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(140) Character Study

Twitter revolutionized the way we communicate by allowing users to determine what it should be. But now that it's decided to be something new—highly profitable—will twitter lose the very thing that made it special?

Author Mark McClusky Illustration Alex Nabaum

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Web entrepreneur Dalton Caldwell posted what he called “an audacious proposal” on his blog. He was looking for roughly 10,000 backers to provide $50 apiece to help fund his new site, App.net. The audacity lay in Caldwell’s endgame: He wanted to create a paid alternative to Twitter.

A few years ago, Caldwell would have seemed delusional. Twitter is, after all, one of the most successful tech companies in history, and one that has long seemed immune to competition. Since its 2006 launch, it’s been the social networking site with the fewest restrictions and the widest potential audience (and the greatest opportunity for lapses of judgment and/or taste). And it’s free.

What’s more, Twitter has always remained open to outside developers, letting anyone and everyone write apps that improved its performance and utility. The “@” reply was invented by users; the “#” tag too. Company co-founder Biz Stone once referred to this iterative process as “Twitter teaching us what it wants to be.”

This chaotic, democratic-to-a-fault approach is the bedrock of Twitter’s success. But it has come with a significant drawback: There isn’t enough money in it.

The main issue facing Twitter today is that there are thousands of ways to access the site’s data, meaning users can easily bypass twitter.com (and the apps the company publishes). And if you’re not getting your Twitter fix directly from the little blue bird itself, then the company has a significantly harder time putting advertising in front of you. The irony is, recent attempts to solve the money problem seem to have opened the door to the kind of existential challenge Caldwell has issued—and may even spell the end of Twitter’s reign as one of the world’s best and busiest social media sites.

It started in August, when Twitter announced sweeping changes to the ways that outside developers are able to interact with the site. Anyone working with Twitter must abide by these rules, or risk having the plug pulled on their app. Under the new rules, outsiders who have previously worked with Twitter—in developing a smartphone app, say—will have their growth capped at 200 percent of their current user base (meaning that an app with 1 million users will be cut off at 2 million), unless they get permission from Twitter to add more. New apps will be capped at 100,000 users. It’s hard to imagine a developer pouring heart and soul into a product if there’s suddenly a limit on how successful it’s allowed to be.

For people who use Twitter, these rules could lead to a generation of cool apps passing them by. Marco Arment, who developed the brilliant archiving service Instapaper, has said he’ll have to rewrite his app to comply—or simply remove it. Flipboard, a hugely successful app that allows users to create personalized “magazines” from traditional and social media sources, could be hobbled by a rule that prohibits mixing Twitter and non-Twitter content. And these are just two possible casualties of the new regime.

We should note here that Twitter execs are completely within their rights to take these steps. It’s their service, their infrastructure and their user base. And Twitter’s policy changes are another hard reminder that if you develop for any closed ecosystem—whether it’s the Apple App Store, Facebook or Twitter—you operate at the mercy of the company that controls it. We should also note that Twitter’s new rules are hardly the harshest in the tech world.

But while you can sympathize with Twitter’s need to monetize its service, you have to wonder what this might mean for the vitality of the site itself. For many users, Twitter became interesting precisely because of its flexibility, its willingness to experiment. Sure, it’s now a mainstream phenomenon, with TV shows putting hashtags onscreen and Lady Gaga drawing some 30 million followers, yet that sort of mass appeal wouldn’t have been possible without the first hard-core users who helped shape Twitter, and the thousands of developers who found cool ways to interact with it.

App.net’s Caldwell is banking on those über-geeks jumping ship, and he may be onto something. Not only did App.net surpass its fundraising goal by more than $250,000, but within 60 days of launching it boasted 20,000 paid users and counting. If this kind of subscription model catches on, and if developers give up on doing innovative things using Twitter, it could mean that the best days of this revolutionary service are behind us.

#ihopeimwrong

MARK MCCLUSKY is the special projects editor for Wired magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @markmcc … for now.

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