The debate over Twitter’s grip on its API comes down to developers versus dollars

no more open twitterLast week Twitter announced it would be tightening its grip over its API – a grip that’s already white-knuckled. The reaction has come swiftly, with hardly any surprises. Developers are chafing at the harsh restrictions from a network that likes to say it’s an open platform, and the more business-minded among us are defending the move of an application that’s outgrown its original user base.

It’s a debate worth having, and one that has a lot to do with Twitter’s future. There is a sort of path-choosing going on here: does Twitter grab the momentum it’s experiencing and run with it, leaving developers in its dust and chasing the lure of bigger user numbers and (potentially) bigger money? It appears that’s the plan.

There’s certainly an inherent risk in the choice Twitter is making. Developers are disillusioned with the increasingly controlling platform, a platform that they originally poured some serious sweat into during the early days. Back then, Twitter probably didn’t know what it was going to become – a word playground for celebrities, a road to Internet fame, a branding tool, a product promoting paradise. It’s a very different community than it was in its infancy; it’s grown into this whole other thing and that’s perfectly normal.

The more pressing problem is that Twitter is hardly developing its platform quickly enough to start drawing such thick lines between itself and app creators. The New York Times’ Nick Bilton talked about this, noting that third-party apps have been user favorites for a reason: largely, they provide a better experience.

If Twitter wants to go this road alone, then it’s hopefully about to go on a building spree. It needs a better photo client; it needs to deal with direct messages better; icons should be identical across its available apps (in fact, the whole experience should be more familiar across devices); in-line photo viewing is a must (it’s apparently on the way).

There are really three distinct reasons why people are (or should be) upset about this: First, the benefit of an open API is that you are sourcing a huge community to help solve your problems or make your application better. And Twitter needs to be better. Second, much of Twitter’s success came thanks to third party developers, and this feels like a slap in the face. Third, there are larger implications here, like the fact that Twitter has become a global messaging and alert system of sorts, and that’s something that should remain as open as possible.

Bottlenose CEO Noah Spivack talked about this last point. “[Twitter] has become so important to humanity that regime changes now are catalyzed by it. In short this is a critical technology for our civilization today.”

“Is it safe that one company is in control of this infrastructure? Definitely no,” he says. “No matter what company it is, it’s risky to have this critical infrastructure go through one single point of control.”

That responsibility has been thrust upon Twitter – though I’d argue that the founders didn’t see anything quite like Twitter’s involvement with the Arab Spring in its future. So it’s hard to tell a company that may have seen itself going down one, revenue-focused road, “Hey, sorry, we want to use it like this… so back off!” You can’t blame Twitter for wanting to make money. But you can fervently wish it’d find another way – Spivack maintains Twitter could offer a dual API model, with free and premium options available.

Twitter has hit the big time and it’s saying goodbye to the little guys (see ya, LinkedIn!) in the meantime. And you just have to hope it doesn’t come back to bite them in the end. 

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