After tumultuous summer, developers cast wary eye on Twitter

Developers who depend on Twitter’s API have discovered this summer that the experience can be a little like dealing with an awkward teenager — at a certain point, everything you once knew to be true is subject to change, and the relationship gets more predictable when everyone grows up.

Over the past year, developers working with the Twitter API have watched the social network change from a young open-web startup to a large-scale company with large revenue aspirations. Few people seem truly surprised by Twitter’s growth and focus on revenue, but Thursday’s new guidelines for developers articulated those emerging business-oriented priorities in a very direct way.

Now it’s pretty clear: developers using the API will need to work with Twitter’s priorities and guidelines, or find another API to build on. This was probably inevitable, but the transition hasn’t made for the smoothest of sailing.

Defining the mission at Twitter

Back in June, product manager for developer relations Michael Sippey wrote a post telling developers that Twitter would be “introducing stricter guidelines around how the Twitter API is used.” His post served as a warning to developers that the world was about to change. After some angst, Twitter laid out the new world order last Thursday with an extensive explanation of how the new terms will work.

Some of the changes, such as varying how many authenticated requests developers can pull every hour, or requiring all apps to authenticate when requesting to use the API, seem fairly reasonable considering the growth of the developer community and efforts to reduce abuse. But it’s the changes to the Developer Rules of the Road that struck most developers as so disheartening, particularly with respect to the restrictions on growth and prioritization of certain apps over others. The key to understanding which apps Twitter will support likely lies in the quadrant provided in Thursday’s post, which put API usage into different categories based on the intended purpose and audience of different apps, prioritizing those for business and analytics.

Who’s in, who’s out

By portioning apps into quadrants, Twitter encouraged the idea that there are “good apps” and “bad apps” under the new guidelines. But in talking with developers and analyzing reactions immediately after release, it seems those distinctions aren’t exactly black and white, and every developer will have to carefully negotiate his or her own standing.

Most individuals we talked to expressed cautious optimism that their products would survive the new regulations, and consoled themselves that at least they weren’t trying to produce client apps. But even Tweetbot, the client app that seemed most immediately in danger, released a blog post Friday saying it would be fine in the near future. Developers such as Instapaper’s Marco Arment raised plenty of concerns on Twitter, but there’s still time to work and revise under the new guidelines.

Bumebox CEO Jon Fahrner, whose company contracts with brands to overlay tweets on livestreams of shows or videos, explained that he’s not too worried about his relationship with Twitter because his product is primarily used by businesses.

“When you make industries and companies excited about what Twitter can do, they end up investing a lot more in Twitter as a result. Our goal is helping businesses and I think Twitter understands that,” he said.

Storify CEO Burt Herman said he was surprised by the Twitter announcement on Thursday, especially when it first appeared that Storify was being called out as an upper-right quadrant app in question, although Twitter later clarified that Storify was fine. Herman explained that he thinks Storify is a perfect example of the “consumer engagement” apps in the dreaded upper right quadrant that actually enhance the value of Twitter for users.

It might not seem that “social web” profiles, or personal social media pages, would be something Twitter would prioritize under the new guidelines, but it’s possible those companies can follow display guidelines and make adjustments. One such site is RebelMouse, founded by former Huffington Post CTO Paul Berry, who was not surprised by the new requirements.

“Luckily it’s something we’ve been anticipating, so none of that came as a shock. It’s pretty clear that they’ve warned everyone about the client apps, and that replicating the experience of the client app is not something you should be doing,” he said. “They’ve left room for interpretation, and they’re very clear about what they need to do to be solid.”

Of course, if Twitter doesn’t play a crucial role in a developer’s app, it’s possible they’ll drop Twitter functionality rather than revise. Arment, the creator of Instapaper, wrote on his blog that the “Liked by friends” feature could require significant re-working to meet compliance.

Looking for new partners?

So will any CEOs be dropping the Twitter API from their product if the new rules prove too confusing or restrictive to growth? Of course, it depends on the app and how heavily it relies on Twitter to produce a product. But most developers said that right now, Twitter is an unpredictable partner. Especially in contrast with companies like Facebook or YouTube, which released APIs at more established points in company growth trajectories.

“It’s a rapidly evolving company, and it may be fair to say that in some ways, I think it’s an awkward teenager phase. It may be a little more emotional of a teenager and indecisive in some ways, but when they find themselves more in their 20’s, I think it’ll feel a little more comfortable to people,” Berry said before Thursday’s announcement.

ManageFlitter’s James Peter wrote that the new rules actually come as somewhat of a relief.

“They’ve been hinting at this for at least 18 months. Now we have a much clearer picture as to what that really means. The bottom line is, as a Twitter API developer this change gives us increased security, understanding and a better platform to continue investing in Twitter’s API.”

This is the second in a series of stories about Twitter’s transitional summer. On Monday, Mathew Ingram examined the evolution of Twitter corporate priorities as it grows into a mature business, and on Wednesday, Derrick Harris will take a look at the infrastructure challenges involved in keeping the tweets flowing.