Thoughts On Twitter

October 22, 2014

Twitter has once again been making the rounds on the Internet after they announced a new developer platform for their service. However, far from being a universally acclaimed move, it opened up some old wounds, causing many developers to voice their concern, caution against the excitement and remind people that what Twitter giveth, Twitter taketh away.

Marco Arment, in particular, has been very vocal in his distrust of Twitter the company, and with good reason:

But that’s not the biggest problem — even an anonymous API is shaky ground because it can always change or disappear, like Twitter’s original API did. The problem is still the complete power over an increasingly important communication medium residing in a single company and its single centralized service.

This thought is, I believe, worth additional consideration.

Twitter the service

As a communication tool, Twitter’s meteoric rise to the top of our collective consciousness in just a few years is nothing short of astounding. This popularity is, for the most part, well-deserved: Twitter is remarkably good at enabling real-time coverage of breaking news and emergencies all over the world, to cite but one example. We have never witnessed such a rapid flow of information before. Corrupt governments being thrown out of office, civil wars being waged on the streets… everything happening on this planet is now broadcast live by millions of improvised on-site reporters, and there’s no going back from that.

This incredibly powerful communication tool is, however, a double-edged sword. Without an editorial selection of content, such potential is largely wasted and as a result, we often get an endless stream of cat pictures in our timelines — or in some cases, ahem, dogs.

Perhaps more importantly, without any reasonable way to verify the authenticity of the information being shared, Twitter also enables misinformation at an unprecedented scale: several celebrities are declared dead on a daily basis and the entire Internet mourns them for a few hours at a time, before the rumor is inevitably dispelled by an official source.

Those rumors usually end up fading away as quickly as they came, but sometimes the power of Twitter is wielded by a select few for far more nefarious purposes: to manipulate the truth and even publicly shame and harass other people. The recent #GamerGate controversy is a perfectly good example of a ludicrous debate that’s being actively enabled by Twitter. Thousands of people insulting and harassing women for having the audacity to speak up against one of the most prevalent forms of discrimination in the digital age. If these people didn’t have platforms like Twitter, the debate would’ve been put to bed a long time ago. Or perhaps I have too much faith in people.

Twitter the company

As a company, Twitter suffers from the same issues as most other wildly successful companies: the struggle to keep up with the popularity of their product has affected the way the company is run, with many questionable choices being made. Twitter is not a company that knows where it’s going; they don’t have a clearly-defined DNA that people can easily understand. Twitter is a company that wants to be everything to everybody: it wants to be a great communication tool for the masses, it wants to be an amazing money-making machine for its investors and it wants to be a revolutionary platform for developers. These are all noble goals, except sometimes they happen to conflict with each other and in those times, Twitter has done a very poor job of prioritizing one over the others.

A couple years ago, Twitter positioned itself as an ad-driven business and prioritized that over its developer platform. They changed their public API to enforce severe restrictions on 3rd-party developers, thus considerably limiting the potential of 3rd-party apps to flourish. This was a defensive move by Twitter, to ensure that most people using the service would use their own official apps instead, where they can control the experience.

Now, however, they’re putting some measures in place to try and woo developers back. Except many developers won’t be fooled again. As Marco said, Twitter the company should not be trusted with the future of your business, because they’ve clearly shown in the past that they’re not afraid to screw you over to advance their own agenda. There’s nothing personal about that, mind you — it’s actually a perfectly respectable business strategy — but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that Twitter is an altruistic company.

The future

Twitter has become so ingrained in our lives that it’s easy to think of it as a public service instead of a private company. Many businesses use Twitter in their ad campaigns and even TV stations use it to promote their content and engage their audiences. In short, we are treating it as though we’re entitled to it, as if it were a commodity service that will be around in its present form forever. I fear we may be in for a rude awakening.

Twitter has been tremendously successful, but they owe us nothing. The minute their interests don’t align with ours anymore, they won’t hesitate to change course. Perhaps we would do well to not place such high expectations on them in the first place.

Whenever you build something on top of a service you don’t control, you’re assuming a great deal of risk and uncertainty. 3rd-party developers have already been burned once by changes in Twitter’s policy, and there’s absolutely nothing stopping them from doing it again in the future. If you’re thinking about building a critical part of your business on top of Twitter, you should be prepared to deal with that.

As my favorite Bond character once said:

Always have an escape plan.