Monday, July 2, 2012

Twitter's war on partners: strength or weakness?

On Friday, LinkedIn announced it would no longer be distributing Twitter’s (140-character) content. Ryan Roslansky, “head of content products” helpfully pointed out that the policy only applied to content in, not content out: if you start a conversation on LinkedIn, it can be mirrored out to Twitter, but not vice versa.

Roslansky said the three-year collaboration was ended by Twitter, pointing to a blog post by a Twitter product manager entitled “Delivering a consistent Twitter experience” which was described as the nominal reason for the change to cut down on partner access to Twitter’s APIs and content.

Of course, this is brazen dissembling, as with similar claims last summer taking over URL shortening (bypassing, tinyurl, etc) was to provide security. Twitter is kicking out partners because it wants control and to my mind that’s both a strength and a weakness.

The strength is that Twitter can do it — so far it’s the only game in town. If it aspires to end-to-end integration ala Google, the more partners it can disintermediate, the better. As with its website redesigns, this allows it to better know what’s going on — unlike the WWW, you can’t read anything on Twitter without signing in (and letting the company know whether you’re searching for Obamacare or Kardashian). If it has shut off LinkedIn, how far behind is Facebook?

At the same time, the increasing integration could also reflect a sign of weakness, specifically its one-trick business model. The only way Twitter makes money is putting eyeballs in front of ads. Any chance to view content away from Twitter is a chance to follow Twitter’s content without Twitter ads. That — and a natural fear of the 800 lb gorilla — is why it cut off Tweets from Google searches.

However, this increasing control has come at the expense of the user experience. I have long used the Tweetie client by Atebits LLC. Twitter bought Atebits, eliminated the client, and replaced it with a defeatured substitute posted to the Mac App Store. The website design also provides me less control of what I see and what I show on my website.

To my mind, this strategy is begging for competition. Twitter is gambling that nobody can knock it off the hill: the (direct) switching costs are low, but the network effects are huge. Google is certainly trying, but so far it’s not gaining traction and if Google doesn’t have the content (and customers) to displace Twitter, who does?

In the end, Twitter may become for me a write-only medium: I’ll give Twitter free content (that supports my blog and professional career) but not read content there. I suppose we both make out from the deal, but — like any other cranky old-timer — I’ll now and again remark how Twitter was once a useful news service back in the good ol’ days (when I walked 5 miles to grade school through the San Diego snow).

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