A Walk Through Twitter’s Walled Garden

Ever since Twitter picked a business model based on advertising, the company has been emphasizing the importance of creating a “consistent experience” for Twitter users. What will this experience look like?

That’s media company code for “we want to be able to deliver ads to all Twitter users,” no filters or mute buttons allowed, not lose them to a third-party platform.  The more Twitter can keep users inside the walled garden of official Twitter apps, the more money it can make.   Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told The Wall Street Journal that the company wants to move away from companies that “build off of Twitter, to a world where people build into Twitter.”

First, Twitter needs to build the wall, and that means reining in developers.  

Over the last month, the long-suffering Twitter developer community has been wracked by a series of “menacing” and “ominous” announcements from Twitter indicating that the company plans to introduce even stricter guidelines, with  further restrictions on services that are similar to Twitter, allow people to write and publish tweets, or move people to non-Twitter web sites.

Smart people are posting ideas for new business models based on an open API, lamenting what could have been had Twitter become an API company rather than an advertising company, and raising money to build an alternative realtime feed API.  The laments have been so loud that someone needed to intervene:  Stop being such whiny hippies!, says Anil Dash.  Stay tuned for more stormy weather as Twitter reveals further details — you can’t build a walled garden these days without a little API Darwinism.*

What’s at stake are the eyeballs attention of the people who are currently using Twitter outside of its official mobile and desktop apps, and outside of its web site.  Benjamin Mayo recently estimated that more than 77% of all Tweets are already sent using Twitter’s own apps, so they’re already more than three-fourths of the way there.

So what does this garden look like?

Once you’re in the garden that Twitter is building inside this wall, what will this consistent experience look like?  There have been quite a few hints that it will be bright and colorful, filled with all kinds of things that are not part of the traditional, simple Twitter experience.

1. Tweets Will Be Posts Media.  “You need to be able to see expanded Tweets and other features that make Twitter more engaging and easier to use,” Twitter Product Manager Michael Sippey wrote on June 29.  “These are the features that bring people closer to the things they care about. These are the features that make Twitter Twitter.”  (Really, Michael?  So the whole 140 characters thing is no longer a defining part of the Twitter experience? You just introduced Twitter Cards and expanded Tweets about a month ago, so this is news to most Twitter users.)

What this means:  Twitter wants you to be able to see the pictures and read the articles shared in your its Tweets, without leaving the garden.  Costolo told the Los Angeles Times that “Twitter is heading in a direction where its 140-character messages are not so much the main attraction but rather the caption to other forms of content.”  (You know all the traffic that Twitter’s been driving to web sites?  Don’t count on it being there next year.)  

2. Twitter Becomes The TV.  Rather than having Tweets run alongside television programs, in the Twitter garden, the television programs will run alongside the Tweets!

In fact, Twitter is already reported to be in talks with Hollywood to launch several original video series on Twitter, one as early as this fall.  Reported to be an MTV-style reality show, it could live on a standalone Twitter page or be distributed within tweets, with users clicking to expand the tweet into a full-fledged video player.  Sponsorship deals for the series are rumored to be running around $4 million.

3.  Events: Pictures Twitter Or It Didn’t Happen.  Twitter is looking to “more closely tie the shared experience on Twitter to the actual event that is happening,” says CEO Costolo.  Last month, it introduced its first branded hashtag page in partnership with #NASCAR.  Now the company is partnering with NBC to create an events page for the Olympics, with a curated feed of the most popular posts from the games.  “The primary thing we’re focused on with the events page is we want to bring the audience closer to the Olympics,” said Andrew Fitzgerald, the manager of editorial programming for Twitter.

A Technology, um, Media Company In The Media Business.  

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo continues to maintain that Twitter is not a media company but a “technology company in the media business” here in January and here in June.  Dave Winer sees things differently, arguing in early June that it is only a matter of time before Twitter acquires a news organization and begins carrying exclusive content (Hey! See #2!).  Or it can continue to build a media business using other people’s content.  It doesn’t really matter, but I tend to agree that content producers should be thinking carefully about how they work with Twitter–it’s just as easy to redirect a link as it is to cut off API access.

Once you’re in the advertising business, you’re in the audience aggregation business.  Reach equals revenue.

And you can build that reach by building a far superior product (Google), or you can build that reach by making it difficult for your audience to leave your platform (America Online).  Or you can do build a walled garden and deliver a superior product, (while also keeping your developers happy), like Apple has done.

Twitter would argue that it when it is creating a more “consistent experience,” it is also creating a “better experience.”

What do you think?

*If you’d like to geek out on the history of the Twitter API, check out Kin Lane’s excellent research project on the subject, which includes a detailed Twitter history timeline.

UPDATE – Recommended further reading:  Seth Godin has written an interesting post that’s very relevant to this discussion, “The difficult challenge of media alignment,” in which he explores the inherent conflict between audience and advertiser that is created when “free” media products veer away from mass to niche.