#2 · Twitter just made its worst mistake—but it's not the one you think

Third-party developers were instrumental in the development of Twitter. Thanks to Musk's poor decision-making, they are now helping to build its biggest competitor: Mastodon.

#2 · Twitter just made its worst mistake—but it's not the one you think

Dear reader,

Anyone who is at least a bit involved in the tech industry knows how badly Musk has damaged Twitter since he took over the company last October. His lunatic management and half-baked decisions unexpectedly put a bunch of Twitter competitors under the spotlight. One of them is Mastodon.

When the stream of poor decisions began, a lot of different competitors were on the starting blocks. Mastodon. Post. LinkedIn even. But now that the dust is settling, I would argue that the main winner increasingly looks like Mastodon. A first metric is the number of registered and active users. On Mastodon, both spiked since October, and has continued to rise ever since—albeit at a slower pace.

But something a bit different is currently happening. For a very long time, the community around Mastodon was pretty small. A small community is not a bad thing. It's just that a small community has fewer resources to develop the tools it relies on. Now that Mastodon is increasingly going mainstream, it has more resources than ever. Some come in the form of direct financial contributions, which mostly go to the people who run the many instances that make the Fediverse real. But another resource is in the number of new users. It makes building apps and services on top of the Mastodon API increasingly viable financially. This is why we have seen an influx of new Mastodon clients and apps, at least on iOS (I have no doubt a similar movement is happening on Android as well).

In my opinion, this is where Musk and the new Twitter made their worst mistake. They recently cut off some of the most prominent third-party clients such as Tweetbot and Twitteriffic. Suddenly, the apps stopped working. It took Twitter five days to communicate ("Twitter is enforcing its long-standing API rules. That may result in some apps not working."), and what they had to say was a blatant lie. Nobody broke any rule. This is pure nonsense.

With this sudden decision, the lack of communication and the blatant lie, Musk and Twitter slapped third-party developers in the face—and they slapped them really hard. Some of their businesses are now at risk. Twitteriffic invented the word "tweet" and was the first to use a bird to represent Twitter, for God’s sake! The contribution to third-party developers to Twitter growth was instrumental, something even former half-time CEO Dorsey recognized.

Twitter is now facing two new problems it did not have five days ago. The first one: how do you retain existing third-party developers, and attract new third-party developers, now that you have credibly signaled that you basically don't care about them? I don’t think cutting off the API would be a good idea, but if it’s Twitter’s decision, so be it. But communicate about it. Give people time. Explain what you are doing. Those are standard industry practices. Not giving any time, not doing any communication, and even worse, communicating with a blatant lie when you finally decided to say something five days later, has damaged the trust Twitter needs to attract third-party developers. Big apps à la WeChat need a thriving ecosystem around them to succeed, and I don't know if there exists a version of the future where Twitter is able to rebuild an ecosystem—already troubled by past unfortunate decisions. My guess is probably not.

In my opinion, the second problem is even more damaging for Twitter. Many of these developers have already started to work on Mastodon clients. Now that their Twitter apps are basically dead, they have every financial incentive to focus on their Mastodon app. It means their apps will ship faster than anticipated, adding extra value to the already growing Mastodon ecosystem sooner than later. But the problem is even worse. For a platform to evolve, it doesn’t just need good third-party apps and clients. It also needs creative developers who can push the boundaries and think forward. Musk and Twitter sent some of the people who basically invented Twitter straight to its biggest competitor, Mastodon. And Musk and Twitter gave these developers every incentive to work their magic as soon as possible.

I only have anecdotal evidence, but a couple of things that seemed to have turned some early adopters off Mastodon is its apparent complexity. And at least on iOS, a limited choice of apps. Remove these two barriers to entry, and you will make more people stick to Mastodon once they give it a try.

Will Twitter die? I don't know. Probably not, if I have to make a guess. But the platform is in real trouble. It will likely take time for Twitter to fade away. But what is clear is that Mastodon is now more robust than ever. And now that Twitter has sent a flock of talented third-party developers right to Mastodon, it has given its competitor an early boost to run what is more of a marathon than a sprint.

I used Tweetbot for years. It helped me get a lot of value from Twitter, a value I wouldn’t have gotten with the official app. I’m not done with Twitter (yet?), even if my usage has already severely declined. I can’t wait for Ivory, Tapbot’s upcoming Mastodon client, to ship. I will gladly pay these guys the money they deserve. And I’m sure the other clients and apps will be equally great, and will find enough customers to make them economically viable.

Olivier

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