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Operation Twitstorm: Devs as friends or foes

'Behave yourself' or 'sod off'?

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Opiate-of-the-masses Twitter has sparked an uproar by announcing new expectations and rules for third-party application developers.

If you're on Twitter's side, the move is an attempt to bring some semblance of order to a market that’s become a sprawling mess. The mailing list message, attributed to Ryan Sarver in the Twitter platform team, says users should be able "to experience Twitter in a consistent way".

There is also the matter of malicious apps to consider: among Twitter's 750,000 (according to Sarver) registered apps, there are quite a number that are designed to turn users into accidental spammers.

Sarver's message says apps that replicate Twitter's "core functionality" are no longer welcome, but those that extend that functionality are. He cites publication tools, filtering (curiously described as "curation"), realtime data signals, social CRM, value-added content and verticalisation tools as still welcome.

From the app developers' point of view the new rules are a not-so-subtle "get lost". Their argument runs like this: we put together thousands of Twitter applications, many or most of them for free, and Twitter's ridden to success on our backs. Now it's a big wheel, it doesn't want us any more.

They may well be right, and if they are, they shouldn't be surprised because this has happened many times before in the history of software development. Third-party developers have long been used as cheap outsourced R&D by companies who will, at the same time, express their deep devotion to those very developers. If an application is a huge hit, there’s no surer bet than the platform-builder will make it their own and leave the third-party developer swinging in the wind.

Not to mention that "core functionality" is a wonderfully vague phrase, amenable to endless reinterpretation any time a third-party app makes a big splash.

Twitter is following a well-trodden path: let the buzz lead unrewarded suckers into conducting your test marketing for you, then put the stuff end users actually like into your platform.

Twitter's list of "stuff we like" is also revealing: it shows how quickly the company has been infiltrated by the beliefs and attitudes of the suits now prepping the company for its IPO (whenever that might happen).

The catalogue of endorsed applications is relentlessly corporate: somewhere in the management suites, Twitter has re-imagined itself as a "business tool". What Twitter wants from its third party applications is tools that help companies use it as a publication platform; to target their Tweets to suit their brands; to mine Twitter for ad-targeting data; to "tap into the zeitgeist" (heaven help us); and to acquire followers and traffic.

Twitter's API rules demonstrate that it doesn't want you, the Twitter user, to become an unwitting spambot. That's very kind of it, but the other face on the Juno-mask Janus mask is what it does want you to be. You, dear Twitter user, are only valuable in two roles: as the uncomplaining recipient of corporate, endorsed, API-compliant advertising, or as yet-another end user filling up a data mine. ®

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