POV on Twitter's API Announcement

Below is a draft of a POV on Twitter's API changes that I wrote as part of my work for SS+K.  It's being published here post-dated as reference.

The big news in the tech industry this week was Twitter's long-expected announcement of changes to their API (the tools 3rd party applications use to plug-in to Twitter).  Twitter announced that the company would no longer support carte-blanch use of their API by 3rd parties.  Instead,Twitter is enforcing everything from design guidelines to build principles.  Their stated purpose is to focus any regular Twitter user engagement (think: the usual things consumers do on Twitter, e.g., read, reply, retweet messages) all happening on official Twitter 1st party applications.  Their demand (disguised as a request) is that 3rd parties focus on building applications that provide an inherently different functionality, especially enterprise-oriented capabilities, such as measurement and media integration.  

While Twitter is clearly within their rights to place rules on 3rd parties who want to integrate with their product, the move is being seen as incredibly controversial because Twitter's success as a platform was largely a result of the types of 3rd party developed innovations that Twitteris planning on forcing out or shutting down.  In fact, Twitter Search, Twitter for iPhone, Twitter for Android, Twitter eMail summaries and Twitterfor Chrome are all functionalities built by 3rd party companies and purchased by Twitter.  In many cases, theses applications were built to give users experience that they wanted or needed, but Twitter didn't have the bandwidth to provide.  In many ways, 3rd parties carried Twitterthrough the dark period where Twitter was often broken and unreliable.  By restricting 3rd parties, Twitter is not only turning its back on the community that helped build it, but also potentially stifling the type of future innovation that could take the platform to new heights.

Twitter's argument for these decisions is mainly two-fold:

  1. Consumers need to have a consistent experience and reliable expectations when engaging with tweets.  The company believesTwitter content needs to be uniformly designed and packaged with all of its functionality so users everywhere recognize the content asTwitter and know exactly how they can interact with it (i.e., always be able to reply or retweet).
  2. Twitter needs to be capable of earning enough revenue to support itself, and the way to do that is to make sure users are spending their regular tweeting and reading time on a standard Twitter platform that Twitter itself can monetize, through their standard promoted tweets, trends and search products.
Ultimately these changes complete Twitter's transition from communication company to media company.  Like Google with its move towards universal search and rich media snippets, Twitter is bringing more content inline into its feed through their new "Twitter Cards" format, trying to maximize the time-spent and eyeballs on its own domain.  It may not be the vision Twitter's original power users and developer community envisioned for the company, but it's clearly the direction it feels is necessary for its optimal future.  The outcome will be a more refined and uniform experience that helps Twitter grow its mainstream audience, but loses some of its advocates and puts it more directly in competition with news and entertainment media companies than ever before.

While much of the outcome of the new API rules remains to be seen, expect a few implications for brands as we head into 2013:

  • Custom brand products that pull in and display tweets, including Facebook tab applications or website plug-ins, will need to be updated to fit the new display guidelines.  This reduces the ability to customize the look and feel, but will likely increase user engagement.
  • Since Twitter Cards (inline content previews) will start to be featured abundantly across the Twitter ecosystem, brands will want to include links to supported 3rd party content in their tweets to maximize engagement potential.
  • Since the future of existing 3rd party reading clients is up in the air, companies like Flipboard will likely start to iterate in directions away from Twitter content.  Brands need to consider where they invest in media and partnership dollars if they are investing in any of these environments.
We will be watching the Twitter ecosystem + platform developments carefully, and provide further guidance on the implications, directions and opportunities as they become clear.  Please let us know if you have any questions.