Twitter Comes of Age


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Article ImageThere's a strong case to be made that 2012 was the year Twitter came of age. Founded in 2006, it was one of the earlier Silicon Valley social media Cinderella stories. It overcame a head-scratching premise-remember the days when 140 characters seemed like an impossibly short constraint in which to express oneself?-to become a ubiquitous global channel of information. Twitter is now a de rigueur component of the news media, celebrity entertainment, and even the American political discourse. Think Twitter town hall meetings.

As its reach in the social media landscape became increasingly broad, it began to spawn a veritable industry of third-party tools and apps that looked and acted like Twitter-such as social aggregators that use RSS feeds to incorporate tweets into other content platforms. For most of its history, Twitter's API, which is the conduit through which all outside application developers interface and communicate with the Twitter platform itself, was generally open, and it permitted a wide range of developers to build off of the foundation-which is generally typical of fledgling software technologies.

Flash-forward to 2012, a time when Twitter had firmly established itself as a social technology and as a brand. The benefits of an open API begin to be overshadowed by the pitfalls-brand dilution, lack of control of developers, and so on. Enter Version 1.1 of the Twitter API, which was announced in August and rolled out in September. In an effort to create what it called "a more consistent Twitter experience," the new API ends support for RSS, XML, and Atom; changes its Display Guidelines to Display Requirements for rendering tweets on the web or in mobile apps; and imposes a 100,000 user token limit on external "clients" that replicate the Twitter experience. In no uncertain terms, the new API is a step toward reigning in developers who aren't quite adhering to Twitter's brand, standards ... and, of course, its revenue stream.

"It's pretty clear why Twitter is doing this," says Sean Gelles, a social media strategy and analytics consultant, and a columnist for EContent. "If you're not using their application, they're not getting revenue from promoted tweets. They want you to come onto their site, whether it's through a mobile app or the web. That's how they monetize the platform."

An additional change to the API that will take effect is that all applications will require authentication with OAuth Core 1.0 Revision A. By requiring authentication on all endpoints, Twitter states on its overview page that "this visibility allows us to prevent abusive behavior, but it will also help us to further understand how categories of applications are using the API. We'll apply that understanding to better meet the needs of developers as we continue to evolve the platform."

In an official Twitter blog post written in August 2012, Twitter VP of consumer products Michael Sippey described what he termed the "Twitter ecosystem," the landscape of individuals and companies developing applications through the Twitter API. The ecosystem, he wrote, divides into four categories, based on the application's target audience (either consumers or businesses) and its core feature set (either allowing users to engage with tweets or using tweets for data analysis purposes). The new API guidelines, he wrote, were designed to encourage activity in the development of both consumer- and business-related analytics applications and business engagement applications, while imposing more limitations on consumer engagement applications-which, conceivably, Twitter is content to take care of on its own.

From his perspective, Gelles believes that the changes are both predictable and positive. "There has been a frustration in the marketplace with regards to analytics," he says. "For a company that's been around for 6 years, it's still really hard to leverage data from a Twitter campaign. At this point, that should be easy. These changes are going to make that happen, and Twitter is going to realize a lot more of its data-analytics potential. Instead of companies eating its lunch, they need developers to help make that lunch bigger."

In addition to making changes to its API as a way of controlling how external developers can engage with Twitter, the company also made developments in 2012 aimed at broadening its userbase. After Facebook's Instagram pulled its integration with Twitter, the microblogging site announced its own photo filters and editing tools in December.

In November, the company announced a feature that will allow users to email a tweet to someone who is not on Twitter. In the past, of course, emailing a tweet was possible by, for instance, pasting a link to a tweet in the body of an email. The new feature, however, incorporates the option to email a tweet right alongside the reply, retweet, and favorite buttons of every tweet, and the emailed tweet will show up in the recipient's inbox, embedded in the body of an email.

The not-so-secret impetus, of course, is to give Twitter users one more way to engage their non-Twitter-using friends in the Twitter experience, in the interest of converting them to users.

Whether that tactic will be effective in increasing Twitter's userbase remains to be seen. James Im, the new media manager at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a contemporary art center in San Francisco located just a few blocks from Twitter headquarters, is skeptical.

"It's a little like thinking that allowing people to email YouTube videos will encourage them to start making YouTube videos," says Im, who manages the art center's social media strategy. "Emailing tweets is nothing new, and I'm not sure that it'll be an especially effective recruitment tool."

Whether or not it is, the feature is sure to be just one more tool in Twitter's toolbox as it seeks to expand its userbase. Twitter's plans for growth, along with its new rules for developers, mark a turning point for the company. As it navigates its technological and corporate adolescence, shifting from its charmed childhood to its bigger, stronger, more unified adulthood, Twitter is bound to experience a few growing pains.