“Twitter killed my business.” An inside look at the ecosystem crackdown

There’s been a lot of debate lately about how Twitter is closing down access to the network by outside services, and the impact that has on the broader ecosystem — something former CEO Evan Williams talked about with me on Twitter yesterday — but there hasn’t been much written about how that affects individual startups and developers who have built large parts of their businesses and lives around the Twitter platform. In an attempt to get a better view of what it looks from the inside, I talked with a developer (who didn’t want his name used for obvious reasons) whose business is based almost entirely on the Twitter API, about how he believes the company is essentially strangling his livelihood. He also argues that while this may seem reasonable in the short term, it could backfire badly.

The developer in question — whom I will call Dave — has at least a couple of decades experience with databases and programming of various kinds, both on the consumer side and the corporate side, and has been involved in at least one failed web startup (not Twitter related). For the past two years, he has been working full-time doing consulting projects for large and small companies, non-profit organizations and others who want to integrate or work with Twitter. Much of it is “data-mining, data collection and analysis, aggregation and curation, auto-following” and related services, he said. In some cases, companies wanted custom widgets that pull in tweets from influential people within certain topic areas.

“I love the service, but I hate the company”

Dave said that he loves Twitter the service, but hates what the company is doing to him and developers like him by restricting what they can do with the API — and also the fact that Twitter seems to be playing favorites with whom they decide to shut down (such as Instagram and Tumblr) and whom they decide to play ball with. “I had a very successful consulting business,” he said. “It wasn’t very big, it was more of a lifestyle business, making about $15,000 a month. And Twitter killed it — they killed it cold.”

The developer said that within a few days of the blog post by consumer-product lead Michael Sippey, which described the new terms of use for the API (and which Dave refers to as a “bug bomb”), all of his corporate clients said they were cancelling their projects — “Every single one of them. I think they just didn’t know what was going on, or whether they would be affected, so they just stopped.” Some clients have come back, he says, but now he is nervous about whether Twitter will shut down or restrict his access:

“They have a big kill switch — anyone at Twitter can kill me in a second, they can turn off any of my applications any time they want. They can kill all my apps and shut off all my paying clients, and they’ve done that. We’re all terrified of them — we won’t say a word.”

Actively looking for Twitter alternatives

Dave says he is looking at alternatives like App.net and anything else that can make him less reliant on Twitter, and he said that he expects many others like him are doing the same, because they sense that Twitter is closing down the network and trying to control more of the content in order to monetize it through advertising, and that they will just be collateral damage in this battle:

“I’m not going to go to my clients and say you have to switch to App.net or something else, but I am looking hard at it. My sense is there will be three or four of these guys eventually — and a couple will be good technically, so the developers will migrate. Within two years one of them might be bigger than Twitter, especially if all the cool apps and services are built on it, and then the scary thing for Twitter is one of them is going to get bought by someone big.”

Some have argued that the third-party developer dissent over Twitter’s moves is overblown. Anil Dash has called the idea that outside services matter a lot to the network “nerd triumphalism.” But Dave says that there has always been a symbiotic relationship between the company and outside developers — one in which both sides benefitted — in part because the service was so troubled in the early days and needed a lot of help and expertise that it didn’t have. And they were glad to have that help, he says, but that attitude started changing about a year and a half ago:

“The reason why I was a full-time Twitter developer instead of a Facebook developer is that Facebook people were really nasty and extremely competent technically — which is a dangerous combination — whereas the Twitter people were really nice and largely incompetent technically, as was obvious to anyone who ever tried to use Twitter.com. So they needed us, and they knew they needed us. They would go out of their way to try and help make things work.”

In some of his more recent conversations with Twitter, however, Dave said mid-level administrators were all of a sudden telling him what kinds of services and sites he could build — even if what they were describing had nothing to do with the actual terms of service — and threatening to shut his custom applications down if he didn’t comply.

Is Twitter becoming the new Microsoft?

When it comes to the longer-term implications of Twitter’s moves, Dave says he understands that the company needs to make money to satisfy its investors, but he warns that the impact on the broader ecosystem could be severe and long-lasting. While the impact on users might be minimal, he says, a whole freelance labor force of thousands or even tens of thousands of outside developers and consultants could wind up turning on the company, and that could have serious ripple effects for Twitter:

“Everyone is fixated on consumer clients, but the reality of Twitter is that lots of third-party consultants like me integrate corporate business practices with Twitter. That level of integration is invaluable for Twitter — partly because inertia has a huge impact on corporate software, so once it’s integrated it’s there forever. And Twitter didn’t pay for any of that stuff. So who got more out of that relationship? Twitter got a huge amount of value from it. And now they want to kill it.”

By trying to control too many of the levers that involve revenue, Dave says that he is afraid Twitter could significantly impair the value of the network. “I know they need to make money,” he says, “but they don’t need to make 100 percent of the money.” In the end, Dave says that he believes Twitter will continue to grow and lots of people will use it — and even developers like him will continue to integrate with it. But the whole time, they will be looking for an alternative, and that will be damaging in the long term:

“Everyone keeps making parallels to Apple to explain Twitter’s attempts at control. The real historical analogy is Microsoft. Think back to the early Nineties, and you’ll remember the universal hatred for Microsoft, even though 95 percent of people used their products constantly. When the web appeared, it was viewed by developers as a way to escape Microsoft. Vicious bullies always lose. It just takes time.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Rosaura Ochoa and See-ming Lee