Twitter goes full douchebag

Twitter is to block most third-party apps, which don't comply with their strict rules on access.

We've written, at length, on Twitter's attempts to safeguard the profitability of its network against all-comers, so this shouldn't come as any surprise: the company has confirmed that, from March 2013, they will begin enforcing a de facto ban on third-party apps.

The ban is revealed in two passages in a post to developers by Twitter's director of consumer content, Michael Sippey. The first tells developers that the company's "display guidelines" will become "display requirements", while the second explains that from now on, any service with more than one million users will need special permission from Twitter to continue growing.

The display requirements are an incredibly strict set of requirements which not only hit their intended target, third-party consumer clients like Tweetbot, Econfon or Ubersocial, but also a huge number of unintended ones – Jason Kottke says that his aggregation site Stellar meets just four of the 16 requirements, while Marco Arment, developer of the popular Instapaper reading app, thinks that his "liked by friends" feature will have to be pulled, or at least rewritten, to comply.

Other rules look likely to hit services like Flipboard (which breaks 5.a., "tweets that are grouped together into a timeline should not be rendered with non-Twitter content. e.g. comments, updates from other networks") and Storify and Favstar (which break 3.b., "no other social or 3rd party actions may be attached to a Tweet"). Or they would, had Twitter not clarified that actually, those latter two are the "good" apps. Ryan Sarver, the company's director of platform, tweeted that they are what they want in the ecosystem.

This ought to be good news - two of the most useful third party apps are safe - but in fact, it's even more upsetting. It shows that, from the off, Twitter's rules all contain an implicit "...but you can ignore these if we like you." If that is the case, it's not hard to imagine that they also contain an implicit "...and no matter how well you follow these, if we don't like you, you're off the service." Everything using the network does so at the capricious whim of its overlords.

The million user limit is even more indiscriminately applied. Any application, no matter what it does or how well it complies with the published rules, needs to "work with [Twitter] directly" to get more users than that. It is, essentially, a rule that gives the company carte blanch to pick and choose whether any company getting too big can be allowed to grow.

Most companies try to keep customers by keeping customers happy. Twitter is clear in its intentions: it wants to keep customers by making it extraordinarily difficult for them to leave. It is holding its network hostage; you can go, but you can't take your friends with you.

In July, when Twitter first acted on their intentions to block clients which "mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience" I wrote that:

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.

But with these changes, Twitter hasn't just hit the apps used by a small (nerdy) minority of users. There are going to be very few Twitter users who aren't affected in some way or another by this attempt to turn the site into a Facebook-style walled garden.

Ben Brooks, author of the Brooks Review, sums up the news:

We like to make analogies to Apple in tech blogging circles, so here goes: this is the moment in Twitter’s life where they kicked Steve Jobs out of the company and told Sculley to run it.

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

Collage by New Statesman
Show Hide image

Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

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

0800 7318496