The era of large third-party Twitter clients may be over. After Twitter cut off its API access and changed its policies to ban apps that compete with its own, The Iconfactory announced it was shutting down Twitterific, Fenix a been removed from app stores, and Tapbots released a memorial for Tweetbot. It’s a loss for everyone who has used the apps and, almost certainly, a loss for Twitter itself.
As many people have pointed out over the past week, third-party customers have helped make Twitter the platform it is today, innovating parts of Twitter that we take for granted and, beginning, helping to form the very identity of the company. They also acted as a safe haven from unwanted changes, helping people tweet when they were ready to ditch the platform.
Take, for example, that word I just used – tweet. The idea that a “tweet” would be what we call a Twitter post didn’t come from the company itself, according to a blog post by Twitterific developer Craig Hockenberry. Instead, it was suggested by Blaine Cook, a QA tester for The Iconfactory’s third-party client, and immediately adopted. It wasn’t until at least a year later that Twitter, the company, also started using the phrase. (Twitter originally preferred “twitter.”) Twitterific also led the way by using a bird logo.
Third-party apps have had a huge impact on how we use smartphone apps in general, not just Twitter. A client called Tweetie is widely credited with inventing the pull-to-refresh interaction that has become nearly ubiquitous across iOS and Android to refresh all kinds or feeds. Even if you’ve never heard of Tweetie before, you might have used it; in 2010, Twitter acquired it and made it the official iPhone client. In 2015, the company also hired a developer from another third-party client to improve its Android app.
This isn’t the only time Twitter has acquired a popular third-party client, either. TweetDeck, part of The edgeto date, was an independent app for years until the company bought it.
Third-party client users, who numbered in the millions in 2018, often took advantage of the features years before they arrived on the official app. Echofon added the ability to disable unwanted users and hashtags in 2011, a feature of official releases did not have until 2014.
The apps also acted as safe havens from Twitter’s changes; they didn’t have the flood of recommended and out of order tweets that the official app had, and they gave us options to use a Twitter app for Mac after the official app was down for a year. And, yes, people have used third-party clients to get an ad-free Twitter experience, not because they deliberately removed ads, but because Twitter didn’t serve them through the API. (Note: It’s hard to believe that Twitter couldn’t have made alternative apps serve ads if it wanted or needed to.)
At times, Twitter has apparently recognized the value added by outside developers. “Third-party customers have had a noticeable impact on the Twitter service and the products we’ve created,” read a 2018 note from Rob Johnson, who was responsible for the company’s development platform at the time. “Independent developers created the first Twitter client for Mac and the first native app for iPhone. These clients pioneered the product features we all know and love. a blog post from 2010Twitter said people who used third-party clients were “some of the most active and frequent users, noting that “a disproportionate amount of Twitter’s traffic goes through these tools.”
Despite the praise, the relationship between Twitter and outside developers was often strained. The company’s developer agreement had an intermittent rule prohibiting alternative apps that competed with its official customers, and for years the company introduced new features it didn’t support in its APIs, meaning third-party customers couldn’t have them.
Before Musk took over, however, the company seemed to be making amends. It clarified its rules with the express intention of making things easier for third-party customers, started communicating more, and its v2 API finally gave developers access to features like polls and group DMs. At the end of 2021, Tapbots co-founder Paul Haddad told me, “the pace of development and openness has improved dramatically from some of the darker days.” And in 2022, he called the company releasing a v2 version of its Home Timeline API “an indication that they will continue to allow and even encourage alternative clients.”
It’s not just third-party clients that have improved the Twitter experience. There are several other external tools that have enhanced the experience, such as Thread Reader, Block Party, or Twitlonger. (Historically, Twitter users relied on a third-party tool called TwitPic to post images to the site before this feature was integrated.) Most of these apps still seem to work, but as we’ve seen, that could change. at any time, and Twitter has the ability to prevent you from posting links to them.
Of course, this would probably cause massive user backlash and make the service worse. But based on Twitter’s recent actions, that wouldn’t be out of the question.
I’m not trying to pretend that Twitter never offered features on its own, or collected user suggestions on its own, because it does. (The retweet, hashtag, and @mention were invented by users, sometimes with help from third-party apps, but Twitter implemented them effectively.) My point is that a competing third-party app ecosystem with each other and the client official will produce more good ideas than any one firm could on its own.
Elon Musk just decided to throw it all away. Twitter abruptly cut itself off from that stream of ideas — the stream that produced its apps, some of its most popular features, and much of its core identity. Even if he backtracks, why would developers devote their best ideas to a company that burned them so badly?