Dear Twitter: It’s Not You, It’s Me

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September 13, 2009:

I love Twitter and use it a lot, but I’m tired of developing for the API. It’s not that I don’t think the API team over there do a fantastic job, or that I think the API is bad, it’s a personal thing. It no longer excites me the way it once did, and this is part of the reason it’s taken a long time for me to get v2 finished, and it’s still not ready.

(TwitApps Shutting Down)

September 16, 2009:

Fast growing startup Twitter will soon be joining a select group of startups with private venture round valuations of $1 billion, we’ve heard from multiple sources. CEO Evan Williams disclosed the round to employees at a recent all hands meeting.

(Twitter Closing New Venture Round At $1 Billion Valuation)

There’s no direct connection between the two posts quoted above, but they’ve been bouncing off one another in my head since I read them, so it seems worth a little exploration.

The TwitApps shutdown post resonated with me because I’ve been there. It’s hard to say without it sounding like a potshot at Twitter (which, to be clear, it isn’t, exactly), but I hit that same point with the Twitter API while ago. I’ve had a huge amount of fun with the API, but when it came down to it I basically stopped building stuff.

A part of it is failure of imagination on my part: I couldn’t come up with anything really new to build, and I was unwilling to make the jump over to trying to scale what I had already built without some sort of supporting energy that I did not find. That’s not particularly Twitter’s fault, and people have certainly continued to build on top of Twitter, but my sense is that the pace has really slowed over the past six months or so.

The more cynical (and more widely held) take on this is that other shiny new things showed up, Twitter mostly didn’t drop its cash to snap up the stuff being built on top of the service (or the people building it), and the whole question of “how do you make money off of something that doesn’t make money when people are preparing for the apocalypse by going to blacksmithing school” started getting traction.

Fair points, all, but let’s take a look at the second quote before we start addressing them. Assuming that the the basic outline of the rumor-now-written-as-gospel Twitter funding being discussed is accurate, you inevitably come up against the question that Google Blog Search neatly captured for me earlier today: billion? Like, with a B?

Since the mechanics of valuation of pre-revenue startups fall under the heading of “stuff that makes my liberal arts undergrad degree holding head hurt” I’ll hit the squishier side of things. Is Twitter worth a billion dollars or whatever? I don’t know. Nobody knows. Seriously. Nobody. Just bear in mind, please, that “valuation” doesn’t actually mean “there’s a check with that number on it sitting out there somewhere, just waiting to be cashed.”

What VC investment of tens of millions of dollars suggests to me in squishy terms is that a bunch of people were sitting in a room and agreed on something along the lines of “there is something really, really significant queued up to happen, and we need to be there. Let’s not dick around, okay?”

Inching out a little further on this limb here, I’ll say that I stand by my “Twitter as plumbing rather than wallpaper” view of the situation, and as a new homeowner I can definitively state that plumbing costs a hell of a lot more than wallpaper. A few million dollars would let you slap up some nice wallpaper, but if you want to be running those underground mains all over the place…well, that’s something else again.

And so how do the two quotes we started with fit together, then? [You remember the two quotes, right? This is a post about the two quotes.] I don’t think that having a bunch of random people writing front end stuff to make Twitter cooler factors into the company’s plans in a big way, but I do wonder how long other services will keep writing Twitter into the picture if the user facing coolness isn’t there.

If people aren’t excited about writing for the Twitter API, a lot of responsibility rolls back downhill to Twitter itself.  The stuff that people are building on top of Twitter might not be that big a deal, but the fact that people are (or aren’t) building stuff is.

It may be that some of the rumor-now-written-as-gospel cash coming to Twitter is earmarked to pick up some of the stuff that’s been written on top of Twitter, or the people who developed that stuff, which could in turn kick off a second Twitter honeymoon on the development front. It may also be that I’ve misinterpreted one or more of the variables here. Dunno.

A year ago I was convinced that Twitter as a company had a clear idea of what they did and what they wanted to do; while that didn’t always jive with what I wanted Twitter to do or how soon I wanted them to do it, that (perceived on my part) certainty made it easier for me to roll with the punches.

Now I’m less sure that Twitter as a company knows quite what it wants to do. Sure, that’s probably because what they need to do is something that has never before happened, but nevertheless it’s chipped away at my comfortable faith. Maybe Twitter can do what it needs to do alone, but I wonder. Apostles help.

  • ezrafischer

    Hey Whit — how do you think the absurd/obscene rocketing popularity of Twitter has played a role in your changing attitude towards it?

  • Good post. I think the geo information they are going to expose on a per-tweet basis can be really powerful and something that has surprisingly gone under the radar (just like foursquare's potential to be an incredible platform for hyperlocal targeted advertising delivered when you check in). Maybe I'll write a post explaining myself…

  • Twitter's increasing popularity has obviously played some role: it was
    this weird little space that brought me into very regular contact with
    a lot of really interesting people (many of whom I just wouldn't have
    encountered and/or had access to otherwise), and it's less of that
    now. That's a loss for me, without question.

    On the other hand, I may come across as more negative than I actually
    am. In this post I'm largely complaining about one totally unverified
    gut feeling about Twitter (that less is being built on top of it
    because my vague dissatisfaction is shared by others), and one
    unverifiable gut feeling about Twitter (that the company as an entity
    is less certain about what it is than it used to be).

    Neither of those means that I spend (much) less time actually using
    Twitter, it's just that in combination those feelings are enough to
    get me thinking in public.

    I'm actually pretty bullish on Twitter, it's just that I also think
    that what Twitter needs to do is wander through a bunch of dark rooms
    in order to draw a map of what our new house looks like, and that's a
    tall order.

    Maybe Twitter won't be the one to do it, but right now I don't think
    that anyone else has a better shot.

  • The per-tweet geo is without question powerful, but I still have a
    couple of questions around it.

    With Foursquare you've got user-provided geo data as the key…I may
    be wrong, but I think that even in cases where the device could
    support it, Foursquare isn't taking device lat/long, but rather
    depending on the user's venue selection to establish geo location,
    which means that you've got basically 100% geo data penetration.

    In Twitter's case, we know that the Web interface (i.e. no per-tweet
    geo data) is a relatively small part of the traffic, but how many
    Twitter clients will start supporting per-Tweet geo right off the bat?
    [I'm still pretty much all SMS, so I screw up the data set, too.]
    Maybe the percentage of tweets coming in with geo data may be enough
    for Twitter to work with, but I'm not sure of that.

    Even once geo support is built in to mobile Twitter clients, in how
    many cases does the geo data actually enhance the explicit content of
    a user's tweets? Twitter could build in content agnostic geo-specific
    advertising (“it doesn't matter what you said, because you were at
    location X when you said it you get an ad for a nearby restaurant”),
    but that seems catistrophically ugly to me.

    Even with a crude model Foursquare is starting from a scenario where
    location is contextually relevant (“hey, come by this place two blocks
    away instead of where you are and we'll give you a buck off your
    drinks/free first cup of coffee/whatever”), whereas Twitter has to
    decide whether or not location is relevant every single time.

    As I said in the post: dunno. But please do write a post…I'm
    thinking in public here, other people's thinking about this stuff will
    be of great interest to me.

  • great post whit!

  • Great post. I’ve written and junked a couple of twitter apps now (toys really) because for all the money and staff that they’ve been adding, the development environment has become less stable. There seems to be a lot of internal confusion about change control (frequently the first report of a change will be a dev asking on twitter-dev, to be followed eventually by a response from someone at twitter ack'ing that a change had occurred but the details are fuzzy).

    The cool thing of developing for twitter early on was the low cost of entry, simple API, no pre-reqs or authorizations required. But the cost (penalty?) of becoming a popular twitter app doesn’t translate into better support from twitter and frequently results in getting banned until you can get whitelisted (IFF you can get whitelisted).

    Kudos to them for getting the valuation and round, but I’m not enthused about contributing further to their valuation without some sort of commitment back for change control and stability in the API. I have better things to do than to guess which moments in time the twitter API will respond with a “200” HTML response in reply to a JSON or XML request.

  • Seems like you're hitting a key point there: for those people who have
    slowed down or stopped building on top of Twitter, what would get them
    excited again?

    It sounds like system reliability, a predictable release process on
    their end, and maybe a general roadmap would go a long way for you.
    I'd be interested in hearing what else (if anything) would grab other
    lapsed developers.

  • I think the geo stuff is promising. I'm not jazzed about the retweeting API.

    I think that if they could find a way to reopen the Jabber/XMPP interface to general users, that could lead to some interesting stuff (reënable track via XMPP for example, which was much better than where their integrated Summize/Search is now).

    Change Control would be a big thing. Make changes boring and predictable. Version the API.

    “Change” is not a bad thing, absolutely freezing the API would be terrible. But today it's sort of like building a house of cards, on top of what you *thought* was a stable card table with some thing folded up levelling off one leg, only to discover that in reality you're building your house of cards twitter app atop a house of Jenga sticks, and you can't ever quite be certain that where your building your app will be around next month.

    Stability, predictability. I know they're under assault by spammers and bots and the whacko DDOS guys and they'll have to do what they have to do to protect “twitter”, but “twitter” is more than the web site (and I think many would argue: “No twitter apps, no twitter”). They need to find a balance in protecting “twitter” without cutting off the developers who've built of the cool functionality that people thinks makes twitter twitter.

  • I've got five or six twitter apps out there and I'll probably build a few more as ideas hit me…so on one hand I too love Twitter…and on the other hand, I'm not banking on Twitter for anything 'real' and I probably won't be any time soon…

    To me the big issue is this, Twitter solves a problem that nobody even knew they had (how to stay in touch with and follow people that they find interesting)…so yes it's cool, it's fun, it's easy to pick up and play with…but it's also very easy to put down and stop playing with (and when you do, you don't really feel like you're missing much of anything)…

    For something like Google, the difference is that they solve a real problem people knew they had/have (how to find what I'm looking for)…so while Twitter has a 'chance' to one day get to google's level because of all the attention they are currently getting, I think (as you also mention) they have a lot to figure out before they'll get there…

    I too am intrigued with the idea of Twitter as plumbing…and I think it's the first 'service' to reach this status (I think that all the other plumbing is basically software or standards so far)…so there is no clear cut path to making it really work long term…which does make it a very interesting case to watch unfold if nothing else.

    In the end, I get the feeling that everyone pretty much has the same feelings as you…the VCs feel like there's “something there” with Twitter, they probably don't really know what it is, but they know they don't want to be on the sidelines when it comes to life…