Photo: Patrick Doheny/Flickr
Since its earliest days, Twitter has depended on the kindness of strangers. Companies like Yahoo and LinkedIn lent a hand when it was just a fledgling startup, with little to its name but its unrealized potential.But now that it’s grown up into a position of strength, with 200 million users, Twitter doesn’t seem as kind.
In recent months, it’s feuded with LinkedIn, Instagram, and Tumblr—engaging in hardball tactics that seem far afield from its friendly roots.
To understand why, it helps to go back to Twitter’s humble beginnings—and the mistakes and fights it’s had along the way.
From the day Twitter opened its doors to developers in 2006, coders intrigued by the idea of a real-time network for broadcasting messages, as well as publishers looking for an outlet for their news and ordinary people who wanted a voice, have built up its value, 140 characters at a time.
As have investors, who valued the private company at $8 billion in its most recent financing and put what CEO Dick Costolo calls a “truckload of money” in its bank account. And the more than 1,000 employees who have put their heart and soul into turning its cofounders’ idea into a real business that’s expected to nearly triple its revenue from an estimated $350 million in 2012 to $1 billion next year.
To whom much is given, much is expected.
This summer, Twitter unexpectedly took away the ability for Instagram and Tumblr users to find people they followed on Twitter and add them as friends on those services.
The reason is simple: Twitter has changed the rules for developers, and it restricts what apps that “attempt to replicate Twitter’s core user experience” can do. It did this because it decided it’s better to maintain tight control over how people access tweets.
Specifically, developers “must not use Twitter Content or other data collected from end users to create or maintain a separate status update or social network database or service.”
That, we understand, includes the lists of accounts Twitter users follow.
As far as that goes, that makes sense: Why should Twitter help Instagram, now owned by Facebook, or Tumblr, seen as a rival in real-time sharing, build up their user bases?
And of course, these rules apply to everyone. So the last thing you’d expect, say, Flickr’s new mobile app to do is let you find friends on Twitter.
And yet the new Flickr app does exactly that, letting you search for friends on Twitter who use Flickr and add them as connections on Flickr.
What gives? Twitter and Yahoo wouldn’t comment, but we gather from our sources that Twitter doesn’t view Flickr’s mobile app as duplicating what Twitter does. (Even though Twitter and Flickr both now let you take a photo, edit it, and post it to Twitter—right down to using the same company to power their photo filters.)
It’s contradictory, of course. Flickr is a photo-based social network for sharing what’s happening in the world, just like Instagram is, and just like Twitter hopes to be.
It just happens to be one that’s owned by Yahoo, not Facebook, and one that Twitter doesn’t feel threatened by.
Twitter and Yahoo have been friendly since 2010, when the companies struck a partnership to weave Twitter through a variety of Yahoo services. And Costolo, Twitter’s CEO, and Jack Dorsey, its chairman and cofounder, sent warm congratulations to Marissa Mayer when she was hired on as Yahoo CEO.
Things are far frostier between Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. Twitter reportedly tried to acquire both of those startups, only to be rebuffed. Instagram sold to Facebook, of course, while Twitter acquired a Tumblr rival, Posterous.
Twitter seems to be sending a hardball message: Sell to us, or we’ll cut you off.
Have some sympathy for Twitter: That’s a tactic its leaders learned the hard way, first-hand.
Facebook reportedly tried to buy Twitter for $500 million in 2008. In 2010, Twitter launched a new feature which allowed users to find their Facebook friends on the service. Facebook immediately cut it off.
So Twitter is only returning the favour.
Its abrupt termination of a long-term partnership with LinkedIn in June presaged its hard stance with Tumblr and Instagram.
Twitter has been similarly harsh with developers of Twitter clients. It once encouraged the development of mobile clients and other third-party apps for reading and sending tweets, and announced plans to partner with them on selling advertising through those services.
Then it realised that it had made a big mistake, that the multiplicity of ways to access Twitter confused consumers, and it changed the rules.
The bottom line: If you want to partner with Twitter, you can send your content its way. If you want to use Twitter’s content, you’d best step carefully.
Let’s be clear: Twitter is a business. It’s responsible primarily to its shareholders, employees, and users, not to rivals or opportunists. And it’s human to want to be generous where you can, especially to people who have treated you well. Yahoo’s endorsement of Twitter in 2010 gave it a powerful boost.
But much of Twitter’s value lies in its ambition to be the Internet’s town square, a meeting place and public forum. To the extent that opaque rules and inconsistent behaviour scare people away from Twitter, it harms itself and everyone it’s hoping to serve.
It would be one thing if those rules were clear and consistently enforced. The Flickr exception, though, is troubling: It suggests that if you can stay friends with Twitter, it will bend the rules for you.