How Twitter Became a Tyrant

In the beginning, Google was not going to be evil, Mark Zuckerberg said he cared about your privacy, and Twitter still dared to change the world, that curious abbreviated messaging platform that became “the SMS of the Internet.” The only rule - the...

In the beginning, Google was not going to be evil, Mark Zuckerberg said he cared about your privacy, and Twitter still dared to change the world, that curious abbreviated messaging platform that became “the SMS of the Internet.” The only rule – the company’s “Don’t Be Evil” – was 140 characters. With that dictum, it was at once the new home of the reality Internet and the voice of a revolution. A giant waste of time and the future of real-time communication.

No longer. Google has revealed a more complicated side, its hands now in an assortment of pots as it tangos with Apple for the future of your cell phone screen. Facebook, the current startup era’s one-time golden child, has been the subject of an Academy Award-winning film as well as a furiously hyped IPO, but now finds itself in perilous financial straits, its stock tanking along with the apparent collapse of the social media bubble. And Twitter, on the cusp of going full-on mainstream is taking a cue from the Zuck, as it consolidates its chips and readies itself to cash in and become the media company it always secretly desired to be.

Like Facebook at its inception, Twitter was framed around a platform for the people. But the dense history of communication and transportation serves to remind how, as companies occupy a greater mindshare, they become ever more comfortable flexing their information monopoly muscles.

What once seemed like a passing fad and a financial joke now has a lot going for it. (You know you’ve made it when a new generation of social climbers are paying cash for fake followers.) Google is still playing catchup, when it comes to anything social; Facebook, despite its numerical success, remains dopey as ever, especially as the company tries to figure out how to make the kind of money to justify its insane valuation; and frankly, the reasons to use Foursquare escape me. As they flounder, Twitter has continued to find purpose, boosted by a smart redesign last year that made the site more user friendly for newbz. Over the years, it’s become a source of real-time news, a social reader and, somewhere in all the noise, a gauge of the cultural zeitgeist.

The ascension of Twitter (Silicon Valley Insider)

But now it’s time to get really serious — which, if we are to follow the Facebook formula, means three simple steps: close off the platform, rapidly expand your userbase and sell a shit-ton of ads, all while leveraging that juicy data.

Last week the company announced its new API, dubbed version 1.1, to protests and, tellingly, begrudging acceptance. The update served one primary purpose: reign in third-party developers by restricting how large they can grow. Wrote Adam Clark Estes last week:

They’re essentially limiting the number of users these apps can have, an assertive move towards cutting off access to its data altogether. “If your application already has more than 100,000 individual user tokens, you’ll be able to maintain and add new users to your application until you reach 200% of your current user token count (as of today) — as long as you comply with our Rules of the Road,” Twitter’s director of consumer products Michael Sippey wrote in the announcement post. “Once you reach 200% of your current user token count, you’ll be able to maintain your application to serve your users, but you will not be able to add additional users without our permission.”

By doing so, Twitter can continue to unify the way tweets are presented, funneling new users to the certified official app, much to the chagrin of any startup that has invested resources into making cool Twitter software. ”Twitter is about as clear as any company will ever be about this," said Chris Dixon. "If you make a Twitter client, you should stop and make something else.”

For those who enjoy a more creative approach, new apps like Thirst — a beautiful new rendition of tweets that resembles the magazine approach of Flipboard — have an uncertain future. This kind of development isn’t necessarily a surprise: Twitter has been warning developers of something like this for years, admonishing them to stop trying to hack the Twitter experience into something meant to be, quite simply, better.

In its place, the company has issued an increasingly dense maze of rules. With the most recent API guidelines, comes things like this wonderfully dense graph. Explains Twitter’s Michael Sippey, “we’re trying to encourage activity in the upper-left, lower-left and lower right quadrants, and limit certain use cases that occupy the upper-right quadrant.”

Cutting off developers, however, is only the first part of Twitter’s new closed-end approach. They’re also starting to shut out other networks. It started with LinkedIn, then Instagram. Tumblr followed soon after. "To our dismay, Twitter has restricted our users’ ability to “Find Twitter Friends” on Tumblr," the microblog site immediately responded. “Given our history of embracing their platform, this is especially upsetting.” Twitter, the utility, was once a free for all. Twitter, the company, is a draconian fiefdom. Here, official roads to the public square are no longer just recommended: they could soon be the only option.

The shift from “Display Guidelines” to “Display Requirements” could have far-reaching consequences, beyond its impact on developers and direct competitors. Journalists, who have long enjoyed Twitter integration alongside other social media widgets, could find themselves in violation of Twitter’s stricter policies, explains Instapaper founder Marco Arment, citing a new rule that makes sure tweets won’t be “rendered with non-Twitter content. e.g. comments, updates from other networks.” In other words, Twitter doesn’t want to see its stuff next to Facebook or YouTube or Tumblr, potentially bad news for social network aggregators like Storify. “This is very broad and will bite more services and apps than you may expect,” he wrote of the new rule changes. “It’s probably the clause that caused the dispute with LinkedIn, and why Flipboard CEO Mike McCue just left Twitter’s board.”

Closing off the system allows Twitter to clear out internal competition — i.e. forsaking the developers that got the service here in the first place — while also putting its most prized possession, it’s social graph, under lock and key. It makes little business sense to allow outside threats to dilute their biggest moneymaker, writes Dustin Curtis:

I suspect the reason that Twitter is cutting off apps from using its “friend finder” feature is because most people do not create content in Twitter and therefore have no incentive to use Twitter outside of the value of its graph. Unlike replicating or using the Facebook graph externally, relocating the Twitter graph can have disastrous consequences for Twitter. Lots of celebrities use Tumblr, and if you can instantly relocate your Twitter graph into Tumblr, then what value does Twitter have, other than a more restricted set of content? What about App.net? Twitter is in an even worse position than MySpace to fight off a disruptive competitor.

Twitter isn’t shy to admit this. “We understand that there’s great value associated with Twitter’s follow graph data,” the company told the Verge, in response to whether or not they cut off Facebook’s recent photo-sharing acquisition. “[We] can confirm that it is no longer available within Instagram.”

In shutting out the noise, Twitter can better focus on itself (and monetizing all that data). The walled-garden approach also allows Twitter to centralize control, thus streamlining its presentation, as the company continues to make its content more consistent and digestible for new users. For much of its life-cycle, the social network has been panned for its steep learning curve and the necessary investment needed for a compelling return. As is the issue with many user-generated sites, most of Twitter’s content is produced by a select group of elite users. Between 2009 and 2010, half of all tweets were generated by 20,000 accounts.

Tweeting isn’t as fun when you’ve only got twenty followers, many of which, are probably inactive. Developing a real following requires a long term commitment hat undermines the quick-fix attitude pervasive on the ‘net. It’s no easy task, illustrated by the many cheaters, those who buy fake followers, to at least create the illusion that someone cares — even if they’re bots. It’s no surprise then, that most users have ten or less tweets.

As such, Twitter has gone to great lengths to make the site more welcoming, not just for producers, but also content ingestors — who, for much of the site’s existence, had little idea where to even start. New features like “#Discovery,” specially curated feeds (such as the one for the Olympics) and more dynamic tweets in the form of “Cards” have made the site more welcoming and helped to bridge the gap.

The 2012 Olympics, brought to you by Twitter (BuzzFeed)

This has all been in the offing for some time; back in 2011, when Sean Parker suggested “they need to become more like Facebook,” Twitter was already following that advice, turning user pages into profile pages, making itself generally more user-friendly. Which, in app land, is often code word for necessarily awkward efforts at more engagement.

The irony is that, in some ways, Twitter has already proved that engagement isn’t going anywhere. Even as people start to murmur about abandoning the service, a la a Facebook backlash, the site’s usefulness has made it indispensable. “I wonder who the first cut-off company will be who just says ‘Fuck it, we’re going to stop adding value to Twitter if we can’t get any out,’” Arment said on, well, where else? “The problem is that Twitter just drives so much traffic that almost nobody can afford to do that. And Twitter knows it.”

The changes warm the network up for what it must hope will be an advertising onslaught. With a consolidated and more carefully policed platform, partners can have the peace of mind knowing exactly what they’re paying for.

A little over a year ago, the company was valued at $10 billion, despite losing money. But that was on the way up. Given Zuckerberg’s post-IPO blues, CEO Dick Costolo (he’s the third in as many years) is feeling the heat, knowing that they can’t miss the boat entirely. And so the time for idealistic dreams are officially over.

Dick Costello doing his best Dr. Evil

With its transition towards a more practical platform and its ever-accelerating usage and influence, Twitter has also become friendlier with another important user-base: the Feds. While it helps fight a subpoena by the NYPD for an Occupy protester’s old Tweets, it has also reminded users that in the future, their old Tweets are not going to be protected from prying eyes. That’s consistant with the company’s increasing compliance with U.S. government requests for users’ information.

According to its own records for the first half of 2012, while Twitter was reluctant to give data to governments most of the time they asked, it largely complied with requests in the U.S., suppling some or all of the information requested 75 percent of the time. In January, the company said it would begin censoring Tweets when governments asked it to do so. Yesterday, after requests from the Indian government amidst growing ethnic violence in India’s northeast, Twitter killed four accounts that were impersonating the Prime Minister. A backlash among Indian Twitter users has begun.

As Twitter gets closer to governments and corporations, the network once praised as a means of unfettered communication is starting to chip away at its civic value. The shift has already jostled more principled users to abandon ship, seeking solace in fresh alternatives like App.net and Heello.com.

And yet, Twitter is doing pretty well. In just six years, the site has amassed half a billion users who generate 340 million tweets a day. And the company has so far been successful in executing its relatively safe business plan. With Facebook in its sights, Twitter desperately wants to become the next next big thing. But change the rules of the network, from 140 characters to a labyrinth of draconian restrictions, and you risk Digging your own grave. Or worse: turning into Facebook.

Follow me: @sfnuop