Evan Williams on Twitter and its ecosystem

As we’ve described in a number of recent posts — including one about my ongoing “love-hate” relationship with the service — Twitter has been going through a transformation of sorts recently, closing down access to the network by third-party apps and services, controlling more of the content that flows through the system, and generally irritating developers (and in many cases users). One man who knows a lot about this evolution from the inside is former CEO and co-founder Evan Williams, and he took issue on Thursday with a comment I made in one of my posts about how users and third-party apps were responsible for much of the initial growth of the network.

Some of the comments during a back-and-forth discussion we had on Twitter were interesting, so I thought I would excerpt them here, and also include a Storify collection of the debate as well. I’m hoping to talk more about this and other topics with the former Twitter CEO at GigaOM’s RoadMap conference in November.

During his time as Twitter’s CEO, Williams had to deal with the beginnings of Twitter’s transformation from a cool project into an actual revenue-generating company, as it started to acquire third-party apps and caused a backlash among developers that is very similar to the one it is facing today. Williams left Twitter in 2010 when he was replaced by Dick Costolo, and formed a startup incubator called Obvious Corp. with former Twitter colleague Biz Stone (which recently launched a new-media publishing platform called Medium) but the former CEO has remained an advisor to the company and a board member.

While Twitter was trying to figure out in 2010 which external services it wanted to incorporate and which it wanted to leave alone — a process that angel investor Chris Dixon compared to “a drunk guy with an Uzi” — Williams admitted that the company had screwed up its relationship with developers, and Twitter held a whole conference for developers called Chirp that was supposed to try and repair that relationship. In reality, however, the tensions between where Twitter wanted the company to go and how that was going to affect third-party apps remained just below the surface, and erupted again recently after moves like the announcement of new API rules and the shutting off of features to services like Tumblr and Instagram.

What role has the ecosystem played?

Our Twitter discussion started when Williams mentioned a phrase from my recent post about the company’s ongoing struggle with being open vs. controlling the network. I argued that much of the early power and growth of the network came from being open, since many of the things we associated with Twitter — such as the @ mention for users, the hashtag, and even the retweet — were not developed by the company but came from the users themselves, in many cases assisted by third-party apps. But Williams said that this influence is “a common myth but completely overblown”:

[tweet http://twitter.com/ev/status/243729098495631360]

At this point, Anil Dash — who used to work for blogging platform Six Apart and now has a media consulting firm — agreed with Williams that the focus on how much of a role third-party apps played in Twitter’s success is overstated:

[tweet https://twitter.com/anildash/status/243737199948988417]

Dash also noted that some of the elements we associate with Twitter — even hashtags, which Chris Messina (now of Google) was the first to use on Twitter — were used in other ways on the internet before Twitter came along, and others noted that the @ symbol was also used on services such as Internet Relay Chat. Williams then pointed out that if it wasn’t for the company’s decision to incorporate and support those features, they would never have become part of Twitter to begin with.

[tweet https://twitter.com/ev/status/243749421597208576]

I tried to argue that the point wasn’t to try and determine which played a larger role, the ecosystem or Twitter itself and the decisions it made (some of which irritated users, such as the decision to implement retweets in a different way). The point for me is that the relationship between users — and third-party services — and Twitter has always been much more symbiotic than it has a traditional company-user dynamic. And a big part of that was a wide-open API that let tweets flow wherever they wanted to, something Twitter has been busy shutting down.

Ethan Kaplan, a developer who is a vice-president at Live Nation and used to work for Warner Brothers Records, put it well when he said that all developers really want is for Twitter to admit the relationship is symbiotic, rather than parasitic:

[tweet https://twitter.com/ethank/status/243795392121155585]

And Chris Messina — who noted that the third-party app Tweetie (which Twitter ultimately acquired and turned into the official iPhone app) was the first to support hashtags — said that one of the things the company has failed to do is to make it clear who it is making all of its recent changes for. As I’ve pointed out before, it argues that it is doing so for users, but is that really the case? I have to admit that I’m not convinced.

[tweet https://twitter.com/chrismessina/status/243796082671357952]

I’ve embedded the full version of the Storify below, with as many of the comments as I could find (apologies to those whose contributions I missed). Interestingly enough, Twitter has said that the new API rules aren’t meant to apply to services like Storify, even though the company seems to fall into the wrong quadrant of customer product lead Michael Sippey’s by-now-infamous chart.

Evan Williams on Twitter and its ecosystem

Storified by Mathew Ingram · Thu, Sep 06 2012 15:45:46

@mathewi "virtually all of the network’s power and growth has come from outside the company itself"—a common myth but completely overblownEvan Williams
@ev: fair enough — would you say a majority? or any at all? I’m thinking of key features like the hashtag, @ mentions, retweets, etc.Mathew Ingram
@mathewi Absolutely, the ideas that led to those features came from usage (not unusual, BTW). Not sure how/if that means "power and growth."Evan Williams
@ev: my argument — and it’s just an argument — is that those features and third-party apps fueled a lot of Twitter’s growth. you disagree?Mathew Ingram
@mathewi "A lot" is hard to argue with. But your conflating features, which were designed and built into Twitter, not taken whole cloth…Evan Williams
@mathewi …and third-party apps is stretching my ability to respond in <140. In a nutshell, both are important…but widely exaggerated.Evan Williams
@mathewi I think the "Twitter was made by third party things" is mostly nerd triumphalism, not factual. Shaq did more than any indie app.Anil Dash
@Besvinick @anildash: I agree — but the influence of third-party apps, which I think was important, was only part of my point.Mathew Ingram
@anildash @mathewi 3rd party apps = better than Twitter’s site for a long time. I prefer them, & so did the power users who sent most tweetsAlex Howard
@mathewi @anildash I think 3rd party apps have been more critical to enterprise adoption, which is arguably more important than consumerAdam Besvinick
@ev: it’s possible that the influence of both those things has been exaggerated — but I don’t think they should be underplayed eitherMathew Ingram
@mathewi Well, there’s no risk of that, given the kinds of statements you and other commentators make, which no one thinks to question.Evan Williams
@ev: which is why I am glad to have you question them 🙂 I’d be interested in a longer view from you about the topic as wellMathew Ingram
@ev @HilzFuld: some fairly crucial features, and all — or at least most — of the best apps. that has to have a pretty powerful effect.Mathew Ingram
@ev @mathewi 3rd-party innovation doesn’t just mean apps and tags. Users negotiated a raison d’etre for @twitter that it couldn’t have led.Ian Andrew Bell
@mathewi @ev @hilzfuld Sure, @chrismessina thought up hashtags, but others did slashtags, etc. Only Twitter’s adoption made them meaningful.Anil Dash
@anildash @chrismessina @mathewi @ev @blaine Similarly for @ to address users, which was common on BBS, forums & IRC long before Twitter.Faruk Ate?
@ev @mathewi Suspect that much of the push-back comes from the disruption of the Twitter ecosystem. Ironic, no?FRED MCCLIMANS
@anildash @ev: yes, Twitter’s adoption made them meaningful — but what would there be if those features had not emerged?Mathew Ingram
@anildash @ev: totally agree — I am saying one would not have happened without the other, not that one is all-important.Mathew Ingram
@mathewi @anildash Who knows what there would be, but it’s not like we were sitting around with no ideas.Evan Williams
@mathewi @anildash This is how products evolve. You have 1M ideas—some come from usage, some from inside. You pick and choose carefully.Evan Williams
@ev @anildash: and I agree, that process of picking and implementing is crucial. I am not trying to denigrate that in any wayMathew Ingram
@mathewi It’s hubristic for me to not give users all the credit, I realize. But it’s naive for you to not recognize the Twitter team’s role.Evan Williams
@ev: I’m not saying users deserve all the credit — just trying to put recent events and the backlash into context, and that is part of itMathew Ingram
@mathewi @chrismessina ultimately what we all want is twitter to stop treating their ecosystem as parasitic. It isn’t. It’s symbiotic.Ethan Kaplan
@ethank @mathewi is it that? It feels like there’s not sufficient transparency behind the motivation for the changes. Who’re they *for*?Chris Messina™