Mike Isaac

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The Future of Twitter’s Platform Is All in the Cards


On June 29, Twitter VP of Product Michael Sippey posted a foreboding 439-word letter to the company blog, broadly sketching the direction Twitter’s platform is headed.

Upon its reception, most of the public attention focused on a single passage, which stated that Twitter will soon introduce stricter guidelines to its developer partners in the coming weeks, limiting the ways in which outsiders will be able to use Twitter’s rich, ceaseless stream of data.

This was a big deal. Countless numbers of smaller start-ups rely on access to Twitter’s public-facing feed, using the tweets in their own businesses for any number of reasons. If the terms of access were to be altered significantly, it could impact the livelihoods of thousands. The company didn’t elaborate on what exactly those guidelines would be, and has said little else since. The key takeaway echoed in one repeated word: Consistency. Twitter’s future plans strove for consistency across the platform.

Naturally, Twitter developers across the Web proceeded to freak out. Of the many third-party app developers I’ve spoken to who have massively popular apps that depend on Twitter, all of them have told me they have received no guidance from Twitter beyond Sippey’s original post.

While members of the press scramble to cover Twitter’s most recent dustup involving the censorship of a reporter, speculation in the developer community continues to run rampant, and many accuse Twitter of being unnecessarily opaque.

But amid the confusion of the past month, nearly all have overlooked the section of Sippey’s post which holds the key to Twitter’s future: Cards. Twitter’s new Cards technology allows third-party developers to create richer, more compelling — and, above all, visually consistent — content inside of Twitter itself.

Therein lies Twitter’s goal: A rich, consistent Twitter experience for every user. When the hammer drops and Twitter changes its guidelines, those apps that can’t deliver this consistency will no longer be able to integrate with Twitter. The most likely candidates to go first, according to multiple sources, fall into two camps: Third-party-client apps which essentially reduplicate the Twitter stream — such as Tweetbot, Echofon and Osfoora — and news reader apps like Flipboard, which re-renders Twitter data to create a different visual experience of a tweet entirely.

The answer lies in the cards.

Cards on the Table

The mandate to crack down on developers comes straight from Dick Costolo — no doubt feeling the pressure of being the company’s third CEO in almost as many years — who is charged with the task of making profitable a company backed by hundreds of millions in venture capital and valued near $8 billion (see Googler Hunter Walk’s excellent post for more on this). Right now, Cards are the long-term bet in continuing to bolster monetization efforts.

First, let’s back up a bit. What are Twitter Cards, exactly?

In effect, they are the technology behind expanded, multimedia-rich tweets. With the addition of a few lines of code, publishers, brands and developers can create better tweets showcasing their content inside of the Twitter stream. For example, when sites like AllThingsD and the New York Times tweet a link to a story, a “summary” Card shows a fancier version, like so:

Developers can also push out media-based tweets, which include full photos and video that show up inside Twitter’s stream.

Though any developer may apply to use Cards, currently only major publishers — like the New York Times, the Huffington Post, CNET and others — big brands like Nike and Nascar, and high-profile media apps like Instagram and YouTube are able to take advantage of it. Twitter is restricting access initially, working with select partners on a slow, cautious rollout.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Right now, it rests on these developers’ shoulders to make their Card-enabled tweets work across official Twitter clients: Twitter.com, the Twitter Android and iOS apps, and Twitter’s mobile Web site.

The problem is, there are far more clients than the official ones: Tweetbot, Echofon and Osfoora are all popular alternatives, among many others. And right now, the tweets that use Twitter’s shiny new Card technology don’t show up in their rich new form inside of these third-party clients.

For Twitter, this is awful: The company needs its new, media-rich tweets to appear the same to everyone, not just to those using the official Twitter apps.

This could mean death for those third-party clients. According to multiple sources, when Twitter introduces the new set of API guidelines, the days of these apps are likely numbered.

That also goes for many news aggregation apps as well, according to my sources, with the very popular Flipboard being the most notable among them. The writing has been on the wall for Flipboard for some time — enough that Mike McCue, the Flipboard CEO who also occupied a seat on Twitter’s board, seemed likely to relinquish his board seat, back when Kara Swisher first reported it in May.

Multiple sources confirmed to me recently that McCue is indeed no longer a Twitter board member.

Quality Control

Here comes the burning question: Why are Cards and visual consistency so important to Twitter? Is Twitter’s obsession with good design so extreme that it is willing to risk alienating its developer community at large?

In three words: No, but sorta. This section from Sippey’s post gives us a further hint at the “why”:

“Twitter cards are an important step toward where we are heading with our platform, which involves creating new opportunities to build engaging experiences into Twitter. That is, we want developers to be able to build applications that run within Tweets.” (emphasis mine)

Building apps to run inside a platform. Sound like any other major social companies you’ve heard of?

Yes, it does: Cards are Twitter’s own version of a Facebook-like Open Graph. Just as developers’ apps look, feel and function better when integrated into Facebook’s Open Graph, third-party developers can use the Twitter Cards technology to build apps into Twitter. As Sippey alludes, pictures and media are just the beginning: Twitter wants developers to create all kinds of apps — it just wants them to do it on Twitter’s terms, inside Twitter’s visual constraints.

Indeed, while Sippey’s post read as a warning shot — which, to some degree, it certainly was — it is also a call to arms for developers to take to Twitter’s platform in a different way than they have before. Twitter even plans to amp up its efforts in bolstering its developer ranks, listing multiple developer evangelist and advocate positions on its recruiting site.

The direction in which tweets are evolving is a deviation from Twitter’s modus operandi. The company has prided its service on its simplicity: Stripped-down, text-only messages. And, for years, Twitter has resisted doing anything that would complicate the simplistic appeal. For the company to give an about-face and turn toward media is a major sea change — and if Twitter can’t be as simple as it always has been, staying consistent is the next best sort of insurance.

And if these other unofficial clients can’t (or won’t) use Cards, that cuts Twitter’s plan off at the knees.

Promote This

Looking good has its advantages: Better-looking tweets will send more traffic back to publishers and more eyeballs to brands, while Twitter users get the benefit of a better in-stream experience.

But that’s not all Twitter gains. Rich tweets give brands more bang for their buck when buying Twitter ads. Take Promoted Tweets, one of Twitter’s top ad products, as an example: A regular Promoted Tweet gets pinned within users’ streams, where users may or may not click on it. But if you compare that with a Promoted Tweet that includes an embedded, custom-made app or video clip inside of it, my guess is you’ll see engagement levels rise in the latter case. Give advertisers the chance to stick more bells and whistles into their ad, and it’s an easier sell.

Right now, Twitter is taking a conservative rollout approach, partnering with a handful of high-profile developers to create a fancy first round of well-produced tweets. It’s akin to mobile app Path’s recent approach with its Nike FuelBand integration — Path worked with one partner to produce one well-integrated partner experience within the Path app.

And herein lies the advantage of reining in the platform: The less room Twitter gives developers to play with the API willy-nilly, the easier it is for Twitter to create better experiences within Twitter.

In other words, enough building innovation out — it’s time to innovate in.

Choices

The road ahead is foggy. And it is unclear whether Twitter’s API changes to come will immediately ax a wide swath of apps completely, or whether developers will be able to adjust to Twitter’s new rules of the road. Perhaps if Twitter can give developers the proper guidance, it won’t be a third-party-app bloodbath.

I’ve been told by a few sources that even Twitter is still figuring this out. Right now, a source says, the company is facing a series of choices as it stares down the path it has chosen.

Some of those choices are easy: Ending the LinkedIn partnership was a no-brainer, sources say, as Twitter received little traffic back from those tweets syndicated in LinkedIn’s stream. (It should have ended much earlier, I’m told, but the occasional quick phone call from LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner had a way of convincing Dick Costolo to keep the partnership in place.)

Instagram, which will most likely soon become property of Facebook (after the FTC gives the okay), was also an easy choice, sources say. Facebook is Twitter’s competition for ad sales, plain and simple. Coupled with the social graph, any access Facebook has to Twitter’s interest graph could make Facebook’s ad targeting exponentially better, and therefore far more lucrative for advertisers. (It also probably didn’t hurt that Facebook set the precedent of cutting off its competitors when it did the exact same thing to Twitter years ago.)

Other decisions — like cracking down on developers and third-party apps who until now have enjoyed positive relationships with Twitter — most likely won’t be so easy for the company to make.

But Twitter has proven tough thus far, and is most likely to continue taking flak to see its plans through.

Meanwhile, Twitter runs the risk of watching developers depart the platform, perhaps seeking refuge in alternatives like Facebook or — dare I say it — Google+. There’s even a new kid on the block that aims to do it a better way, opting to build a real-time platform like Twitter, wholly unsupported by ads. Dalton Caldwell, a Silicon Valley familiar, has pitched App.net as a paid service for app developers who don’t want the pressure of advertisers bearing down on the network over time. It is ambitious, and idealistic in the extreme (perhaps, many would say, to its own detriment).

Or, developers can continue to do what they’ve been doing: Watch, wait, and let the cards fall where they may.


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald