The analogy came upon me while recording the iMore show this week -- Twitter's recent, ambiguous, ominous proclamations to developers feel to me like the tired old cliché of someone who works their ass off so their significant other can get through college and make something of themselves, only for that significant other to graduate and dump them for a hotter, richer, more glamorous life.
That's completely unfair, of course. Twitter has absolutely worked hard as well, listening to users, learning from Twitter apps, and fighting their way into mainstream success. But to think they did it alone is just as unfair. For almost every feature Twitter added, there's a user trend or developer innovation that helped it get there. For every celebrity who added to Twitter's public profile, there's a "via [third party Twitter app]" that helped that profile get made more public.
The Iconfactory's Twitterrific was one of the first jailbreak apps even before the app store, was one of the first iPhone apps when the App Store launched, and was one of the first iPad apps when the iPad launched. They came up with the term "tweet" for tweet's-sake, among many other things. Loren Brichter's Tweetie introduced pull-to-refresh (coming ubiquitously in iOS 6 and was so successful that Twitter bought it and made it the official Twitter for iOS and OS X client. Tapbots' Tweetbot pushed the state-of-the-art of Twitter apps through notifications, mute filters, and more.
And a generation of fervent users were brought along, and brought them along in return.
Twitter. Geeks. Developers. It took the virtuous harmony of all three to get Twitter to where it is today. Like a newly graduated significant other, or a successful music group, it took magic to make the moment. That's why it feels fundamentally unfair that when the most powerful member of a partnership or group, on achieving success, starts hinting that they'd rather be a solo act, or that they'd rather hang around in different circles. That they need space. That they need a break. It feels fundamentally unfair because everyone worked together based on the implicit promise of a better life, and yet when it looks like that better life is finally about to happen, it also looks like some of those who worked for it will get left behind.
Just as geeks are no longer the user base Twitter wants to attract, client developers are no longer the kind of developers Twitter wants to cultivate.
Whether it's better to have loved a platform -- like Twitter -- and lost, or never to have been able to love it at all -- like Facebook -- is debatable. In the moment, the loss of the service or apps that made for the experience you loved is too fresh and painful for it to matter.
Right now, Twitter feels like it wants to break up with Twitter apps and jettison that part of its past to faster embrace a more prosperous, more glamorous future. But the lack of clarity also makes it feel awkward, like any human coming out of a long term relationship -- conflicted and maybe even a little guilty.
Ideally Twitter would figure out a way to balance the good of their original user base and third party developers with their obligation to monetize their future.
There have been numerous suggestions in the past for everything from paid pro accounts for users, to in-timeline advertising. Rather than dicking around with trends and other, off-putting options, having Twitter own ads and letting developers charge for paid, alternative apps (that include those timeline ads).
Everyone gets the officially Twitter app for free, and those who want alternatives, be it in interface or feature set, can pay for those alternatives.
And because the interface is the app for users, if an alternative to Twitter's back end ever manifests -- as I mentioned in a previous column, social apps have been far more cyclical, historically, than operating systems -- those apps would be free to embrace alternative APIs.
Twitter has to grow and they have to make a business, but the past doesn't always have to be dumped for the future. Sometimes the past can be built on and made into a better, stronger future for everyone.