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Two Moves That Reveal Twitter's Future


Two Moves That Reveal Twitter's Future

Courtesy Twitter

We’ve been writing a lot lately about the transformation Twitter is going through—in which it has shifted from being a kind of real-time information utility to being a global media entity—and how that has led the company to restrict access to its API to control as much of the content flowing through its network as possible. But nothing sums up this transition, and the picture it paints of Twitter’s future, better than two recent events. In the first the company abruptly yanked Tumblr’s ability to connect to Twitter’s friend-finder API, and in the second it bragged about how positive its recent partnership with NBC was around the Summer Olympics. Welcome to the new Twitter world order.

The Tumblr news didn’t come as that much of a surprise to anyone who has been following recent events, since Twitter has already cut off other apps, such as Instagram. In fact, Matt Buchanan at Buzzfeed wrote a post on Wednesday about how the blog network could be the next target for Twitter, and within a matter of hours Tumblr lost the ability to connect to Twitter.

In the case of Instagram, Twitter’s removal of those connection rights—which allowed users to find and connect with any Twitter followers who also use the photo-sharing app—seemed as though it might have been driven in part by a desire to play hardball with Instagram’s new owner, Facebook (FB). But Tumblr isn’t owned by a competitor: If anything, the blog network has been a close partner of Twitter, up to and including building support for the newly introduced Twitter cards that show expanded information about tweets.

Despite those ties, Twitter decided to shut off Tumblr’s ability to show users their Twitter friends, a decision that even one Twitter engineer apparently doesn’t agree with. And Tumblr was clearly disappointed by the move, saying in a statement delivered to a number of blogs:

“To our dismay, Twitter has restricted our users’ ability to ‘Find Twitter Friends’ on Tumblr. Given our history of embracing their platform, this is especially upsetting. Our syndication feature is responsible for hundreds of millions of tweets, and we eagerly enabled Twitter Cards across 70 million blogs and 30 billion posts as one of Twitter’s first partners. … We are truly disappointed by Twitter’s decision.”

The key to the move, and to the similar action taken against Instagram, is contained in the only comment that Twitter has so far made publicly about either decision—after cutting off access to the friend-finder ability on Instagram, the company said simply: “We understand that there’s great value associated with Twitter’s follow graph data, and we can confirm that it is no longer available within Instagram.” Twitter pointed to this statement after the Tumblr decision as well, saying it had nothing to add.

As designer and developer Dustin Curtis of Svbtle described in a post about Twitter’s recent behavior, a huge amount of Twitter’s value to both users and external services is tied up in its follower graph—that is, the index of all a user’s friends and connections, which in turn are a direct representation of their interests. That “interest graph” is what gives Twitter any power it might have to target advertising, to customize search results, to promote tweets, and all the other things it is trying to do to monetize its platform and justify its market value.

Unlike Facebook, where users are normally connected with their friends via other means, that interest graph represents all the power that Twitter has over a user. So it’s not surprising the company would want to control that feature as closely as possible and even turn it into a monetization strategy (it’s not clear whether Twitter asked Tumblr to pay for access or whether it was just removed). The only question now is whether apps such as Flipboard—which also had close ties to Twitter, until Flipboard Chief Executive Mike McCue left Twitter’s board of directors—will suffer the same fate.

As it cuts off the third-party developers (and in some cases users) who helped generate much of its success, signs of where Twitter is headed are also abundant: They can be seen in the deals the company has signed with corporate partners such as NBC, which led to an official Twitter hub where curated information about the Olympics appeared—and also caused a significant amount of controversy when the company suspended the account of a journalist who was critical of NBC.

In a comment about the partnership, Twitter’s vice president for media, Chloe Sladden, said: “It’s not fair to describe Twitter as a spoiler mechanism. What we saw is that it was an amazing daytime teaser trailer driving people into prime time.”

In other words, despite the critical protests of users who popularized the hashtag #NBCfail—because of the TV network’s decision to post tweets about events that weren’t going to be broadcast in the U.S. for hours—and despite the fact that the NBC deal forced Twitter to geo-block anyone outside the U.S. from seeing anything on its official hub, the company was more than happy with the relationship because it drove lots of people to watch television. As media relationships become a bigger part of Twitter’s future, which they will almost certainly do, that kind of argument is going to define the company’s vision of success.

The only question that remains is whether enough users want Twitter to become that kind of media entity, with all the controls and restrictions and advertising messages that come with it. It’s possible that—as some have argued—the third-party developers who are complaining about their treatment by the company are no longer relevant and that those users who have been supporting alternatives such as App.net are simply misguided. Or Twitter may have miscalculated badly and sealed its fate as yet another media entity scrambling to promote its ads to a declining user base, just as MySpace did.

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