The era of great third-party Twitter clients may be over. After Twitter shut down their API access and changed the rules to block apps that compete with its own competitors, The Iconfactory announced that it is shutting down Twitterific, Fenix has taken from app stores, and Tapbots has put up a memorial to Tweetbot. It’s a loss to all the people who have used the apps and, almost certainly, a loss to Twitter itself.
As many people have pointed out over the past week, third-party customers have helped make Twitter the platform it is today, revamping parts of Twitter we take for granted and, in the early days, helping shape the company’s identity . They also acted as a safe haven from unwanted changes, keeping people tweeting when they were ready to give up on the platform.
Take, for example, that word I just used – tweeting. According to a blog post by Twitterific developer Craig Hockenberry, the idea that a “tweet” would be what we call a Twitter post didn’t actually come from the company itself. Instead, it was suggested by Blaine Cook, a QA tester for The Iconfactory’s third-party client, and was immediately adopted. It wasn’t until at least a year later that Twitter, the company, started using the phrase as well. (Originally, Twitter preferred “twittering”.) Twitterific also led the way in using a bird logo.
Third-party apps have had a huge impact on how we use smartphone apps in general, not just Twitter. A customer named Tweetie is widely credited with inventing the pull-to-refresh interaction that has become nearly ubiquitous in iOS and Android for refresh all kinds of of feed. Even if you’ve never heard of Tweetie, you may have used it; in 2010, Twitter bought 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.
It’s not the only time Twitter has downright acquired a popular third-party customer, either. TweetDeck, part of The edgeNewsroom to this day was an independent app for many years until the company bought it.
Third-party client users, which numbered in the millions in 2018, often enjoyed features years before coming to the official app. Echofon added the ability to mute unwanted users and hashtags in 2011, a feature of the official versions only came in 2014.
The apps have also acted as safe havens for Twitter’s changes; they didn’t have the deluge of recommended and out-of-order tweets that the official app had, and they gave us options for using a Twitter app for Macs after the official app was gone for a year. And yes, people have used third-party clients to get an ad-free Twitter experience, not because they purposefully removed ads, but because Twitter didn’t serve them through the API. (Side note: It’s hard to believe that Twitter couldn’t have allowed alternative apps to display ads if it wanted or needed to.)
At times, Twitter has seemingly recognized the added value of third-party developers. “Third-party clients have had a notable impact on the Twitter service and the products we’ve built,” the post read a 2018 memo from Rob Johnson, who was the company’s developer platform leader at the time. “Independent developers built the first Twitter client for Mac and the first native app for iPhone. These customers pioneered product features we all know and love.” And in a blog post from 2010Twitter said people using third-party clients were “some of the most active and frequent users, noting that” a disproportionate amount of Twitter’s traffic goes through such tools.
Despite the praise, the relationship between Twitter and third-party developers has often been fraught. The company’s developer agreement has a steadfast rule prohibiting alternative apps that competed with its official clients, and for years the company introduced new features it didn’t support in its API, meaning third-party clients couldn’t have them.
However, before Musk took over, the company seemed to be making amends. It clarified its rules with the express intention of making things easier for external customers, started communicating more, and its API v2 finally gave developers access to features like polls and group DMs. In late 2021, Tapbots co-founder Paul Haddad said, “The pace of development and openness has improved significantly compared to some of the dark 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 customers.”
It’s not just external customers who have improved the Twitter experience. There are several other third-party 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 photos to the site before that feature was built in.) Most of those apps still seem to work, but as we’ve seen, that could change at any time. time, and Twitter has the ability to prevent you from posting links to them.
Of course, this would likely result in a massive backlash from users 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 say that Twitter never came up with features of its own or picked up user suggestions of its own, because it did. (The retweet, hashtag, and @mention are famously invented by users, sometimes using third-party apps, but Twitter has implemented them effectively.) My point is that an ecosystem of third-party apps interacts more with each other and the official client produce ideas than a single company could alone.
Elon Musk just decided to throw all that 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 backs down, why would developers spend their best ideas on a company that burned them so badly?