Careful, Twitter — remember what happened to MySpace and Digg

Twitter sent some shock waves through the technology community with a blog post on Friday that talked about its plans for the future, and suggested that those plans don’t necessarily involve third-party services and apps. Although the company phrased its statement as a move designed to standardize the experience for Twitter users, developers and others in the broader Twitter ecosystem clearly took the post as a warning shot across the bow — especially since the company simultaneously shut down a cross-posting partnership it had with LinkedIn (s LNKD). It seems clear that Twitter wants to control the network as tightly as possible so that it can monetize it more easily, but doing so also comes with substantial risks.
In his blog post, consumer product manager Michael Sippey talked a lot about the introduction of features such as “expanded tweets,” which show more information from providers like GigaOM and the New York Times (s NYT) when a link is included in a tweet. He said the company wants to broaden that program to more publishers, as well as giving them tools to display expanded tweets and other features on their sites — but he also made it obvious that developers who stray outside of the lines are taking a big risk:

[W]e’ve already begun to more thoroughly enforce our Developer Rules of the Road with partners, for example with branding, and in the coming weeks, we will be introducing stricter guidelines around how the Twitter API is used.

Twitter has burned the ecosystem before

These comments set off warning bells for a number of developers, who said they were concerned that Twitter was going to crack down on any third-party app or service. One developer on Hacker News said that in his view, Twitter was trying to shut down third-party services so that they could “inflict a homogenized, boring, monoculture on their user base [that] they can monetize, which will make the experience progressively worse.” Said developer Jonathan Kupferman:
This isn’t the first time that Twitter has upset the developer community by throwing its weight around. In 2011, there was widespread criticism of the service for the way it issued new rules around use of the Twitter API — and also the way it behaved towards those who crossed the line by shutting off their access without even a warning, as it did in the case of entrepreneur Bill Gross and his Ubermedia network. At the time, one critic accused the company of “nuking” the Twitter ecosystem.

The company also came under fire in 2010 for the way it handled relations with third-party developers after it bought an app called Tweetie. Hunch founder Chris Dixon said Twitter was “acting like a drunk guy with an Uzi” by telling developers not to bother developing Twitter apps, and a number of companies and investors that had been putting money and time into the Twitter ecosystem stopped doing so. So some of the negative reaction to Sippey’s post stems from being burned twice already.
Some observers have argued that Twitter is just doing what it has to do in order to control its network and build a sustainable business, and that third-party developers don’t have any right to expect favorable treatment, since they are piggybacking on its API and resources. Longtime Twitter users, however, say the service’s behavior is a betrayal of all of the other services and apps that helped generate most of the goodwill it is now busy monetizing. As John Abell of Reuters pointed out on Friday, much of the value that users find in Twitter comes from the way it connects to other services.

Anti-user moves torpedoed both MySpace and Digg

And there is a very real risk to this kind of aggressive focus on control and monetization, as a commenter on Hacker News pointed out: restricting the ways that users can access and display their tweets, whether through strict API rules or moves like the LinkedIn shutdown, could irritate the user base that Twitter is relying on to click ads and do all the other things it is planning around monetization. Ultimately, the company could ruin the experience that made Twitter so compelling in the first place, in the same way that MySpace and Digg did.
There are plenty of reasons why MySpace failed, including the conflicting desires of a giant corporate owner like News Corp. (s NWS), but it also started to hemorrhage users because it focused more on monetization through ads and other elements than it did on maintaining a good experience for users. Digg did something similar — in an attempt to build a bigger company and leverage its user base for profit, it added a whole range of “services” and features that were designed mainly to appeal to corporate customers and advertisers. The end result was a wholesale desertion of Digg for other communities like Reddit.
Twitter has a tiger by the tail — it has an active user base in the hundreds of millions, it has become an almost indispensable tool for both news junkies and the media (although this carries risks as well) and it is starting to see some favorable responses to its ad model. But it is also a community, where the users provide the vast majority of the content that is being monetized, and while screwing around with that relationship may appear to make short-term financial sense, it could end in disaster.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Rosaura Ochoa and See-ming Lee