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Twitter Tells Developers to Stop Building Twitter Clients

Now Friends With Charlie Sheen, Twitter Tells Its Nerdy Old Pals to Drop Dead

Twitter’s platform/API leader Ryan Sarver issued an official statement to the Twitter developer world today that’s sure to send a shudder down the backs of many people building new ways to use the popular social network: if you were thinking about building a new Twitter client – don’t. “Developers ask us if they should build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience. The answer is no.”

Sarver went on to discuss a wide variety of innovative services built on top of Twitter (mostly analytics services) that the company will continue to support and said that existing Twitter clients would be tolerated, if closely watched. It was a strong statement that seemed to fly in the face of Twitter’s long history of a strong developer community. The tone of the announcement won’t help, either.

Sarver spent much of the email discussing the overwhelming market share that official Twitter apps now have. “According to our data, 90% of active Twitter users use official Twitter apps on a monthly basis,” he wrote.

What’s the harm in outside parties developing new ways for people to access Twitter? “…Our user research shows that consumers continue to be confused by the different ways that a fractured landscape of third-party Twitter clients display tweets and let users interact with core Twitter functions,” he wrote.

“A consistent user experience is exactly the wrong direction to go in. Twitter needs diverse read-only experiences if it’s going to continue to grow, a monoculture would stifle its growth. That would be like saying all websites should look the same.” – Laura Fitton, CEO, OneForty

Mainstream users are actively confused by different interfaces? And this is such a big problem that non-standard interfaces need to be stamped out? That just seems crazy, patronizing, arrogant, obnoxious and suspiciously arbitrary. Surely the harm done by the tiny number of rarely used 3rd party interfaces that really create a different user experience is much, much smaller than the value Twitter has gained from innovation on top of its platform and the harm that messages like this are likely to do to what’s left of the trust Twitter has in its developer community. Maybe Twitter’s big enough it doesn’t need anyone else anymore, though.

Last week Twitter issued declared that 3rd parties, in that case the researchers at the Web Ecology Project, weren’t allowed to capture and redistribute Twitter content, even for academic and historical research.

Seeing first the librarian and now the science club get poked in the eye makes all this feel like mean girls in high school. Flipboard and its replacement “mainstream interface” will probably be just fine, since its CEO Mike McCue joined Twitter’s Board of Directors when venture capitalists injected $200 million more in December. Tweetdeck had better watch its back, though – especially since it got in bed with Twitter rival Bill Gross and Uber Media. All those Tweetdeck columns, loved by power users, are awfully confusing to mainstream users anyway.

Here’s the part of today’s announcement that probably deserves the most sympathy:

“For example, people get confused by websites or clients that display tweets in a way that doesn’t follow our design guidelines, or when services put their own verbs on tweets instead of the ones used on Twitter. Similarly, a number of third-party consumer clients use their own versions of suggested users, trends, and other data streams, confusing users in our network even more. Users should be able to view, retweet, and reply to @nytimes’ tweets the same way; see the same profile information about @whitehouse; and be able to join in the discussion around the same trending topics as everyone else across Twitter.”

It’s hard to stomach the idea that a platform that enables anyone in the world to casually post 140 characters about anything that moves them could be so uncomfortable with some occasional inconsistencies in a related user experience.

Maybe Twitter’s not really for free-form posting anymore though. Maybe what Twitter leadership really wants is to create a Hollywood-glossy, TV-comfy place for “mainstream users” to read Tweets from famous people and big media brands. Maybe they’re too cool for school and don’t need the earnest nerds that built their ecosystem in the early days anymore. Now they’ve got Charlie Sheen. If you want to build an app that helps big brands figure out how to give Charlie Sheen money to post a photo holding up your product – more power to you. If you thought Twitter was a place for outlaws, for free thinkers, for innovators – you need to tuck in your shirt, cut your hair and get a clue. Stop even risking confusion on the part of mainstream users. If that’s not the message, Twitter sure didn’t make much effort to avoid sounding that way.

“The [wide open] Internet,” writes epoch-defining innovator Dave Winer about the news, “remains the best place to develop because it is the Platform With No Platform Vendor. Every generation of developers learns this value for themselves.”

We’ll see how often you get to hang out with Snoop Dog and Lady Gaga with an attitude like that, Winer.

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