhere to all areas of our Terms of Service."
Of course, Twitter's API Terms of Service isn't exactly cut and dry. Amongst traditional legal terms, there are gems such as "Be a good partner to Twitter." While there's some explanation of what this entails, it is also abundantly clear that this is also arbitrary. Violate the "spirit of [the] principles" Twitter lays out, for instance, and you can kiss access to the Twitter API goodbye.
So what is the role of the developer in the Twitter ecosystem today?
Sarver suggests that instead of building clients, developers focus on publishing tools, curation, tools that analyze "realtime data signals", social CRM and vertical applications. To make his suggestion more enticing, he even highlights companies that are having success in these areas.
What happens if Twitter decides that it wants a piece of the action in these areas too?
It's nice for Twitter to highlight opportunities that it thinks developers should pursue, but it's difficult to trust that it won't later decide that it wants to exploit these opportunities itself once it sees that there could be big money in them.
Certainly Twitter's position vis-à-vis client software demonstrates that it's about as trustworthy as a used car salesman with a criminal record.
Twitter's defense is that developers shouldn't build Twitter clients because an experience free from fragmentation and inconsistency is necessary. It says its own research has revealed a confusion problem amongst users, but at the same time it notes that "90% of active Twitter users use official Twitter apps on a monthly basis" and this number continues to increase, so it's somewhat difficult to take Sarver's explanation at face value.
What's really happening here is that Twitter has decided what it wants to be when it grows up. It doesn't want to be a communications platform provider; it wants to be a media company. Not only is the latter sexier, it's a lot easier to monetize with advertising, which is clearly the business model Twitter management feels most comfortable with, even if users don't.
The problem, of course, is that to be a media company, Twitter realistically has to control all the tools its users use to consume tweets with. That means finding a way to push aside some of the applications built on top of the open API designed when it thought it might be a communications platform.
Whether Twitter is making the right bet, or can successfully transition itself into a media company, remains to be seen. Taking the media company path may help Twitter boost its revenue more quickly in the short term, but I also think a lot of the excitement it has created over the years was based on the belief that itwas going to be something more (read: bigger and more groundbreaking than a bunch of advertising offerings).
Many developers bought into this notion, and Twitter has a vibrant developer ecosystem as a result. As a media company, Twitter is liable to continue encroaching on the turf of many of those developers, and that will turn many of them off.
For the developers thinking about sticking along for the rest of the ride regardless, there's a saying worth considering: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Now that Twitter has made its intentions known, savvy developers will avoid being fooled again.
In many instances that will mean abandoning Twitter altogether and investing in platforms that are more stable and operated by more trustworthy partners.