As Facebook gets trounced on the stock market, a much subtler but perhaps equally important backlash has been building against its rival Twitter.
The trouble began in late June, when Twitter announced it would begin clamping-down on the use of its public application programming interface (API) — a set of codes that Twitter posts publicly and freely for software developers outside of the company and other firms to access, giving them the ability to build applications that run-off and interact with Twitter. Twitter said at the time that it would begin “introducing stricter guidelines” to deliver a more “consistent Twitter experience.”
Mere hours after Twitter’s announcement, career-focused network LinkedIn abruptly disabled its own Twitter app on its website, explaining in a mournful blog post that though the two companies had worked together since 2009, “consistent with Twitter’s evolving platform efforts, Tweets will no longer be displayed on LinkedIn….” Translation: Twitter cut the cord on us.
Backlash to those events among third-party software developers was swift and fierce — with many taking to Twitter itself to express their dismay.
But Twitter didn’t stop there: On Thursday, Twitter went ahead and quietly ended the ability for users of another application, Instagram, to automatically add the people they follow on Twitter to their Instagram account. Twitter confirmed the move on Friday, with Twitter spokesperson Carolyn Penner using the opportunity to highlight Twitter’s own unique importance to other apps.
“We understand that there’s great value associated with Twitter’s follow graph data, and we can confirm that it is no longer available within Instagram,” Penner told Mashable.
The moves, which have struck an off-key note with many prominent users and fellow Web developers, come at the same time that Twitter is unfurling its ambitions to become a more mainstream broadcasting platform — partnering with legacy media organizations such as NBC (for an Olympics page) and promoting its success at selling mobile advertisements.
It’s precisely that ad-based model, and Twitter’s recent actions to bolster it by concentrating where Twitter can be seen and how it can be used, that have spooked early fans of the service.
“It all comes down to money,” said Dalton Caldwell, a preeminent San Francisco-based Web entrepreneur lately in charge of developer-support firm App.Net, before that, founder of defunct music-sharing website imeem, in a phone interview with TPM. “If you can’t make a living, cool things can’t happen. When you run out of ideas, command and control is what happens.”
But unlike many other recent critics of Twitter, Caldwell is attempting to do something about what he sees as a great company gone astray: Caldwell is fundraising online to start a new version of his App.Net website that will, in effect, offer the basics of Twitter’s functionality — the ability for users to short messages and follow each other in one-way, or asymmetrical relationships (you don’t have to have become “Friends” to see a person’s content) — for an annual user subscription fee of $50.
“I don’t want to build a Twitter clone,” Caldwell told TPM, “I wan’t to explore what the path would be like if they took a right turn instead of a left one.”
Caldwell won’t actually launch the website unless he can raise $500,000 from online pledges by August 13. So far, he’s raised less than $100,000 from about 1,300 donors, and has 17 days left. Caldwell said to raise interest in the project, he’d soon post initial screenshots of what he envisions for the new social App.net.
Here’s Caldwell’s pitch video for the social App.net.
Specifically, Caldwell believes that the current social media market is dominated by websites and apps — like Twitter and Facebook — that are free for users but make money by selling advertising, a dynamic that skews the incentive of those websites and apps toward providing more products for advertisers and a better experience for them than for actual users.
The result is that users will eventually grow disenchanted with the service, and early adopters will leave, a major paradox, given the fact that larger user numbers are exactly why advertisers would want to pay for ad space on the websites themselves.
“Imagine if that’s how cell phone plans worked,” Caldwell posited to TPM. “Imagine cell phone plans were free to use but ad-supported: We’d be here in the middle of our conversation and of the sudden an advertiser would jump into the conversation and start trying to sell us timeshares or something. I think that’d be pretty horrible.”
Caldwell’s main point is that social media, and short-messaging services like Twitter in particular, are so foundational to the Internet, they should be thought of, and structure their business models, more like that of infrastructure services — like wireless plans, Internet connectivity, water supply and electricity delivery.
“My thesis is that the communications infrastructure that Twitter has enabled is orders of magnitude greater than what they’re doing with it, which is turning it into some sort-of lame Yahoo! clone, or a weird TMZ competitor and AP Newswire and all these other things rolled up into one,” Caldwell told TPM. “I’m not picking on them because they’re the worst, but because they had the best shot at disintermediating the ad-supported model.”
Caldwell has a lot of experience when it comes to the economics and cutthroat business realities of social media: After founding music sharing website imeem in 2003, he saw it rise to become one of the most popular on the Web at the time, only to see MySpace, then the top social network, block imeem’s own apps (or widgets) and other content when it was posted to MySpace by users. Around the same time, imeem was also sued for copyright infringement by Warner. Eventually, in late 2009, Caldwell sold imeem to Myspace for less than $1 million.
Stung but learned as a result of those experiences, Caldwell felt he had to act when he saw some of the same things play out again with Twitter.
“I see a lot of parallels between the systematic ways that Twitter has acquired apps and intimidated developers and squandered its potential and what I went through,” Caldwell said.
Not everyone agrees with Caldwell’s conclusions, of course. Fred Wilson, a New York-based venture capitalist and co-founder of Union Square Ventures, took to his blog in mid-July to defend the ad-supported, free-for-user model pursued by websites like Twitter, Facebook and Spotify.
“When your users are creating the content and the value, free is the business model of choice,” Wilson wrote. “And I don’t think anything has changed to make that less true today. If anything, it is more true.”
Dalton responded on his own blog, writing in part: “If we think of Twitter and Facebook as communications platforms, rather than media/entertainment sites, it seems that their business models are on the wrong side of history.”
“I am so completely disenchanted with free web services,” Andy Mangold, a co-founder of Baltimore-based Web development company Friends of the Web, tweeted on Friday, “Take my money and do better.” He later added: “@twitter is at the top of my ‘Take my money and do better’ list.”
Mangold’s company recently released a paid iPhone app ($4.99) called Wikiweb that reogranizes Wikipedia articles into visual maps showing the connections between them. Mangold said that although the app hadn’t been downloaded as many time yet as some of his company’s previous free apps, he found that the quality of users and engagement were higher.
“From personal experience having built free things, it’s much more sustainable for us to build paid things,” Mangold told TPM in a phone interview.
Mangold said he’s also backed Caldwell’s social App.net project.