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Twitter should charge users for API access.

in codesmith

If this isn’t in the cards, if it never was and there’s no possibility that it will be, then Twitter might actually be toast.

In typical fashion, the tech blogosphere freaked out at Twitter’s recent comments regarding third-party applications and how people shouldn’t bother developing new additional clients. Twitter mentioned a need on their part to bring a more consistent user experience, which can and should be liberally translated as a need to ensure advertisments injected into feeds actually make it to end user’s eyeballs.

What about Facebook? Yea, what about them, indeed. Extrapolating from what paltry statistics they make available, around three-fifths of their total userbase accesses the service through the website exclusively (as opposed to also accessing through mobile phones and other clients). Facebook’s API is so completely muddled and its feature set is such a moving target that a third-party client that does much more than set and retrieve status updates is pretty impractical. As a result, they keep most people on the website, sell a metric crapton of ads, and make plenty of money. It’s clear Twitter realized it needed to walk itself back towards this sort of model, where most if not all users use the service through proprietary access points.

Twitter’s own statistic, that over 90% of their userbase uses Twitter through the website or their own mobile applications anyway, would seem to contradict this. It’s a fair question to ask, however the wide variance between what Facebook and Twitter are and do is important to this discussion. Twitter emphasizes content creation over everything else. This announcement should be taken as a sign that Twitter’s experiments with ‘promoted’ hashtags and tweets was largely a bust. The whole allure of Twitter is the ability to curate the content coming across it so that we only see the stuff generated by people we want content from. Anything falling outside that simply won’t register with engaged Twitter users, particularly things we know are being shoved in our faces as a result of a marketing deal rather than authentic promotion from someone we trust.

Simply put, the only way Twitter will likely be able to make money is through contextual ads on their website, and possibly in their own mobile app. It’s the only scenario where they would have complete control over placement and visibility, being able to display them alongside feeds, a la Facebook. Otherwise, the ads simply get ignored too frequently, and advertisers don’t get the return-on-investment they need. There’s no other means that Twitter has to monetize their service, and it’s not a way that most ‘engaged’ users would put up with.

No other way, that is, without charging users.

The real problem here is impending scrummage over API access; they’re now placing the blame for Twitter’s lack of financial traction on the robust ecosystem of developers and users that reside on the API. The outrage expressed by the API dwellers stems from the fact that they were very much an equal partner in constructing Twitter’s massive social ecosystem, and the API is what allowed them to do it. Let’s face it, Twitter was downright insufferable on the old website, and while the new one is an improvement in my opinion, many people didn’t see the full potential that the platform had until they used it through a solid third-party application. (Does anybody really think that @acarvin could have achieved what he did in coverage of the Egyptian revolution without Tweetdeck, rather through the website? Heh, right.)

Twitter’s prescription to solve their revenue problem is a bad one, and it could end up stagnating the platform by alienating those that made it relevant in the first place. It’s particularly frustrating when the actual answer is so bloody obvious: establish a toll for API users. If those 10% of us who aren’t using Twitter-developed means of accessing Twitter are really that big of an issue, then you should simply charge for the privilege of using applications that use the API. No more need to shut-down outside development. Hell, you could probably cut down on spam in general that way too. The more casual users that can do just fine with the proprietary tools will (grudgingly) migrate to them, and those that want to keep using more powerful tools than Twitter has been able to produce themselves can continue to do so.

Reasonable people understand that there’s a massive infrastructure under Twitter that has to be paid for one way or another, and if you can’t provide the service for free any longer because you don’t have piles of freely-surrendered personal information to sell advertisers, like at the Big Blue F, then we might have to help keep it running. At the very least, lashing back at the very thing that got Twitter to this point isn’t going to be very productive.