The world of Twitter has been a-twitter for the last few days over changes the microblogging service is making in the third-party access to Twitter APIs. In general, the rules restrict or outright block the access of many third parties. Reaction ranged from apocalyptic (Buzzfeed’s Matt Buchanan: “Twitter is in effect holding a pillow over Twitter apps as you know them, smothering the ecosystem over time.”) to the relatively sanguine (Tweetbot’s Paul Haddad: “Don’t panic.”)
Others have said more than enough about the merits, or lack of them, of the Twitter changes. I want to talk about their inevitability. I am an active Twitter user and find it hard to imagine how I got by without this relatively young service. But those of us who love and depend on Twitter have to realize that since we have never given it a penny, it doesn’t owe us anything. The same is true in spades for developers who have built their own apps and services on APIs that Twitter has provided without charge–and without any guarantees about their future availability.
There comes a time in the life of any startup when it has to think about its sustainability of itself as a business, and Twitter is reaching that point. Managing the tradition from unmonetized success to sustainable business is one of the toughest challenges for any startup that has grown as a free service and many fail. MySpace never pulled it off, and the jury is still out on Facebook.
Twitter has chosen that advertising is its primary route to monetization. Given that, it is going to have very little tolerance for third-party apps that fail to display Twitter’s ads. It also will become increasingly reluctant to letting third parties help themselves to information on Twitter users, hence the blocking of “find my friend” features on Instagram, Tumblr, and other services.
Perhaps Twitter had an alternative course available, but it would have required charging for what has been a free service for more than five years. A startup called app.net is trying to build an ad-free, more open Twitter-like service by charging $50 a year. I wish them well, but I suspect they’ll have a very tough time achieving critical mass.
For better or worse, the internet has created a culture where we are used to getting valuable services without paying to them, at least in cash. But sooner or later, the piper must be paid. That’s when we learn that the service belongs to its investors and managers, not to us.