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.

exseada/DeviantArt
Show Hide image

Why Twitter is dying, in ten tweets

It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

Twitter has been dying since 2009, and commentators have pre-emptively declared it deceased pretty much every year since. To declare that it's on the downturn has become a bit of a cliché. But that doesn't mean that it isn't also, well, true.

Grumbling among users and commentators has grown to a roar over the past few days, thanks in part to a Buzzfeed report (refuted by Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO) claiming the service will move away from a chronological timeline and towards an algorithmic one. Users coined the hashtag #RIPTwitter in response, and, tellingly, many of their complaints spanned beyond the apparently erroneous report. 

They join a clutch of other murmurings, bits of data and suggestions that things are not as they should be in the Twitter aviary. 

Below is one response to the threat of the new timeline, aptly showing that for lots of users, the new feed would have been the straw that broke the tweeters' backs:

Twitter first announced it was considering a new 10,000 character limit in January, but it's yet to be introduced. Reactions so far indicate that no one thinks this is a good idea, as the 140 character limit is so central to Twitter's unique appeal. Other, smaller tweaks – like an edit button – would probably sit much more easily within Twitter's current stable of features, and actually improve user experience: 

While Dorsey completely denied that the change would take place, he then followed up with an ominous suggestion that something would be changing:

"It'll be more real-time than a feed playing out in real time!" probably isn't going to placate users who think the existing feed works just fine. It may be hard to make youself heard on the current timeline, but any kind of wizardry that's going to decide what's "timely" or "live" for you is surely going to discriminate against already alienated users.

I've written before about the common complaint that Twitter is lonely for those with smaller networks. Take this man, who predicts that he'll be even more invisible in Twitter's maelstrom if an algorithm deems him irrelevant: 

What's particularly troubling about Twitter's recent actions is the growing sense that it doesn't "get" its users. This was all but confirmed by a recent string of tweets from Brandon Carpenter, a Twitter employee who tweeted this in response to speculation about new features:

...and then was surprised and shocked when he received abuse from other accounts:

This is particularly ironic because Twitter's approach (or non-approach) to troll accounts and online abusers has made it a target for protest and satire (though last year it did begin to tackle the problem). @TrustySupport, a spoof account, earned hundreds of retweets by mocking Twitter's response to abuse:

Meanwhile, users like Milo Yiannopolous, who regularly incites his followers to abuse and troll individuals (often women and trans people, and most famously as part of G*merg*te), has thrived on Twitter's model and currently enjoys the attentions of almost 160,000 followers. He has boasted about the fact that Twitter could monetise his account to pull itself out of its current financial trough:

The proof of any social media empire's decline, though, is in its number and activity of users. Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that, based on a sample of tweets, tweets per user had fallen by almost 50 per cent since last August. Here's the reporter's tweet about it:

Interestingly, numbers of new users remained roughly the same – which implies not that Twitter can't get new customers, but that it can't keep its current ones engaged and tweeting. 

Most tellingly of all, Twitter has stopped reporting these kinds of numbers publicly, which is why Jim Edwards had to rely on data taken from an API. Another publication followed up Edwards' story with reports that users aren't on the platform enough to generate ad revenue:

The missing piece of the puzzle, and perhaps the one thing keeping Twitter alive, is that its replacement hasn't (yet) surfaced. Commentators obsessed with its declining fortunes still take to Twitter to discuss them, or to share their articles claiming the platform is already dead. It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

For all its faults, and for all they might multiply, Twitter's one advantage is that there's currently no other totally open platform where people can throw their thoughts around in plain, public view. Its greatest threat yet will come not from a new, dodgy feature, but from a new platform – one that can actually compete with it.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.