Why does Twitter allow third-party clients?

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Comments: 2   (latest 19 hours later)

Tagged: twitter, echofon, web services, accessibility, tweetbot

In last month's open letter to Slack, I wrote:

(Twitter may not block third-party clients, but it sure wants to discourage people from using them.)

The next shoe in that caterpillar cavalcade just hit the floor:

After June 19th, 2018, “streaming services” at Twitter will be removed. This means two things for third-party apps:

  • Push notifications will no longer arrive
  • Timelines won’t refresh automatically

That's from a web page, Apps of a Feather, which was just launched as a joint announcement from the developers of four popular Twitter clients. Twitter has responded by "delaying the scheduled June 19th deprecation date" (@TwitterDev, Apr 6) but it's unclear if their new Account Activity API will be sufficient for third-party apps to keep working.

This sucks for me. If third-party clients vanish -- and I see that day coming, soon or late -- I will not be switching to the official Twitter client or Twitter.com web site. I'm not saying that out of principle or anything. I just find the official Twitter experience to be abysmal. I can't do anything with it. It's noisy, it's out of order, and it's full of ads. No.

(Apps of a Feather is hosted by Twitterific, Tweetbot, Talon, and Tweetings. I use Echofon on iOS and Tweetbot on Mac. Echofon hasn't posted or tweeted anything about the issue, which is worrisome in a different direction.)

You might imagine, given my Slack post, that I will now write an open letter to Twitter telling them to continue supporting third-party clients. Sorry; nope; waste of time. Twitter isn't listening to me.

The question isn't why Twitter would drop support for third-party clients. The question is why they've kept supporting them for so long. Remember I just said that the official Twitter experience is full of ads? The clients I use don't show ads. I'm using Twitter ad-free. I am a freeloader! Why does Twitter put up with me?

They've never said, but I have a theory. I believe Twitter sees me as a selling point for their service. Not me, I mean, but people like me: early adopters with a lot of followers, who are seen as important or interesting people to follow. (In one circle or another.) "Influencers," if you will. I am a very small-time influencer, but there are a fair number of such people. Big-name bloggers, pundits, and so on.

We are, I am sure, the biggest users of third-party clients. We started with Twitter early, and we like how early Twitter behaved. (Ad-free, for a start.) We are cranky and unwilling to change our habits.

So for years (my theory says), Twitter has had a problem. They want to keep us early-cohorters around, because their selling proposition for newcomers is "Twitter is full of interesting people." But they don't want newcomers to use Twitter the way we do, because we're free-thinking radicals. Twitter wants newcomers to use the web site, which they have total control over. That's their only hope of getting and staying profitable.

This explains Twitter's weird, half-assed client support over the years. In 2012, they limited how popular third-party clients could get. (So old people could keep using their clients, but it's hard for those clients to acquire new users.) Over the past few years, Twitter has added new features which are not available to third-party clients. (I don't care about those features -- I just want my old-fashioned behavior -- but newcomers will want them.)

The problem with this, of course, is that every year there are more newcomers, and they follow more people who aren't me. Or people like me. Even if I'm right, the early cohort is a shrinking piece of Twitter's selling proposition. One day they're going to just shove us off the boat.

Last week's announcement, and partial retraction, is just another step in that dance. Third-party clients will still work, but maybe they won't refresh as smoothly. Or maybe they will. Nobody knows. Twitter isn't saying, because every year they're a little farther away from caring.

Where does this leave me? Off the boat. I can't use Official Twitter. I'll keep using third-party clients even if they become degraded. (I can use fussy, degraded interfaces for a long time.) If they go away entirely? I guess I lose Twitter.

There will be no Twitter replacement. I mean, there will be no service that is "like Twitter, with a Twitter-sized mass audience, but run with respect for users." You can't get that many users with an open service, because big services are expensive to run, and the only way to make money is to grind up your users for advertising paste.

On the other hand, I don't have a Twitter-sized mass audience. I have about 2500 followers. IF services that I help run, like IFComp and IFTFoundation, are of the same order of magnitude.

I have a Mastodon account: @zarfeblong (on the gamedev.place server). Perhaps the gamedev and IF crowd will migrate to Mastodon. That's not an absurd idea. Mastodon will never become a Twitter replacement, but it might work for my followers. I'm going to stay optimistic. Let's see what happens.

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