Twitter fires first shots against Instagram/Facebook

The Great Network Wars of 2012 have begun.

Someday, your children will ask you "where were you when the first shots of the great Twitter Wars were fired?" Well, if you're reading this from Britain, you were probably in bed, but fired they were last night, as Twitter disabled access to parts of its network for the Facebook-owned photo sharing app Instagram.

TechCrunch's Alexia Tsotsis reports:

Instagram has just announced 80 million users and a new app update; Noticeably missing in the update? The “Find Your Friends” on Twitter feature, which allowed users to follow the same people they follow on Twitter on Instagram.

The “Tweet Photo” feature is still available.

We’ve learned that the feature is missing due to API restrictions from Twitter’s end. . .

The official word from Twitter, as told to The Next Web's Brad McCarthy:

We understand that there’s great value associated with Twitter’s follow graph data, and we can confirm that it is no longer available within Instagram.

Twitter is, it appears, deathly serious about consolidating its users into one big, official-client using, advertising-watching mass of people. It announced earlier this month that it was going to be severely restricting API access – the method by which apps communicate with the network – to unofficial apps like Hootsuite, Tweetbot and Ubersocial "replicate the experience of using".

Now it apparently wants to protect its "follow graph", the information about who follows who, as well. What's interesting is that this is not a blanket change to the API. Smaller apps, like the reading service Instapaper, still have access to the follow graph, and are using it in the same way Instagram has been banned. This is a surgical strike against Facebook.

Twitter is playing a dangerous game with their users here, however. Part of the reason the service is so popular has been the ease with which other ones can hook into it. Yes, Instagram needed access to the follow graph to take off; but once all your Twitter friends became Instagram friends as well, the bond of the first app grew stronger. If everything comes from one site, there is the chance that the walled garden that they are trying to create may keep people out as well as in.

The conflict – between how they grew and how they want to grow – was summed up well by Matt Yglesias, who wrote that Twitter wants to be an advertising company, but all its users want it to be a service provider:

Rather than selling lots of ads on Twitter, Twitter could sell itself as a service to the large number of people and firms who are already organically using it as an advertising tool.

Which is just to say that the Twitter user base seems ideal for a tiered pricing model. Most people on Twitter don't tweet that much, don't have very many followers, and don't particularly aspire to having a large number of followers. Then you have a relatively small minority of heavy users who are deliberately courting a mass Twitter audience. Just charge us! Let everyone with fewer than 500 followers use it for free, and then have a few tiers of pricing for people with large followings. Most people probably have no desire to pay for Twitter, but anyone who's bothered to amass 20,000 is obviously getting a lot of value from access to the Twitter audience and would pay for it. Meanwhile the broad mass of non-professional users could keep using a great no-charge ad-free service that creates the ecosystem pro users want to pay to gain access to.

Sadly, the company is unlikely to take that advice; yet for many people, a small monthly fee would be worth it to keep twitter the way it was when they joined it. Just remember, if you aren't paying for something, you aren't the customer – you're the product being sold.

Douchebag Twitter.

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

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.