#OccupyTwitter Petition Seeks Open API Commitment

Since Twitter telegraphed its intention to tighten API policies, developers have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Now a petition asks Twitter for a renewed commitment to openness--or at least a clarification.

David Carr

August 8, 2012

7 Min Read
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Small-time developers and major companies who build applications around Twitter data have been holding their breath since the social media site signaled in June that it would tighten up its API policies. Nova Spivack finally exhaled, and it came out like this:

"Twitter, what kind of bird are you becoming? Are you still that cute little bird that everyone loved, or are you becoming a scary bird of prey? We need you to clarify this ASAP," he wrote in the preamble to an online petition hosted at Change.org. "We, the undersigned, urge you, Twitter, not to betray the trust and goodwill of your ecosystem of millions of developers and users. And we urge you to clarify your intentions for your APIs and the huge ecosystem of third-party apps and services that rely on these APIs to connect to Twitter, right away."

Spivack is the CEO of Bottlenose, a social media dashboard and search engine currently operating in a free open beta--with advertising and commercial plans for social media monitoring to follow. Twitter is certainly one of the most important data sources for Bottlenose, but Spivack said in an interview that the issue is much bigger than his company. The problem is not so much anything Twitter has done, so far, as with lingering uncertainty about what it might do.

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Open application programming interfaces (APIs) have been a big part of the story of Twitter's development as a social network, allowing the creation of all sorts of apps for reading and writing to the Twitter stream or analyzing the content of Twitter posts. As Twitter the company has matured and tried to figure out a viable business model, however, its leaders have grown increasingly concerned that other companies were capturing too much of the service's revenue potential. Application developers, in turn, have become increasingly nervous that Twitter will pull the rug out from under them. Some users also worry that Twitter's new corporate leaders will ruin the service they love or turn it into "the next MySpace."

Since Spivack launched the petition drive six days ago, it has attracted more than 370 signatures toward a goal of 500, with those endorsing it including some prominent people such as John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Binh Tran, a Klout co-founder.

Xavier Damman, CEO and cofounder of Storify, said his business is not dependent on Twitter API access but he signed because he agreed the messages coming from Twitter "have been really worrying." In particular, Twitter's statements leave too much room for speculation about what changes are coming, he said. "Twitter has been helped all along by developers who use the API to augment the system and do good things with it," Damman said, and if that stops Twitter won't really be Twitter anymore. "I think the problem is they actually don't know themselves what they are going to do," he said.

At the end of June, Twitter's director of consumer product Michael Sippey put out a blog post on delivering a consistent Twitter experience in which he said the company would be "introducing stricter guidelines around how the Twitter API is used." He reiterated concerns Twitter executives had been expressing for some time about applications that get between Twitter and its audience, interfering with the experience it wants to deliver. Ultimately, everyone understood that to also mean not getting between Twitter and its desire to deliver advertisements and create a profitable company.

That same day, LinkedIn announced it had lost the right to redistribute the Twitter posts of members on its own site. LinkedIn retained the ability to have status posts recorded on its own site reposted to LinkedIn, but said it would no longer be able to offer two-way integration. The end of that relationship led others to wonder who's next.

Since then, Spivack said he has been asked in every press interview how he will cope with losing access to the Twitter APIs, a question he can't answer because he doesn't know what exactly Twitter is going to do. "It was an announcement that we're going to make an announcement. We're going to be changing some stuff that's going to affect you, and we'll let you know. That has created quite a bit of FUD--fear, uncertainty, and doubt," he said.

Spivack doesn't object to Twitter's desire to profit from its own service, but he believes the simple solution would be to include advertising in API feeds and require third-party applications to display them, according to Twitter specifications. In the process, Twitter ought to come out ahead, expanding from an operation dependent on ads displayed on a single site and turning itself into an ad network. Twitter also could offer the option for application developers to pay for API access without that advertising. To the extent that Twitter is concerned about the display of its content, as well as its advertising, it can set terms and conditions for the handling of rich media posts, he said. The only thing that's unacceptable is to leave questions about the future of API access unanswered, he said.

In the end, Spivack suspects the action Twitter takes will be nowhere near as draconian as some have feared. "I've spoken with people at Twitter whom I know, and they've given me reassuring messages," he said. "Here's the problem: this vague rumbling they made created an atmosphere of dread in the industry, and it's causing real damage to their ecosystem and to their partners." Business plans based on innovative use of Twitter data can't get funding, investors are jittery, and all sorts of social CRM and social media analytics firms are seeing their future is in jeopardy, he said. "Everything is grinding to a screeching halt."Twitter must be aware of the economic effect of its actions, but weeks have gone by during which it has done nothing to clarify its intentions. He wonders if that is because Twitter's leaders haven't made up their minds; the rumors are true and they're preparing to do something awful while minimizing the uproar; or they just don't care who they leave twisting in the wind. "I can't think of another alternative, but none of them are good," Spivack said.

Twitter has made noises before about prohibiting other companies from creating new Twitter clients, Storify's Damman noted, but then along came Tweetbot, the popular Twitter client for the iPhone, and "Twitter didn't seem to complain about it." That just leaves everyone guessing whether Twitter's warnings are empty sabre rattling, or whether someday soon the ax will fall, he said.

Alfredo Gil, an online marketer with Likeable Media, said he signed out of concern for the future of the free and open Internet. "I think it's very dangerous for Twitter to become a closed platform like Facebook," he said. Many businesses have been built around the Twitter APIs, he said, "and it's scary to think that with a flip of a switch Twitter can pretty much make your business non-existent."

Spivack said Bottlenose's business is not 100% dependent on the Twitter APIs, although it does use them. If his company were to lose API access to the site tomorrow, his developers would find other ways to index Twitter content "but it would not be fun to engineer around that," he said.

Meanwhile, he refuses to live in fear. "A lot of Twitter API developers are afraid to stick their necks out. They think maybe Twitter will punish them. The atmosphere in the Twitter community is so negative because people feel they have marked their developers for death. So people are in hiding--they're afraid to speak up."

So why isn't he afraid?

"I think if Twitter's going to kill developers, they're going to kill us all--hiding isn't going to help," Spivack said.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment on this article.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and facebook.com/thebyard

Every company needs a social networking policy, but don't stifle creativity and productivity with too much formality. Also in the debut, all-digital Social Media For Grownups issue of The BrainYard: The proper tools help in setting social networking policy for your company and ensure that you'll be able to follow through. (Free with registration.)

About the Author(s)

David Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Healthcare and InformationWeek Government (columnist on social business)

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