Twitter doesn't like you avoiding ads

The social network has announced tough new restrictions on how third-parties can build apps.

Twitter has announced in a post titled Delivering a consistent Twitter experience that developers producing third-party twitter apps need to start including all the major features of the branded Twitter apps and website. Michael Sippey writes:

We’re building tools for publishers and investing more and more in our own apps to ensure that you have a great experience everywhere you experience Twitter, no matter what device you’re using. You need to be able to see expanded Tweets and other features that make Twitter more engaging and easier to use. These are the features that bring people closer to the things they care about. These are the features that make Twitter Twitter. We're looking forward to working with you to make Twitter even better.

The proximal cause of the news is the launch of a new feature on Twitter, expanded tweets, which lets publishers show previews of what a tweet is linking to directly in the interface:

Yet really, the news goes to the heart of Twitter's strategy as a company. Like most companies of its pedigree, it makes money through advertising. It sells tweets, trends, and promotion in the "who to follow" box. But if you use a third party twitter app – that is, any app not made by twitter, like Tweetbot for iPhones, Hootsuite on the web, or Ubersocial on Android – you don't see those.

That is bad enough for the company, but up to now, the users of those apps are a minority on the service. The vast majority of twitterers use the website itself, or one of the official clients on mobile devices. So why should they care that nerds are going to be forced to do what they do normally?

Because Twitter aren't just trying to monetise the users they currently miss out on. They also want to – at the risk of being alarmist – block the exits.

In April 2010, the company acquired the developers of Tweetie, the then-most popular independent app (this was at a time, hard as it is to believe, when they didn't have an official app), and rebranded it as the official app. Less than a year later, they introduced a feature known as the "quickbar". In terms of usability, it was one of the most obnoxious features added to the service since it's inception – an always-on view of the trending topics at the top of the screen which took up valuable space on the small phone.

The quickbar was such a failure that twitter pulled it from the app, in the fear of sparking an exodus to other clients, but at the same time as backtracking on that, the company made its first ominous pronouncement on the future of third-party developers, warning them not to:

Build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience.

This is, of course, what most apps do – they replace, rather than adding to, what the official client can do – but for the last year, Twitter has stayed quiet on its threats. Until now. Next time Twitter introduces something similar to the quickbar, there will be nowhere to run.

They can take Tweetbot from our phones, but they'll never take it from our hearts. They'll just disable the API so it can't access the site.

The Twitter logo, manipulated.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The internet dictionary: what is astroturfing?

Yes, like the fake grass.

Thanks to the internet, there are a lot of new words. You’re most likely up to speed with your LOLs and OMGs, which became Oxford English Dictionary-worthy in 2011 (LOL OMG if you’re not). But words emerge constantly, and it can be hard to keep track of them. This is what this column is for. Every week, I’ll define a word that is crucial to understanding the internet, starting with “astroturfing” – like the fake grass.

To astroturf is to mask the author of a message to make it appear to have come from the grass roots. Messages created by brands, politicians and even the military are disguised as comments made by the public. The practice existed before the web – the term is thought to have been coined in 1985 by a US senator who received a “mountain” of letters from insurance companies posing as the public – but the internet has propelled it to new, disturbing heights.

“GIRLS U NEED TO READ THIS,” reads a tweet by a handsome teenage boy named Ashton, who tweets the same words day after day, followed by crying and heart emojis. Ashton lives to promote the book of a 19-year-old self-published author from Sheffield – or, at least, he would, if he lived at all. Ashton is fake, a profile designed to make the book seem popular. Many teenage girls have been duped by this. One told me: “I felt very cheated out of my money and my time.”

It has been estimated that a third of all consumer reviews online are fake. But it doesn’t end with bad books. In China, the “50 Cent Army” are astroturfers who are allegedly paid a small fee for each positive post they write about the Chinese Communist Party. And in 2011, it emerged that the US military was developing an “online persona management service” to spread pro-American messages, allowing one person to manage multiple online identities.

We would be foolish to assume that our own democracy is immune. Much was written about how the Tories used targeted social media adverts at the last election, and it is easy to see how astroturfing could transform our political landscape for ever. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon