September 18, 2014

Twitter’s Anti-Client Moves Aren’t Crazy (But It’s a Stupid Strategy)

Has Twitter gone nuts? They’ve spent the year blocking the most popular third-party applications and restricting user access, all the while limiting the features of their own applications. What are they thinking? It seems a calculated move to drive users toward their website, but in this age of mobile, that just might be the stupidest thing a company could do.

I’m Being Swallowed by a Boa Constrictor

Just like the narrator of Shel Silverstein’s poem, Twitter is gobbling up and eliminating alternatives, increasingly driving users to a single interface: Their web site. Let’s review:

  • April 2010 – Twitter purchased the popular client, Tweetie, establishing itself as competition in the Twitter app market. They acquired another top client, TweetDeck, in May 2011.
  • Fall 2010 – A redesign removed RSS links from the Twitter site, though they still exist as part of the API.
  • Twitter has been restricting API access since the very beginning, with major cuts in early 2009 and mid 2010, but the massive restriction in August 2012 stirs up anger. Client developers are effectively capped to 100,000 users or 2x their current userbase with no sign of exemptions.
  • Twitter began enforcing strict display requirements and cutting off certain clients entirely, including LinkedIn, Instagram, Tumblr, and IFTTT.
  • The latest versions of Twitter’s own apps for iOS feature a radically-limited user interface, removing features like “tappable targets” in the timeline.

Essentially, Twitter has slammed the door on any service that allows users to view the tweet stream outside their own control, then they reduced the value of their own clients as well.

Why Is Twitter Restricting Viewers?

Twitter’s moves are focused on reading not writing. Users can’t view the stream or access their “social graph”, but the company has been generous in allowing third parties to write to the service. This means Apple’s new Twitter integration in iOS and Mac OS X is secure, as are the “tweet this” features of applications like Instagram and IFTTT that were otherwise cut off.

Although certainly a massive mainstream success, Twitter has not yet built a solid revenue-generating foundation. They clearly believe in a free, ad-supported future for their eponymous service, and have long experimented with in-stream “sponsored tweets” and so on. It is notable that their first anti-client moves were against clients that injected their own ads into the timeline, though the recently blocked clients do not do this.

Now that Twitter has made it clear that they will not tolerate “reader” clients, it is unlikely that any developer will bother creating one. And Twitter’s own clients are becoming less useful.

All of this is designed to focus users on the Twitter web site, where the company can carefully control their experience and, potentially, advertise more effectively. This would have been impossible in a world of third-party reader apps!

This makes sense for Twitter as a company: Most users are passive readers, not active tweeters. They follow celebrities, sports teams, and companies and they mainly use the web site for access. Twitter is seeking to monetize these passive readers and eliminate the risk that they consume the stream by other means.

Now that Twitter.com is the main source for reading, watch for an increase in advertising and the creation of special promotional micro-sites.

So Long, Power Tweeters

By converting Twitter to a browser-based reader-oriented service, Twitter will gain control and the possibility of revenue, but there is a cost: Power users (who love services like IFTTT and apps like TweetBot) no longer feel welcome and may defect.

This is a calculated move. Twitter is courting advertising money from corporations, and clearly believes that “big draw” celebrities will remain to attract users. After all, Twitter gives them a great audience! Perhaps this is why the company hasn’t moved against HootSuite, the preferred client of the “big fish”. And casual users won’t notice the difference since the vast majority of them never use anything but the Twitter web site.

Twitter thrives on the network effect, and has made a calculated gamble that power users won’t leave either. Although they will certainly complain at losing IFTTT triggers and TweetBot for Mac, there is no other compelling service for them to defect to. Many tried switching to Google Plus and came away disappointed. And App.Net and Tent haven’t taken off yet.

You might also enjoy reading Why I’m Supporting Twitter Competitor App.Net, Even Though It Will Fail

Since third-party client use is mainly limited to power users, Twitter could have let them continue without restriction. But they must have decided the risk of mainstream user adoption was too great: If “regular people” began consuming Twitter with a client like Instagram they wouldn’t be exposed to ads!

Doubling Down on the Web as Mobile Takes Over

I wrote about this years ago: Ten-Year Trend: Mobility

Twitter’s strategic error is their focus on the web not their alienation of power users. They are forcing everyone to use their web site just as the mass market shifts to mobile apps. Even if they succeed in monetizing their full web site, will they have the same success in mobile?

Twitter’s mobile web version is disappointingly limited compared to third-party apps like TweetBot or the previous version of their own Twitter app for iOS. And it’s not clear that the mobile web version will ever be able to be monetized like the full site, complete with ads, branding, and micro-sites. There’s just not enough space!

The average “read-only” Twitter user is comparing the service to competitors like Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. Even Facebook finally realized that their mobile web site and HTML5-based app were putting the brand at risk and refocused on a snappier and more useful mobile app. But they haven’t figured out how to monetize their billion-strong network and the mobile version remains mostly ad-free.

A wiser strategy for Twitter would have been to let third parties develop compelling alternative interfaces, then absorb or copy their efforts. Wouldn’t a Twitter version of Flipboard be more compelling than mobile.twitter.com? Sure, Instagram fell to Facebook, but the world isn’t static. Something else will come along.

Twitter could also have tried to uncover an alternative revenue model. App.net’s success has shown that many users will pay for an unrestricted service. Twitter could offer the same, reopening the API for paying users and setting aside this advertising-only concept.

Stephen’s Stance

By cutting off developers, Twitter has effectively cut off their own future relevance. The web is moving aside in favor of mobile apps, and Twitter must eventually adapt to this world or watch as another service eats their lunch. I will continue using Twitter as long as that’s where the conversation happens. But I’m hedging my bets.