This morning TwapperKeeper, the Twitter-based service that allowed users to create and export archives of Tweets around certain words or hashtags, announced that it would be shutting down a number of key features of the service to remain in compliance with Twitter's Terms of Service.
According to the company's blog post, the archiving and API features will be shut down by March 20. While TwapperKeeper may be just one service among many to be forced into compliance, is its fate indicative of a larger movement in the Twitter ecosystem?
"While we realize that these features are very important to many of our users," writes TwapperKeeper founder John O'Brien, "this change comes at the request of Twitter to bring our service into alignment with the API Terms of Service...regarding redistribution and syndication of content."
The particular clause in the Twitter TOS (1.4.A) says that you will not "sell, rent, lease, sublicense, redistribute, or syndicate the Twitter API or Twitter Content to any third party for such party to develop additional products or services without prior written approval from Twitter."
According to O'Brien, this move by Twitter could signal that any service that engages in providing structured data not solely for personal use will be affected.
"What I'm seeing is, anybody who is 'syndicating' content, ie allowing it to be downloaded and exported in any structured way, is running afoul of the terms of service," said O'Brien. "If it's in HTML, it's fine. The minute it became structured it became a problem."
The End of An Era?
Has something indeed changed? Has the "golden age of Twitter" come to an end?
Twitter has been cracking down on a number third-party services and features over recent weeks, with the official shut-down of the API whitelist earlier this month and last week's crackdown on UberMedia. In its announcement that it had shutdown Twidroyd and UberTwitter, Twitter said that every day it "suspend[s] hundreds of applications that are in violation of our policies. Generally, these apps are used by a small number of users." While TwapperKeeper may be just one of hundreds, it has been around for nearly two years with a number of users relying on its API and export features.
So how might this be the end of an era? Williams said that things have changed for anyone considering a startup around Twitter's platform.
"Before Chirp last year and before Twitter bought Tweetie, few thought twice about building a company in the Twitter ecosystem." said Williams, "With recent events I would more then think twice (probably think three/four times) before building a Twitter based company."
The Question Is, Why Now?
TwapperKeeper got its start in June 2009 and has been offering API access for almost that entire time. O'Brien says that he even submitted whitelist requests early on explaining exactly the nature of his service.
We asked Twitter about the situation and were told that it is a matter of its TOS and Twitter stability.
"We ask all developers in the Twitter ecosystem to abide by a simple set of rules that are in the interests of our users, as well as the health and vitality of the platform as a whole," said a Twitter spokesperson. "We often take actions to enforce these rules; in fact, on an average day we turn off more than one hundred services that violate our API rules of the road. This keeps the ecosystem fair for everyone."
On the point of Twitter's "health and vitality", Williams pointed out that if nobody can create their own API, then everyone has to use Twitter's, which could put a much larger strain on Twitter's API.
In all, Twitter keeps pointing to this "simple set of rules," but why hasn't the company enforced the rules until now? Has TwapperKeeper simply flown under the radar for the past year and a half or has something fundamental changed?
Is It So "Simple"?
Favstar.fm founder Tim Haines explained that API access to Favstar is something that developers have been asking for, but Twitter has turned him down. Enforcement, he says, has been less than uniform.
"I've casually asked Twitter if it would be okay to offer one in the past, and they've said no," said Haines. "It's a rule that's not very well enforced at the moment, as a lot of services, high profile ones included, offer an API that makes Twitter information available outside the terms they've agreed with Twitter."
While Haines plans on continuing to petition Twitter for this sort of functionality, there is another service that we were pointed to by several sources that seems to stand in direct contrast of Twitter's stated point.
Twitoaster, a service that "threads and archives your conversations in real time", offers an API and has publicly done so for some time. The service was created by Arnaud Meunier, who is now a Twitter employee. The key part of the Twitter TOS that must apply here is the "without prior written approval from Twitter," though inquiries on whether Twitoaster had this approval went unanswered by both Meunier and Twitter.
Whither Twitter As A Platform?
In a guest post here on ReadWriteWeb yesterday, TextCapital founder Jeff Pester argued that Twitter is a utility and needs to "get off the fence and start acting like one."
The blogosphere is preoccupied with the notion that this is proof that Twitter is at war with the developer ecosystem and that it's somehow manipulating the playing field to favor its own homegrown apps.
But that discussion misses the larger point: Companies like UberMedia are attempting to profit directly at the presentation and consumption end of the stream infrastructure that Twitter has bought and paid for. In my opinion, UberMedia has the right to monetize "consumption environments" (its apps) that add value to end users. At the same time, Twitter deserves to be compensated for the utility it's providing to UberMedia.
The only issue here should be: Who gets paid and how much?
The big problem now, of course, is that developers have been working in a certain system for years and some feel that the rug is suddenly being pulled from beneath their feet. At the same time, developers have pointed out that a more stable service with clear definitions on its rules can benefit everyone. Haines explained that, by shutting down services that don't meet the TOS, Twitter can clarify its position to all - a position that has been stated rather simply, but enforced less so.
"It'll be good if Twitter is currently taking some time to clean up rogue services," said Haines ,"and make it clear what they allow and what they don't allow."
The more general and obvious trend in all of this is Twitter's move toward monetization. When Twitter killed the API whitelist, the primary suggestion for services that required more historical Twitter data was to pay Gnip, the only authorized reseller of Twitter data. When UberTwitter and Twidroyd were suspended, Twitter just happened (perhaps it was a terrible, coincidental PR failure) to be promoting its own clients with promoted trends. O'Brien couldn't help but reach a similar conclusion.
"I'm wondering if tomorrow they're going to be saying there's an archive open," said O'Brien. "I'm just speculating."