Translating and talking through Twitter’s new API restrictions

failwhale snap twitter api third party apps

Earlier this summer, Twitter announced that it would be making some announcements about its API in the near future. The language of the short blog post made it clear this was not something third party developers would be happy about, but essentially Twitter was telling them they would soon be telling them something… at some point. And then all went quiet on Twitter’s front.

Now, the company is finally speaking up and making its new terms clear. “In the coming weeks we will release version 1.1 of the Twitter API,” Twitter’s Michael Sippey said in a blog post yesterday. “To help you plan ahead, we’re announcing these changes now, before the new version of the API is available. Changes will include:

  • “required authentication on every API endpoint
  • a new per-endpoint rate-limiting methodology
  • changes to our Developer Rules of the Road, especially around applications that are traditional Twitter clients.”
In lieu of another hate-filled Twitter rant (of which there are many, and deservedly so), we need to qualify what exactly it is Twitter is doing, who it effects, and what it means for the ecosystem and everyone tied to it. 


Translation time

There are no surprises here: Twitter wants as much control as possible over what Twitter looks like and how users experience it. That means apps can no longer anonymously use the Twitter API – something that was formally allowed. It also puts restrictions on how big an app can grow using the Twitter platform.

“Right now, in version 1.0 of the Twitter API we limit the number of authenticated requests applications can make to 350 calls per hour, regardless of the type of information the application was requesting,” the blog post reads. In the new version, “…Most individual API endpoints will be rate limited at 60 calls per hour per-endpoint… there will be a set of high-volume endpoints related to Tweet display, profile display, user lookup, and user search where applications will be able to make up to 720 calls per hour per endpoint,” Twitter says. If you can do basic math, you know this is a huge dip, even though Twitter is taking a sliding scale approach in lieu of its previous flat rate model.

Also, it’s vague. Because those numbers matter depending on what type of calls a developer is making; for instance a call to pull a list of a user’s friends isn’t hugely needed. But calls for the search API are high, and 60 is, as Bottlenose founder Nova Spivack tells me, “so low it’s almost useless.”

This isn’t the only way Twitter is creating limitations, and apps will have to start paying attention to their users counts – not that they didn’t before, but numbers that used to be good could be bad.

twitter quadrant“…If you are building a Twitter client application that is accessing the home timeline, account settings or direct messages API endpoints (typically used by traditional client applications) or are using our User Streams product, you will our permission if your application will require more than 100,000 individual user tokens.”

Apps that are already over this number can continue to operate, however, once it doubles the number of users it currently has it can only continue to access the Twitter API if Twitter says so. “You’ll be able to maintain your application to serve your users, but you will not be able to add additional users without our permission.” That’s some heavy-handed stuff.

…For who exactly?

Right, okay, so it’s some heavy-handed stuff for certain developers – namely, traditional Twitter alternative clients. Services like Tweetbot, Echofon, UberSocial, Seesmic, Tweetcaster, and Twitterific are going to be among the most challenged by Twitter’s new API rules. (Although, for the record, it sounds like Twitter knows how popular Tweetbot is and willing working closely with them). 

So not everything that uses Twitter for its own purposes is being put out to pasture; Twitter in fact points out that Klout, Storify, and HootSuite make the cut… right before stressing that the not so lucky previously listed had this coming:

“Nearly eighteen months ago, we gave developers guidance that they should not build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience. And to reiterate what I wrote in my last post, that guidance continues to apply today.”

Okay, but what does it mean for users

If you use and the proprietary Twitter app, this is all meaningless. I could not emphasize this enough: This news has absolutely no effect on you. Sorry if you’ve read this far, waiting for some horrible, crushing news about your favorite Twitter feature (example: There’s now a limit on hashtag usage! Only four # signs per tweet!), but you can now carry on with your life as if nothing ever happened. Because for you, it didn’t.

There are lots of pundits saying that only the geekiest of Twitter users will be upset by these changes; the tech scene watchers for who Twitter has become a pulse. But I think those analysts are underestimating the social impact Twitter has started to have. There are plenty of Twitter users who have become incredibly addicted to the service and who have been using alternative services that are better for mobile (which plenty of them are). And they will not take kindly to losing access, or seeing their apps of choice starved into uselessness.

I think the tech blogosphere is largely misjudging how many users – be they of average or explicit tech knowledge – care about their third party Twitter clients.

In the immortal words of Steve Ballmer, “Developers! Developers! Developers!”

That said, Twitter’s API restrictions clearly impact developers the most and they are rightly having the most extreme reactions.

“This has been the ominous elephant in the room for awhile now,” TwitPic and Heello (the latter of which has a big relaunch is in the works) founder Noah Everett tells me. “Twitter’s a great platform and it’s done great thing, but it could have been better about communicating with us. Their users are our users, and so we treat them as such.”

There’s plenty of nostalgic remorse from the community as well – Twitter was this thing, built with support from developers, and there’s never been anything like that. And then this about face has struck back at the talent that was there from day one.

That sentiment of betrayal is unmistakable, and it’s been around since the initial warnings about all this API business, but some of the today’s specifics have struck a chord. “It’s draconian on some ways,” Spivack tells me. “Putting a limit on the number of users is really anti-competitive and weird. A lot of what they’ve done clearly puts them in a position to slowly starve and kill anything they feel is competitive.”

Spivack says Bottlenose should be in the clear according to Twitter’s memo, but that there are so many holes in the lines of communication that it’s difficult to tell. “Having tried to talk to them, I can tell you I’m trying to think of any organization other than the DMV that’s harder to talk to.”

Clearly, Twitter has damaged its credibility with developers. “The third party ecosystem is what made Twitter,” AppCubby founder David Barnard wrote today. “This announcement is a huge slap in the face and a knife to the back.”

For those currently developing Twitter clients, there’s a fear they’ll have to start backpedaling or slowing innovation. For those thinking of launching such a platform-dependent app, the outlook is bleak. “No new companies that want to use the Twitter API will get funded,” says Spivack. “And if you’re API depends on Twitter, prepare for investors to scale back.” Given that your growth is limited from the get-go, your aspirations are pretty limited immediately.

Twitter is ending this chapter

There’s no arguing that Twitter’s war on third party developers doesn’t exist in something of a vacuum. The effects of what Twitter is doing will trickle down to users in varying noticeable ways (that third party client you use won’t issue as many feature updates; the amount of Twitter apps in general could level off), but this is a developer-facing issue and one that speaks of Twitter’s future.

Twitter used to be one thing and now it’s another, but it’s looking back through sentiments like this one from founder Jack Dorsey that remind us how drastically changed this platform is. 

“It will become a network for keeping up with brands instead of keeping up with people,” says Spivack. “That’s the direction they’re headed.” 

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