Twitter's decision to block LinkedIn and other "inconsistent" applications from using its data feed could kill the Twitter developer ecosystem, at exactly the time it needs it to grow revenue.
Like most online services, Twitter has rules about the way developers of third-party applications can use its application programming interface (API). But Twitter's are stricter than most, going beyond technical and legal rules that help prevent overloading the network or getting people sued, to include "display guidelines" of how tweets must appear in different contexts.
When the Patch Monday podcaston its fifth birthday in March 2011, Australian developer Jeff Waugh dismissed concerns about the API rules.
"My perspective on it, having read the announcement email and their new terms of service, is that it's much more about focus than kicking people out or denying clients access or anything like that," Waugh said. "Twitter has to build a business out of this amazing platform that they've created."
That business imperative is becoming urgent.
Twitter is now valued at US$8.4 billion, following a US$300 million investment in December 2011 from Saudi prince Al Waleed Bin Talal. The company hopes to float on the stock market in a year or so, yet its estimated revenues in 2011 was a mere US$140 million, expected to grow to only US$260 million in 2012. That will need to improve to prevent Twitter's share price doing a Facebook-plummet.
And now Twitter is kicking people out.
LinkedIn has been denied access. Twitter's blog post on the issue hints at further evictions to come, with even stricter rules to be announced in the next few weeks.
On Patch Monday this week, we discuss Twitter's future: it's a picture of uncertainty.
In Twitter's early days, the openness of its API was "kind of unprecedented", according to Henare Degan, co-founder of Bleeply, who make Twitter tools for business. Third-party developers were told that Twitter, itself, didn't want to build client software. Now, that's changed.
"They've worked out what their place is in the world, and they're now trying to say 'This is part of our core functionality, we don't want you to do this', [and] they were really explicit about saying 'Don't build clients that do exactly what Twitter does'. [But] people were like, 'Hang on, but you actually told us to do that originally," Degan said.
Twitter is trying to turn into Facebook, said Leslie Nassar, technology director at digital agency Amnesia Razorfish and founder of TweeVee TV, which provides tools for integrating Twitter with live television.
"To me, they're really just turning into every other social network ... Facebook with 140 characters. Facebook with less functionality," he said.
"Facebook just went public and, for whatever reason, Twitter has made all these changes that are making them more and more like Facebook. And one of the first changes has been to have a similar regard for developers, where they'll just change the terms whenever they feel like it."
TV programs may use Twitter for live interaction at the moment, but Nassar said that networks could easily switch to something else and the fans would follow them. Both TweeVee TV and Bleeply could easily integrate a new network's messaging into their products, the developers said.
Twitter's blog post is all about making things better for marketers, creating "more interactive experiences within expanded Tweets", making it easy for users to "discover even more great content on Twitter".
"The technology behind expanded Tweets — Twitter cards — gives developers and publishers a way to tell richer stories on Twitter, directly within Tweets, and drive traffic back to their sites," the company wrote.
Twitter has discovered that marketing is their real business, according Kate Carruthers, business strategist and founder of Social Innovation.
"A lot of people on Twitter are wanting to get their messages out, and that's why Promoted Tweets is working for them," she said. That's creating a tension between Twitter's original user base, which came out of the creative and developer communities, and its new role as a mass market platform.
Said Nassar: "If you want to see what the future of Twitter is, and get some evidence of the MySpaceification of the Facebookification of Twitter, I think you need to look at these new brand pages that they've started experimenting with, like [the one for] NASCAR."
But can Twitter negotiate this change and increase revenue, without alienating users and developers?
To leave an audio comment on the program, Skype to stilgherrian or phone Sydney 02 8011 3733.
Running time: 34 minutes, 15 seconds.