Twitter is a platform, not a product

In the last few weeks, Twitter has begun posturing. It seems their view of what they are is rather different from a lot of people’s

From the Twitter Dev Blog:

Back in March of 2011, my colleague Ryan Sarver said that developers should not “build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience.” That guidance continues to apply as much as ever today. Related to that, we’ve already begun to more thoroughly enforce our Developer Rules of the Road with partners, for example with branding, and in the coming weeks, we will be introducing stricter guidelines around how the Twitter API is used.

Twitter is a platform, not a product. I would also argue that it is a lot closer to an online community that a social network, like Facebook.

An online community is a place for people to connect based on an interest they share. The initial connection between them is only based on their mutual interest, but over time the connection between them might deepen. A platform (in this context) is what enables that community to exist.

I’ve used Twitter to connect with people over a shared passion for Beer, Colchester, talking bollocks, writing, technology, bad trains, music and DIY. In some cases those connections have blossomed into actual, real life friendships. Online communities really become successful when the people who own them start to love them. They start to push the boundaries, to behave with a sense of ownership and responsibility — they make the community into what they want.

Clamp down on this and the community starts to die. This is what Twitter is starting to do by restricting how its API is used.

I’m sympathetic to the intention here. Twitter doesn’t want to just be a platform — there’s too little money in that. They want to provide a consistent ‘product experience’ to people, and to sell that consistent experience to advertisers.

That’s understandable, but it forgets that being an open platform has contributed some of Twitter’s best features:

I think there are a couple of things Twitter could do that would mean they wouldn’t have to suppress this kind of innovation.

Advertise more

At the heart of this whole problem is Twitter’s attitude to its only revenue source — advertising. Adverts still only appear on the web, can only be bought directly through Twitter with a massive minimum spend and have minimal targeting or analytic options.

If being an advertising business is Twitter’s future, then do it properly. Make it easy to buy ads by offering (to everyone) a self serve tool just like Facebook’s, and have ads show wherever a user views their stream. A good starting point for this would be to replicate Facebook’s ‘Promoted Post’ product — allow anyone to pay to promote a Tweet, the price dependant on how widely you promote it, and who you promote it to.

Advertise less

Being an advertising-led business means you have to have the kind of control Twitter is trying to gain, but it also means you end up (eventually) with something bland, fuelling your own cognitive dissonance.

Adverts don’t have to be Twitter’s only source of income. Why not craft a really nice subscription offer, where users who want to can ‘upgrade’ to remove ads from their stream, get enhanced analytics, search for people and topics in even more detail, and get early access to new features.

Think of the success that LinkedIn has had with its advert+subscription model.

I think its very unlikely that either of these options are going to happen however, and I think that by this time next year Twitter will have turned into a locked down, tightly controlled media consumption product, and not the vibrant online community platform it is now.

Hopefully by then we’ll all be using Google+…

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