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The third-party apps Twitter just killed made the site what it is today

The time of good third-party Twitter clients may be over. After Twitter cut off their API access and changed their rules to prevent apps that compete with their own, The Iconfactory has announced that they are discontinuing Twitterific, Fenix ​​has been obtained from app stores, and Tapbots posted a memorial for Tweetbot. It’s a loss for everyone who used the apps and, almost certainly, a loss for Twitter itself.

As many have pointed out over the past week, third-party clients helped make Twitter the platform it is today, innovating parts of Twitter that we take for granted, and in the early days helped shape the identity of the company itself. They have also served as a safe haven from unwanted changes, helping to keep people on Twitter when they were ready to give up on the platform.

Screenshot of the Twitterific bird logo from 2007.
Twitter didn’t put a bird in its logo until 2010. Here’s a screenshot from Twitterific’s website in 2007, with the bird explaining how to install the Mac app. The iPhone’s App Store wouldn’t arrive until over a year later.
Image: Icon Factory

Take for example that word I just used – tweeting. The idea that a “tweet” would be what we call a Twitter post didn’t really come from the company itself, according to a blog post by Twitterific developer Craig Hockenberry. 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 the Twitter company started using the term as well. (Originally, Twitter preferred “tweeting.”) 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 client called Tweetie is widely credited with inventing the pull-to-refresh interaction that has become almost ubiquitous throughout iOS and Android for refreshing all types of feeds. Even if you haven’t heard of Tweetie before, 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 of another third-party client to improve its Android app.

Screenshot of Tweetie 2 compared to Twitter for iPhone.

Left: Tweetie 2 in 2010. Right: Twitter for iPhone in 2011.
Images: Tweetie / Twitter via The Wayback Machine

It’s also not the only time Twitter bought a popular third-party client outright. TweetDeck, part of The Verge‘s newsroom until today, was an independent app for years until the company bought it.

Third-party client users, who numbered in the millions in 2018, often enjoyed features years before they came to the official app. Echofon added the ability to mute unwanted users and hashtags in 2011, a feature in the official versions didn’t arrive until 2014.

Screenshot of the Echofon Twitter app showing the timeline view.

An Echofon screenshot from 2011.
Screenshot: Echofon via The Wayback Machine

The apps have also served as safe havens from Twitter’s changes; they didn’t have the flood of recommended and out-of-date tweets that the official app had, and they gave us options to use a Twitter app for Mac after the official one was discontinued for a year. And, yes, people have used third-party clients to get an ad-free Twitter experience, not because they intentionally removed ads, but because Twitter didn’t serve them through the API. (Side note: it’s hard to believe that Twitter couldn’t have had alternative apps show ads if it wanted or needed to.)

At times, Twitter has seemingly recognized the value outside developers added. “Third-party clients have had a remarkable impact on the Twitter service and the products we built,” it read a 2018 note from Rob Johnson, who was the company’s head of developer platform at the time. “Independent developers built the first Twitter client for Mac and the first native app for iPhone. These clients pioneered product features we all know and love.” And in a blog post from 2010Twitter said that 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 outside developers was often fraught. The company’s developer agreement has had an on-and-off rule preventing alternative apps that competed with its official clients, and for years the company introduced new features it didn’t support in the API, meaning third-party clients couldn’t have them.

Before Musk took over, however, the company appeared to be making amends. It clarified the rules with the express intention of making things easier for third-party clients, started communicating more, and API v2 finally gave developers access to features like polls and group DMs. At the end of 2021, Tapbots co-founder Paul Haddad told me, “The pace of development and transparency has improved significantly compared to some of the darker days.” And in 2022, he called the company releasing a v2 version of its home timeline API “an indication that they’re going to continue to allow and even encourage alternative customers.”

It’s not just third-party clients that have made the Twitter experience better. There are several other external tools that have improved 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 this feature was built in.) Most of these apps appear to still work, but as we’ve seen, that could change at at any time, and Twitter has the ability to prevent you from posting links to them.

Of course, this is likely to cause massive backlash from users and will make the service worse. But based on Twitter’s recent actions, that wouldn’t rule it out.

I’m not trying to argue that Twitter has never come up with features on its own, or picked up user suggestions on its own, because it has. (The retweet, hashtag, and @mention were famously invented by users, sometimes with the help of third-party apps, but Twitter implemented them effectively.) My point is that an ecosystem of third-party apps competing with each other and the official client is going to produce more good ideas than a single company could on its own.

Elon Musk decided to throw all this away. Twitter has 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 goes back, why would developers use their best ideas on a company that has burned them so badly?

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