I Should Have Heeded My Own Advice About Twitter – Stay N Alive

I Should Have Heeded My Own Advice About Twitter

whale.pngAbout a full year ago, I wrote of developers leaving the Twitter development platform due to Twitter consistently removing features, making changes without warning developers, and effectively putting developers out of business with just a single change of policy.  I advised other developers to be careful building a business model around Twitter, adding that it was a risky move, much more risky than many of the other platforms out there.  It would seem I should have taken my own advice.

It was this time I started SocialToo, a service that originally we built around the auto-follow concept. I named it such because I did not want it to work solely on the Twitter platform.  It was clear Twitter was on an unstable architecture, and their relationship with developers was also quite shaky.  For this reason, I added in features like Facebook profile redirects at the time (a simple “yourusername.socialtoo.com” which redirects to your Facebook profile).  But Twitter, at the time, was the easiest solution to build around, and made the most sense for where we had started so I figured we had to make what we did with it perfect.  Here we are, one year later, and I’m still trying to make it work perfect, but not because our code sucks – it’s because Twitter keeps changing their system, and the rules that go with it!

Today Twitter pulled the rug out from under its developers once more by, with absolutely no notice, announcing that (paraphrased, in my words) since their way was the right way, they were discouraging auto-following, and would only allow a user to follow 1,000 people per day.  What Twitter neglected was that, while not many, myself and others were building business plans around the users that would need this.  A little notice would have been helpful, but is very consistent with the way developers have been treated over the past year or more by Twitter.  Yes, I’m a big boy and we’ll survive, but that’s besides the point.  You can read more about what developers are experiencing over on LouisGray.  Put lightly, I’m not happy.

Twitter Needs a Firm Terms of Service

I know I’m not only one to say this when I say that I don’t have a clue what to expect from Twitter any more.  Any developer out there is prone to this type of treatment, and I can pretty much guarantee it will affect every Twitter developer out there at some point until something is done about it.  The reason for this is that Twitter really has no firm Terms of Service around its platform.  I am not required to agree to any way of using their platform when I write software for them.

Some might see this as a good thing, but what they are neglecting to see is that a Terms of Service gives developers a vision of what to expect, something we don’t have now.  This needs to change, and soon – we as developers need to know what we can and can’t do on the platform.  Can we write apps that auto-follow?  Can we write apps that auto-DM?  What about mass-DM?  Can I store data and what data can I store on my servers and for how long?  What is the definition of spam? There are lots of rules for Twitter users that we agree to, but nothing a developer must agree to when writing apps.  This is why you’re seeing so many apps out there gaming the system, causing these ridiculous rules to have to be made, when it can realistically all be settled before-hand with a simple agreement all developers must agree to before developing apps for Twitter.

If I knew what I could or couldn’t do on Twitter I could avoid it in the first place.  Unfortunately Twitter hasn’t defined that and it’s pretty darn confusing, not to mention extremely risky, to write apps for the Twitter platform right now.  With Facebook, on the other hand, I’m required to agree to a very specific agreement, and they’re very clear when they’re going to change any of the terms, giving developers plenty of warning.  It’s well written out and well defined. It’s a platform with little risk and high reward for businesses because they give developers time to work with any changes they make to it.

We need notice, Twitter!

These “day of” announcements are very immature and something a 15 million user company with millions to billions in the bank shouldn’t be doing.  They were doing this type of stuff a full year ago, and even today they haven’t changed their ways, even though they said they would.  Twitter needs to start notifying developers of these changes or a lot more are going to be put out of business at the drop of a hat.

Every day on the developers mailing list I’m seeing other things like this happening – OAuth technology being removed without notice (I recognize it’s beta, but we still need to know!), no notice to developers on what’s happening when site slowness happens, when things are fixed on the platform, and when they’re broken, and more.  As a developer with 12-15 years of experience in these things, the entire Twitter platform is a joke!  You just don’t do these types of things in the real world of software development!  I worked at places I would have gotten fired for this type of activity!

Developers will continue to leave if this doesn’t change

I have to admit, I’m re-evaluating my strategy to stop working on what I was doing in the Twitter environment, and move more to other platforms at the moment.  When I do that, no, I won’t remove the existing Twitter technology, but I will admit it will be very easy for the users on my service to get the same value they’re currently getting on Twitter on other services, and as they experience similar treatment by Twitter they’ll be leaving as well (as I’m already seeing).  I know I’m not the only developer in this boat right now – there are a lot of frustrated developers out there with almost no signs of change from Twitter.  I know developers that now refuse to develop on the Twitter platform because of the way they were treated, and that will continue to happen.

I have to admit I had to send out e-mails to 20 or 50 or so of Twitter’s very top users today telling them that Twitter wasn’t allowing them to auto-follow.  Those are tough e-mails to write, especially considering the influence Twitter has allowed these individuals to have and the audiences these people are capable of engaging.  I’d like to make Twitter look good for these people, but Twitter isn’t making it very easy.

Twitter, it’s time to get your act together.  Hire some more smart people, get people in management that know how to make these decisions right, and make us believe, not by words alone, but by actual actions, that you’re going to do something about it.  If you don’t, as I’ve said before, when the developers leave, so will your users.

Come follow me over on FriendFeed over at http://beta.friendfeed.com/jessestay or over on Facebook at http://jessestay.socialtoo.com.

63 thoughts on “I Should Have Heeded My Own Advice About Twitter

  1. I am not a developer but with the small level of frustration I have experienced as a user with all of these backend issues I can only imagine how frustrated you and many others are.

    It's very surprising to me that twitter doesn't already have a TOS. After big fuss that the twitterverse created about the Facebook TOS you'd think the very next step would have been a twitter storm demanding the same on that platform.

    I think it's so true that if this keeps up people will move to another platform – we will all go where our people are.

  2. I know three developers who work very closely with the Twitter APIs. All three are in Oklahoma. Two in Tulsa. One of them is a HUGE Twitter picture oriented site. I'm not dropping names but you can likely put 1 and 1 together and deduce. And, all three of these outfits say their experiences are good ones. Could it be luck of the draw? That the APIs you've elected to build your extended property on just aren't “there” yet? Agreed, a little notice is a good thing regardless. Keep in mind Twitter is ~35 people and they're all running hell bent for leather just to keep the wheels on their own core services, let alone other peoples'.

    As for the follower limits… I'm with you. I've groused about the artificial limits for ages. Obviously it's a governor for managed growth and is one that can be removed selectively (ie. @Oprah and @aplusk among many others).

    At the end of the day Twitter will run it's course Ev, Jack and Biz will look back on their team's creation and have a lot to be pleased about and probably very few regrets. They're managing their business VERY well and their platform as well as can be expected. Face it: we (developers and twittering businesses alike) need them more than they need us right now. Harsh, but all too true.

  3. It's interesting that they do this after Ashton reaches his one million mark. Not that it will have a major impact on mass following in that scenario but it still limits you to some extend. To be honest I'm surprised twitter took off like it did. With so many problems initially I was starting to lean to friendfeed and others. I tweet often but I can see where your frustration and pain comes from. Lets hope that they eventually get something stable to even out those speed bumps in their non-existent road map.

  4. I feel your pain Jesse, I think all web apps+client apps dev's should go for Strike and shut down for 2 weeks. See twitter might be popular but than without web apps or client apps such as Twhirl or Tweetdeck , twitter would be just another Social Network going down hill with tops of 1-2 mil users p.year. Reminds me of Orkut 🙂 from google.

    Anyways socialtoo is great app and helps a lot .



  5. I am a bit upset about the suddenly imposed 1,000 follow/day limit. They first instituted it on Sunday night (for me), then suddenly dropped it, then put it back in place the next day. I have 25k followers and this limit is an absolute limit so it doesn't scale with the volume of new people I want to follow. Just today, I have over 500 new followers that I cannot follow back. The 1:1 following/follower ratio was acceptable as it scaled with your account size.

    I also develop twitter tools, but they are for personal use so far. These shenanigans make me reconsider ever releasing the tools to the public.

    I have lodged a complaint with twitter, but I doubt I'll hear anything back.

  6. Jesse's turned out to be the most useful person to know on Twitter. He's not an attention-seeking type, he just gets on with it. Twitter's treated a lot of 'ordinary' people very badly while sucking up to their celebrity pals. What goes around comes around and this will be their undoing.

  7. This is definitely a huge pain for any twitter application that works via direct message. For an app to receive direct messages it needs to be following the person on twitter – and thus, most twitter direct message apps have an auto-follow component. With a limit of 1,000 people per day, apps (like my Twitter for Netflix app) will now be limited to 365,000 new users per year. Lame.

  8. As a dev building up and coming applications for Twitter I agree. We began oauth integration for our Tweepular.com application a few days ago and today we hear they disabled it. I'm sure it's a technical error, but every time I try and get Twitter on the phone or to respond to an email I feel we're third class citizens, yet we are the ones building apps to help spread Twitters name and value.

    I'm with you on this one.

  9. Chris, all I can say is be really careful if you decide to develop apps for
    the Twitter platform. It's been over a year now and nothing's changed. I
    wouldn't expect that to change any time soon.

  10. I believe Twitter guys weren't expecting this much popularity for their service when they started. They left too many hooks(features) around to popularize the service. And now that they have received a lot of attention, they are kind of being over protective. If they follow some other service like facebook's or orkut's example they might improve.

  11. Firstly, Twitter may well say they are discouraging auto-follow and auto-follow back. But so long as the Twitter user profile pages and home pages promote number of followers a user has, and number of tweeps the user follows they are actually constantly training every user to belive that follows are the be all and end all.

    Twitter has since day one, and to this day, actively encouraged auto-follow and in turn auto-follow back.

    I know you understand that the actual structual platform of Twitter is not easily scalable, nor stable so, if you was first in command at Twitter what would you do?

  12. I would be happy if they just came out and said it – at least that would be
    the end of it, and users would understand. So long as they give us
    developers notice – that's the issue I'm having here. They're not being
    clear on what you can and can't do to both users and developers, and they're
    not notifying developers with any time to adjust when they are clear.

  13. The fact that Facebook have a TOS doesn't mean anything. I developed Facebook app few months ago. After the application started to gain popularity I was contacted by Facebook asking us to change the application's functionality to a way that will make it crippled and unusable. Why? Because they felt that the way we use the Facebook Platform isn't the way they think is right. We didn't violate the TOS, but still they didn't like what we were doing. After week of exchanging emails with them they notified us that unless we comply with their demand they will shut down our application.

    While the Twitter platform isn't perfect, I still feel it's way more open than Facebook. And while they could communicate better the changes they're making, the fact that the Twitter API team has an active mailing list where they answer and the issues list is way more than I have from Facebook.

  14. Arik, what was it your application did that Facebook was against? I've found
    most of their complaints have to do with fuzzy issues that are at least
    somewhat specified in their TOS, and even if not, they provide a URL to
    their policies group that you can always ask before building on a specific
    model. I'm actually going through that process with them now – Facebook has
    been very open to letting developers know ahead of time what they can and
    can't do. That hasn't quite been the case with Twitter, and at least you
    have a base you can go off of.

    In addition, Facebook contacts you before shutting you off. Twitter just
    shuts you off, and makes it very hard to talk to them about it afterwards.
    Facebook is a much less risky environment – at least they were willing to
    let you know you were in violation to let you adjust.

  15. The application was QassamCount – the whole application was around status donation by its users. Basically what we did is that: people who joined the application gave us permission to update their status 4 times a day (at specific times, with a very defined information) or with a daily digest only. What Facebook asked us was to have the user confirm every status update we make.
    Only now 3 months later, they added that to their TOS – back then it wasn't even mentioned or talked about.

    The fact that they emailed us about it didn't help us much, because the outcome was practically the same.
    The funny thing was that one of their VPs was a user of our application 🙂

    I agree that building your business around Twitter isn't wise, but that goes the same to any other platform. This is a calculated risk we take, and just like you we named our service not /Tweet(.*)/ but Topify, because we do understand that we will extend it to support other social networks (even if Twitter won't shut down some API endpoint we use).
    And I do feel that the Twitter API team trying to make an effort to improve their communication with the developers community, don't you?

  16. They didn't ruin my business plan – I have plenty more options. However, I
    wanted Twitter to know that this makes me now consider other options. I'll
    survive with or without Twitter – I'd like it to include Twitter if they'll
    let me.

  17. Does twitter really have billions in the bank?

    Will they ever make any money?

    I don;t think twitter is going to last
    These developers that are leaving their platform will create a new better version of twitter

  18. Wow, I thought I was alone in the frustration of these Twitter limits
    I have learned to tolerate and accept the limits
    I can see why you'd be frustrated
    and considering packing it in
    I will stick it out, however
    I am not a developer
    Just a lone wolf user
    But I enjoy the forum twitter provides
    And will work within the limits
    I wish you well!

  19. ZuDfunck, thanks – I understand why Twitter has to impose these limits. I
    just wish they'd give us more notice when they implemented them. Also, it
    would be nice if they were variable as your follower count grew. This way
    those on the featured users list could receive the same level of service
    from our apps.

  20. Today, without any warning, Twitter switched from text/plain emails for direct messages and new follows to a multi-part mime format with HTML and plain text. Needless to say, if you'd previous coded a direct message bot to work off of email parsing, your bot was now broken.

    When I first read this post last month I though, “well, if you code your application well, it should take into account potential changes from Twitter.” I also thought that Twitter would warn us about bigger changes. Wrong on both counts. Good post, Jesse.

  21. Thanks Greg – I just wrote about this. I thought about this earlier, but it
    didn't register to me how many people this was affecting. I also just
    noticed the discussion going on in the Dev List. Now I've got to go check
    out SocialToo's e-mail forwards. I don't think many people are using them,
    but they would have definitely been affected.

  22. Thanks for the tip re: Dev list – just updated my membership to get email in hopes that I'll catch this next time.

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