WHEN Twitter was younger, it contented itself to act like the string between two tin cans, unfussed about how the tins looked or worked. Such tweet-management software helped it expand its user base and spurred innovation at its headquarters. But that was before revenue mattered. Now that it does, the microblogging platform wants to turn its guidelines for how tweets are displayed to become firm rules, presumably to keep advertisers and message sponsors, who account for the bulk of the firm’s business, sweet.
In a blog post on August 18th Twitter announced new restrictions on “traditional Twitter clients” (software that talks to servers). The firm will even impose caps on the number of users third-party software can serve, of either 100,000 for smaller apps or twice the current base for bigger ones, presumably to limit competition for its own client (derived from Tweetie, bought in 2010) and TweetDeck, which it snapped up in 2011. The maker of one popular app, TweetBot, says it will continue to develop its software.
It makes sense for Twitter to harmonise the “customer experience”, so that tweets and timelines look the same across all its software and websites. Anyway, Twitter says, only one in ten users rely on third-party apps, though that might be an underestimate. Sysomos, which offers market analyses of social-media networks, provided The Economist with a breakdown by Twitter client of a sample of tweets (300,000 per hour over a recent three-day period) that showed one-quarter came from non-Twitter software and websites. That number jibes with what other analyses have found, namely that the most active users on Twitter are more likely to employ third-party software for posting.
Those irked by the microblogging giant’s new fondness for micromanagement may turn to a new social network that has just sprung up. App.net welcomes third parties with open arms, and vows never to develop client software of its own. Dalton Caldwell, its boss, calls it “a dumb pipe”. It will give users full discretion over their posts, allow cross-posting on other platforms, and support a new standard for distributing content across many servers and networks, known as PubSubHubbub.
However, such freedom will not come cheap. App.net set its initial membership fee artificially high, at $50 for regular members and $100 for developers, to encourage only committed early adopters. “If we had 10m people sign up tomorrow, we would screw it up,” says Mr Caldwell. The price is likely to drop, perhaps significantly, as the service matures.
App.net’s previous forays into social networking did not pan out. It had been working on a Facebook app which Mr Caldwell claims was scuppered at the last minute by Mark Zuckerberg’s firm. (He wrote a rather frank open letter to Mr Zuckerberg about that experience.) Picplz, a photo-sharing service akin to Instagram, never caught on and was shut down in July. That software, along with tools the firm built to help software developers distribute and maintain applications, will power its social network.
To assess the demand for an alternative to Twitter and Facebook that would rely on subscriptions rather than advertising, Mr Caldwell ran a crowdfunding project on App.net’s site. The goal was to raise $500,000; it was exceeded by $300,000. At the same time, developers were encouraged to acquaint themselves with the system’s plumbing. Within 15 days, dozens of applications appeared for multiple platforms.
App.net’s idea is to assure members that it will not disable useful software and guarantee to developers that it has no interest in capturing customers. Mr Caldwell says App.net need not grow to tens of millions of users to be viable, and does not wish to compete directly with Twitter and Facebook. But convincing potential customers, wary of a Twitter-like change of heart, that the promise will be kept may prove tricky.
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