Dear Lifehacker, I keep hearing people complain about Twitter’s new rules and guidelines. Honestly, I don’t understand what’s going on, and I have no idea if I should even care about it. Why’s everyone so upset?
Title image remixed from rudall30 (Shutterstock).
The crux of why people are upset with Twitter is pretty simple: Twitter is changing its Application Programming Interface (API) and closing off how third-party apps communicate with Twitter. For casual Twitter users, this means that Twitter controls what information apps can access on Twitter, how they access it, and how the app shoots out the data on its end. On the surface, the main goal is to keep Twitter clients consistent, and push ads equally throughout all of Twitter.
On a larger scale, people have different reasons for being upset with Twitter right now, and it really depends on what type of Twitter user you are. Here are the people Twitter’s changes are going to affect the most, and the reasons they’re pissed about the new rules.
The Twitter Developer Who’s Worried About What The Changes Mean For Their Business
Developers who build Twitter clients like MetroTwit or TweetBot are the most clearly affected by Twitter’s new rules. In Twitter’s new API Terms, Twitter states that Twitter clients need to keep in line with Twitter’s layout rules, which require tweets to be displayed in a single way, with all their buttons in the right places. From a visual point of view, all Twitter apps should essentially look the same. However, in a blog post back in June, Twitter also stated that developers should not, “build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience.” Essentially, this means Twitter doesn’t want people building new Twitter clients.
Twitter has also instituted a user cap of 100,000 people for any app that uses the Twitter API, but they are giving a special allowance to any apps that already has over 100,000 users. When a new app gets more users that 100,000, it needs special permission from Twitter to continue on. This includes not just the Twitter clients that show your Twitter stream, but also apps that tap into the Twitter ecosystem like the aggregation tool Storify or the “what you did a year ago” webapp Timehop. Essentially, if your app taps into Twitter for any reason, you’re going to see changes.
From a strictly Twitter client point of view, the changes seem like they’ll cut Twitter clients completely. However, in a blog post, Tweetbot developer Tapbots explains they’ll continue work on their clients (iPhone, iPad, and Mac), and the majority of the app will be unchanged. Twitterific developer Icon Factory says the same thing.
Not all developers are so confident, and several have sent letters to the FTC requesting an investigation into possible antitrust issues that arise by Twitter forcing other apps out of the game.
Until we see how Twitter enforces these rules it’s difficult to know exactly what to expect.
The Twitter Power User Who Likes Third Party Utilities
Twitter power users are going to see big changes in their Twitter clients, but many of the analytics tools they use will remain untouched. In fact, in Twitter’s blog post on the issue, they specifically high-five the likes of Crimson Hexagon, Topsy, Hootsuite, and others. In short, if you’re using apps that are targeted at businesses, for data mining or otherwise, you’re probably fine.
However, power users will likely see less customised clients built specifically for certain types of users. Lifehacker founder Gina Trapani sums it up on the In Beta podcast:
I think the big thing people are upset about is that we’re going to see fewer custom power user clients. Which really sucks for the power user who want the very specialised client who lets you mute keywords, or whatever.
The reason? With a new rules, developers might not put forth the effort to build specialised clients anymore. It could also mean that currently beloved clients will just give up. It’s no fun playing in a playground with chains and locks on all the equipment. Since this hinges on how developers react, it’s hard to judge exactly what the effect will be until Twitter starts enforcing these rules.
Twitter Users Who Like Services Like Flipboard That Plug Into Twitter
The loudest outrage from most people is how Twitter’s been tackling the way third-party services access Twitter. In a tiny way, this is about how Tumblr, Instagram and LinkedIn users can’t search for friends on Twitter any more.
More worrisome about the new API rules is how it might restrict apps like the popular social news app Flipboard, which accesses tweets, but isn’t a client itself. The worry comes from Rule 5a of the Timeline display guide:
Tweets that are grouped together into a timeline should not be rendered with non-Twitter contents. Eg comments, updates from other networks.
Instapaper developer Marco Arment talks about why this might matter in a blog post:
In other words, apps cannot interleave chronological groups of Twitter posts with anything else.
This is very broad and will bite more services and apps than you may expect. It’s probably the clause that caused the dispute with LinkedIn, and why Flipboard CEO Mike McCue just left Twitter’s board.
Closer to home for me, it affects Instapaper’s “Liked By Friends” browsing feature, which will need to be significantly rewritten if I want it to comply. (If.)
Essentially, services that tap into your Twitter feed and regurgitate links into a new visual style could be blocked. This means magazine-style browsing apps like Flipboard could be cut off.
The likely reasoning from Twitter’s point of view is simple. When you access links from who you follow on Twitter without ever going to Twitter itself, you can get the Twitter experience without ever looking at advertisements.
The Optimistic Web Nerd Who Wants Twitter To Be A Platform, Not A Media Company
When Twitter first launched, it was a wide-open, easy-to-develop-for platform that felt something like the wild wild west of internet communication. Now, Twitter is closing in on itself, and changing its overall approach from open platform for communication to media company. The reason? Money. (They’re a for-profit company, so while the results are frustrating, it’s silly to blame them for this.) The Verge lays it out like so:
Creating a platform like Twitter is impossibly hard, but after years of fail whales, the company pulled it off. Monetising a platform is harder still, and it looks like Twitter has taken the easier path: monetising its social graph without sharing the wealth with the developers who helped build it.
The reason the social graph (who you follow/who follows you) is important from an advertising point of view is pretty simple: people use Twitter like they use a TV, they follow who they’re interested in and that reflects a marketing potential. This makes direct advertising easy.
Twitter’s original API was wide open, and out of it sprung all types of innovative apps and uses — the very same things that turned Twitter into the successful company it is today. The openness was the exact reason many of us started using the service in the first place. Twitter was a platform you could access in a variety of ways, and use for a number of different reasons. You could track celebrities, communicate with people, and share links with complete strangers. Users wanted to think of it as a platform similar to email as opposed to a media company (like Facebook). It’s easy to see that Twitter needs to make money, but many people hoped (perhaps naively) that Twitter would still function as a platform. Not as yet another Facebook.
Twitter’s guidelines for some of these changes are still pretty vague, and interpretations of how Twitter will implement the changes are all over the place. Developers have six months to comply with the new API, and hopefully by then we’ll have a better idea of how it’s going to affect everyone.
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