Is Twitter broken? That's what many are asking today as their favorite apps for the social media service suddenly appeared to stop working.
At roughly 0900 California time, people's lists of liked items, responses to specific search terms, mentions – in fact pretty much everything came to a sudden and unexpected halt.
Incredibly, app developers and Twitter have known about the situation for months but largely failed to let their users know: just one sign of ongoing tension and dysfunction between Twitter and its third-party developer eco-system.
In brief terms, Twitter has changed how it works and has started charging companies for access to its constantly updated feeds: a steep $2,899 per month for 250 users - $11.50 per user per month.
Unsurprisingly, developers – many of whom provide their app for free or for a flat fee that less than a single month's access – are not at all happy about the changes and have been arguing with Twitter for over a year over the plans.
One group of developers claims that the new service means they "would need to charge over $16 per month to break even." Who's going to pay that much just to access Twitter? Pretty much no-one. So what is Twitter doing?
Well, it's trying to make money from its vast base of users.
Our way or overpay for the highway
Twitter knows that with Facebook and Google providing their service for free, and without a willingness (or ability) to store vast quantities of personal information on those users in order to sell it on to third party advertisers, it has decided to do two things:
1. Push people to its official "core Twitter experience" where it can monetize them through ads
2. Tap the businesses that are willing to pay for access and who have built businesses on top of its data feeds.
This is not the first time that Twitter has done this: originally pretty much everyone had direct access to Twitter's servers before the company decided to give exclusive access to two middleman data brokers that others then had to purchase access through. Everyone complained bitterly and some companies walked away but ultimately things continued on as normal for most people.
Twitter seems to believe the same thing will happen again but this time some big third-party app developers have simply not gone for the new arrangement and not updated their apps either – not yet at least – causing everything to grind to a halt.
A leaked internal email by Twitter's senior director Rob Johnson gives a little more insight into the decision, claiming that the whole system needed an update: "It is now time to make the hard decision to end support for these legacy APIs - acknowledging that some aspects of these apps would be degraded as a result," he wrote.
"Today, we are facing technical and business constraints we can’t ignore. The User Streams and Site Streams APIs that serve core functions of many of these clients have been in a 'beta' state for more than 9 years, and are built on a technology stack we no longer support."
Despite angry responses from developers, Johnson then claims that Twitter is "not changing our rules, or setting out to 'kill' 3rd party clients; but we are killing, out of operational necessity, some of the legacy APIs that power some features of those clients."
Insightful or delusional?
Johnson claims those legacy APIs "used by less than one perc ent of Twitter developers" – but notably doesn't mention how many users are using those developers' products.
In a slightly worrying sign of internal groupthink Johnson claims that the company is listening to critics – by following the campaign hashtag #BreakingMyTwitter – and simply can't understand why people are using third parties and not Twitter's own apps.
"We’re committed to understanding why people hire third party clients over our own apps. And we’re going to try to do better with communicating these changes honestly and clearly to developers. We have a lot of work to do. This change is a hard, but important step, towards doing it."
The public message from Johnson is somewhat different. In a blog post today, he argued that effectively cutting some popular apps out the market by "updating some outdated developer tools" would resulting in a "better Twitter experience" for users.
He then strongly implied that Twitter's ongoing problems with trolls and the abuse and harassment that the company has become synonymous with would be in part resolved by cutting out third parties.
And he pushed "Twitter-owned apps and websites" as being "the only way to experience" certain features – like polls, videos, bookmarks and certain content controls.
In short, Twitter has gone down the path of trying to make money and solve its abuse problems by pushing its own solutions and pricing third party developers out the market.
There are however two problems with this approach. First, Twitter-owned apps and websites are often clunkier and less intuitive than third-party offerings (Twitter has even killed off its own official apps in the past, leaving users stranded.) And second, the company is infuriating the people who in the past have really helped Twitter identify innovations in what was originally a text-message sharing service.
Does Twitter have enough insight and innovation internally to keep it moving forward while at the same time tackling its problems? We are seemingly about to find out. ®