Why Twitter’s API Strategy Must Change in a Google+ and Facebook World

As a result of the emergence of Google+, Twitter could soon find itself in a tough spot. A large chunk of their core developer base might migrate to Google+ because there is simply more opportunity there.

Why? Well for starters, it’s really easy to crank out Chrome extensions and you can market and sell them instantly in the Chrome Web Store to a ginormous captive audience that is many multiples of the size of Twitter’s user-base. I’ve written about how Google+ can leverage Chrome to build an ecosystem here.

And if you succeed, your shiny new Google+ feature might even get you bought by Google for a million bucks. What engineer wouldn’t want to spend a few weeks making a feature that could net them a million bucks and a job at Google in a few months?

Compare that to what it’s like to be a Twitter developer today. Twitter has no plugin framework, no app store, no browser, no OS, and they are clamping down on their API terms of use, and even actively going to war against some of their third-party developers. And they don’t have the kind of acquisition budget or appetite that Google has. Twitter has only made a few acquisitions to date.

To make matters worse for Twitter, there’s very little loyalty to Twitter among Twitter developers right now – mostly there’s fear because of the recent Ubermedia and Tweetdeck situation, and Twitter’s recent moves to add their own photo-sharing, and soon their own analytics.

What opportunities are there really for developers on the Twitter platform, that Twitter doesn’t actually want for itself? Twitter has suggested that it wants it’s developers to “move up the value chain,” but to what exactly? How high should they jump? And if they do, will Twitter just pull the rug out from under them when they land?

This kind of FUD may very likely drive Twitter’s core third-party app developers over to the seemingly greener and safer pastures at Google+. And on Google+ developers can rapidly crank out new features as Chrome extensions, they don’t have to use an API. And this gives them instant marketing to a huge captive market of Chrome users too.

Now it’s worth noting that being a Google+ Chrome extension developer won’t necessarily be safer than developing on the Twitter API in the long run. But it will seem safer for a while, and that will be enough for many developers to go there.

Like Twitter, Google will be able to cherry pick the best opportunities on its platform. Any Chrome extension that really becomes a big hit on top of Google+ will be either acquired or copied by Google, and since Google owns the means of distribution (Chrome and Google+) there will be no competition for such deals (what buyer would compete with Google to buy a Chrome extension that Google wanted to own?).  But there is at least a 12 to 24 month window for developers to create value and potentially get bought by Google before Google starts competing with them.

Meanwhile, while their developers start moving to Google+, Twitter is likely to continue to focus on being a media company. This could be a fatal mistake.

Twitter simply does not have the reach of Google. They will never have it. Google is simply everywhere. It’s a completely hopeless battle to try to be a bigger destination than Google. Google has already won that battle. Twitter will never be as big as Google.

What Twitter DOES have — which Google does NOT have (yet) — is a massive installed base of third party apps publishing and subscribing to their message stream API. Assuming Google+ doesn’t come out with an API quickly, and that they drive innovation onto Chrome before they release a full API, there is a window of opportunity for Twitter to beat Google on the API front.

If Twitter focused on building around their real strength, their API, as I have suggested previously, instead of trying to become a media company and destination, they could have shot at long-term prosperity and differentiation as the messaging infrastructure of the planet. That’s a much bigger play for Twitter than being a media company, and it’s something Google+ is not positioned for. Twitter could win this.

(So why aren’t they doing this? What is Twitter’s management thinking? If you think you know, please comment on this article with your theory)

Twitter does not have the distribution and platform leverage that Google has, nor the huge installed base that Facebook has. And they have another problem: Twitter is still too geeky for mainstream consumers.

It’s just too hard to learn to use Twitter’s syntax properly. And the 140-character limitation results in all kinds of geeky abbreviations and conventions in the content and social behaviors in the system. Compared to other apps like Google+ and Facebook, which support long messages, richer text, and real threaded discussions, Twitter is going to seem cryptic and retro – like IRC.

No offense to Twitter – They’ve done something amazing. And I love geeks and count myself as one of them. So I totally get and like the geekiness. But it’s not going to work for mainstream consumers in the long-term.

Unfortunately, geekiness is hard-wired into Twitter’s DNA. It’s in the syntax of the app, their user-experience, and their culture. It’s also the in DNA of the core of their audience. So it’s not something that’s going to be easy to change. But to win the eyeballs war – the consumer war – you just can’t be that geeky.

So either Twitter has to undergo gene therapy to completely change their DNA to become a lot less geeky (unlikely), or they need to embrace their inner-geekiness and focus on their API and developers again: Cater to the geeks. Love the geeks. Make other geeks rich.

Is the Twitter/Apple deal the solution? Perhaps Apple could eventually buy Twitter and perform gene-therapy on them, transforming them into a more consumer-friendly product company. But if that doesn’t happen (and I doubt it will) then a deal with Apple is probably not enough to transform Twitter into a mainstream consumer product.

The key is that Twitter is not the same kind of animal as Facebook or Google+. Twitter is not a media company; it’s a notification company. It’s insufficient for creating rich content, or building rich conversations, but it’s great for short one-off notifications – and the 140-character limit is actually a good thing when viewed from this perspective.

Instead of trying to be a media company, Twitter should pivot back to fundamentals and focus more on their notifications API. This is what they do best. They should do this soon, and while they are at it, they should encourage third-party clients to build on this API again, instead of discouraging them.

By doing this right Twitter could become be the publish-subscribe messaging architecture for the world – including even for the other messaging networks like Facebook and Google+.

That’s seriously frikkin huge. And it’s unique too: It’s not something that Facebook or Google+ are technically designed or positioned to do. It’s what Twitter does better than anyone else, and it’s really what everyone is using Twitter for anyway.

Twitter Future

How Twitter Can Win As an API

As an API focused company, Twitter could be woven into literally every app and service in the world as the means of publishing and subscribing to notifications of all kinds: Notifications between people and people, notifications between people and apps, and even notifications between apps and apps.

If they did this right, people might even use Twitter to keep up with notifications from Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+, as well as every publisher, other apps, and individuals.

Twitter wouldn’t necessarily be where the content is created or where it lives – it would be how everyone got notified of the content. The value is in the API, not the eyeballs.

As a global notification infrastructure, Twitter would not be able to monetize the eyeballs on the content, but they could monetize the notifications by including ads in their notification streams, and optionally requiring services to pay to not include Twitter’s ads in their streams.

Here are some steps Twitter could take to make this vision a reality:

  1. Buy Gnip and Datasift — the companies they presently (and inexplicably) have handed their entire API business to. Twitter should own these companies and be the source for its own data.
  2. Provide a free and premium version of their API and firehose streams. The free versions carry Twitter ads, the premium versions don’t.
  3. Stop trying to own and monetize all the eyeballs on Twitter.com and official Twitter apps. Instead, do a 180 and go back to encouraging third-party developers to build Twitter client apps again. Use these apps to massively increase Twitter’s reach, traction, and monetization. Distribute Twitter into the streams of any apps that use the free API, or make money from any apps that opt out of the ads and pay for an optional premium API.
  4. Sell Tweetdeck to Ubermedia (or someone else) for $50mm. That would not only be ironic and hilarious, it would be brilliant. That money could be better spent on enriching their publish-subscribe infrastructure. Twitter should be working on becoming like a TIBCO, but for the entire Internet.

Twitter has to take evasive action to increase their surface area by letting as many apps as possible integrate their API. They have to spread out, instead of fighting to be a destination. They have to stop cherry picking their ecosystem and instead enable it. Twitter’s strength is their ecosystem and their massive surface area. Without that they will be marginalized.

We’re already seeing the beginnings of Twitter marginalization happening with Google not renewing their licensing agreement to include Twitter in their real-time search results. Microsoft appears to be following suit.

Twitter’s best move to counter this is to make sure that Twitter content appears everywhere else, in every app, in every website. But they can’t do this by trying to compete with those apps and websites for the same eyeballs. Instead, turn all of them into “Twitter clients” and build a massive distributed real-time ad network.

Twitter cannot win as a destination and they are wasting their ammunition trying to do that. Facebook has them boxed in on one side and Google+ has just flanked them on the other. They have to punch through or they will be totally surrounded. But they CAN win as a notifications infrastructure. And that’s their real strength anyway.

8 thoughts on “Why Twitter’s API Strategy Must Change in a Google+ and Facebook World

  1. Pingback: The Google+ Developer Ecosystem Will Be Different from Twitter | Nova Spivack - Minding the Planet

  2. Great post.

    5.  Open-source their real-time message delivery and publist/subscribe software.  Sell it as an appliance or paid hosted service to companies, and eventually become DNS for tweets instead of cradle-to-grave for tweets.  Better economics.
    6.  Archive every tweet and social graph mutation in a way that can be accessed, via APIs to the developer community and as a paid analytics application.  Why should a company looking to understand how their brand is being discussed on twitter have to capture and reattach messages, relationships, and context in-house?  If those firms are willing to pay to save themselves the hassle, why should twitter let Radian6 and other middlemen capture that revenue? In any case today external services can’t do analytics nearly as well by sampling the firehose as would be possible if the full population of items of interest to a specific account were available on-demand.

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