Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Twitter, Tweetdeck and what a purchase means for the symbiosis between developers and social networks...

The relationship between social networks and 3rd party developers is an interesting one. A good working relationship allows networks to expand development capabilities beyond in house resource, allowing their users to, in effect, do "R&D" for them. Looking at this end of the developer/network relationship, everything seems to be pretty advantageous for the company. This sentiment was most passionately stated by Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, who when asked what the most important asset to Microsoft's Operating System success was, responded (3rd Party) "Developers". Fittingly, Steve has since also shown love for 'Web Developers', showing the growing focus of web external developers in today's world. 

However, the cost of 3rd party developer work isn't free for a social network. Fostering real advances from developers requires stability to allow developer's products to succeed, resources (such as robust APIs and documentation) and most importantly, a company culture that is comfortable with the network expanding through non-internal channels. This permission sums up what is perhaps the largest cost for a network's involvement with external developers, as it pays to not only create a development framework to harness the power of the network, but must also cede control in how that network is used.

The risk/reward balance of the external developer relationship plays out all around the web in a variety of configurations. Facebook is perhaps the most robust example, with a variety of frameworks to allow developers to harness almost every part of site. Website developers can integrate Facebook features into their sites, as well as syndicate external content through Facebook via pages, like buttons & more. Application developers can build entire games, commerce solutions and more within the network, tapping into the 600 million user base to expand the reach of their creations. Every object on Facebook from pages, to users, to status updates is an clear object within the network's API or graph. This robust approach to a developer framework has led Facebook to rapidly expand their hold on a share of a user's online time, with gaming and expanding communication options making 3rd party development companies such as Zynga increasingly rich. Alternatively, while Facebook has made a robust framework, they have also clearly demarcated where developers fit within the network's structure. Through careful design, Facebook have made sure that developers enhance the network and collaborate with it, instead of being in a position to usurp any functionality. Through this clearly marked development ecosystem, Facebook have made possible competitors into collaborators.

Similarly, Twitter's relationship with developers has historically been a story of collaboration, with external developers driving network adoption and awareness from making mobile/desktop clients to improvising ways to drive analysis. Twitter's development framework has been clearly refined over time to handle the immense load developers place on the network, around 13 billion calls to the API per day. Subsequently, developers have leveraged this API to help Twitter become a household name, making everything from interesting data visualizations to raise perceived value of the network's communications, to integrating twitter conversation with sites, media outlets and broadcasts, and creating clients to increase network access across multiple platforms such as mobile.

However, Twitter's recent rumored acquisition of 3rd party client Tweetdeck may signal the biggest in a series of changes to this dynamic. In the run up to Twitter's acquisition of the client, the network tightened restrictions on data access and whitelisted accounts (accounts which are enabled to make more API calls an hour than regular accounts), as well as banning development of new 3rd party clients. The ban on third party clients may have seemed inevitable to some developers after last years acquisition of iPhone Twitter client 'Tweetie" by the network, re-branding it as the official iPhone client. This move, mirrored by the current acquisition of Tweetdeck, shows that Twitter is consolidating the ways in which user's can access the network, under the banner of unifying the social network experience for users. While this move makes sense from an advertising perspective, as Twitter can claim to advertisers and agencies that their increasingly robust paid offering (promoted tweets, trending topics & accounts) is unified across platforms, it comes at the cost of the current developer environment.

Tweetdeck's Trending Topic Functionality
Advertising and media opportunities for the network seem to be the current focus for the network as it aims to continue its transition from start-up to established social network to a network with a paid support offering. The initial success of products such as promoted tweets have shown that the market is there for advertisers to support brand presences through spend, but the previous variety of 3rd party clients represented a weak spot for the offering's success. Twitter couldn't gaurantee that paid support options were as effective as they could be across multiple 3rd part clients and additionally, 3rd party network tools represented an additional option for media placement outside of negotiating with Twitter.

While this reorientation makes sense from an advertising and control point of view, the network must hope that it doesn't disrupt the developent ecosystem from producing other useful offerings which expand the usefulness and reach of the network. Twitter finds itself in a unique position in striking this balance as the user experience is very straightforward compared to other networks such as Facebook. Going back to the factors for a successful developer environment, Twitter still possseses a robust API, but must drive a sense of stability for developers to balance out the reorientation of its network's access.

On a wider scale, the Twitter example may indicate how the relationship between social networks and developers will progress with a new generation of social networks. As startups, a network aims to draw in an established community, growing this into a robust developer network as it grows in popularity. Developer networks have previously driven interest in networks and expanded the list of the offering past its basic premise. However, as paid support within networks becomes a ubiquitous demand amongst larger social players, networks must reconcile keeping developers engaged vs. offering a verified commercial solution. If this balance isn't maintained, the competitor into collaborator dynamic that currently exists may change into a much more dangerous permutation for the future.