The future of Twitter is going to look like…Twitter. The official Twitter and no other Twitter. That’s the take away from the company’s newly minted version 1.1 API, which limits new Twitter apps to a maximum of 100,000 users and stipulates that existing apps with user bases bigger than 100,00 users can grow to twice their current size, no greater. Twitter’s putting a ceiling on third party clients, in no uncertain terms, and in the process ensuring that the official Twitter experience will always be the most popular Twitter experience. I hope you like the timeline firehose!
Here’s how the relavent section of the updated API reads:
if you are building a Twitter client application that is accessing the home timeline, account settings or direct messages API endpoints (typically used by traditional client applications) or are using ourUser Streams product, you will need our permission if your application will require more than 100,000 individual user tokens.
We will not be shutting down client applications that use those endpoints and are currently over those token limits. If your application already has more than 100,000 individual user tokens, you’ll be able to maintain and add new users to your application until you reach 200% of your current user token count (as of today) — as long as you comply with our Rules of the Road. Once you reach 200% of your current user token count, you’ll be able to maintain your application to serve your users, but you will not be able to add additional users without our permission.
So what does this mean for designers? Well, go ahead and make your wacky Twitter client, just don’t expect it to be too popular. No more popular than 100,000 users, to be exact. And with an estimated 140 million users on the service, that gives enterprising developers about a .07% share of users to look forward to, at best. Twitter’s cool with stuff like Twheel, the slick new app that displays Tweets in a Tufte-approved Coxcomb chart—they just don’t want too many people getting the idea that it’s the real Twitter.
And that’s a shame, because it’s not like Twitter as it currently exists is some sort of Shangri-La for users. Twitter’s website and official apps have been getting better over the years, for sure, but its underlying model is a dated one. (Don’t believe me? Just ask Biz Stone and Evan Williams.) It’s the reverse-chronological, river of news-style data stream, just turned up to 11. The Twitter timeline’s promise of all the information, all the time has proven to be a revolutionary one—literally, in some cases—but it’s clear that it’s not the only useful way to interact with Tweets. We’ve seen some tantalizing glimpses of how things could be different. Take Flipboard, an iPad app that plucks links from choice Tweets and turns them into an elegant little digital digest. It’s not a replacement for the full Twitter experience; it’s a complement to it. But with the new API, which also includes a strict series of visual guidelines for how Tweets should be displayed, it seems as though Twitter’s intent on blocking the Flipboards of the world from packaging Tweets in compelling new ways.
Sad as it may be for users, what Twitter’s doing here is good business, at least in the short-to-medium term. The company clearly recognizes that how users interact with the service is the key to its future. The new API keeps the Twitter user experience firmly under the company’s control. If some upstart Twitter client were to catch on all of a sudden, leeching users away from Twitter.com and the company’s sanctioned apps, Twitter would run the risk of becoming a high-tech utility provider, and that’s exactly what it’s trying to avoid.
The new rules still allow a little room for the most determined designers to experiment, and if Twitter likes what they see, like they did with TweetDeck, which they acquired last year, or Tweetie, which they snapped up and turned into the official iPhone app in 2010, they always have the option of making that innovative new design their own through acquisition. Still, Twitter’s new API makes one thing very plain: they’re not about to let anyone else build a successful business model on top of their platform.
Long term, you have to wonder if this safeguard against disruption will cast a pall on the UI innovations that Twitter desperately needs. How many people will still want to develop new ways of consuming Twitter content, if they know that they’ll have no prospects to reach scale unless Twitter buys them out? Can Twitter develop the new UI paradigms it needs to stay on top, by relying chiefly on its in-house design team? (Granted, it’s a great bench: In just the last year, Twitter has hired UI designers from IDEO and the Windows phone team. But the thing about innovation is that it’s usually unexpected.)
All of which is to say that Twitter is ready to grow up and enter a new phase as a company, one in which "apps build into Twitter, but they don’t pull Twitter outward," as Matt Buchanan puts it over at Buzzfeed FWD). It’s all part of their quest for a "consistent user experience." We got a hint of how serious Twitter was starting to take this consistency business a few months ago, when they updated the friendly little bird that serves as their logo and supplied some not-so-friendly usage guidelines along with it. Web designers were encouraged to use the new logo to represent Twitter—so long as the bird was unmodified, faced right, and was cushioned with a 150% pixel buffer. Things expressly forbidden? Rotating the bird. Duplicating the bird. Putting speech bubbles around the bird. Changing the color of the bird.
At the time, it was kind of funny. In light of the new API, Twitter’s march towards consistency seems like a bit less trivial—and a lot more like straight-up business savvy.