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Twitter eats its Babies

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17 June 2011

Twitter seems to be in the process of nothing short of a hostile takeover of a Twitter Development group in London called #devnest. It’s weird, and it is tragic.

Weird, because why would Twitter screw over a community so loyal, so talented, and one that is all about Twitter? Surely this is not a very Twitter thing to do?

Tragic, because of the way the folks of #devnest are desperately trying their utmost best, throughout this, to stay loyal to Twitter, their platform of choice. Which, to them, is more than just a development platform.

Twitter turns Evil

London #devnest

#devnest was started in February 2009 as a fantastic community of Twitter developers in the UK. Founded by Jonathan Markwell and organised by Angus Fox, these guys have been hosting the meetups months after month, organising speakers, Skype sessions with Twitter representatives, free pizza and beer. All in the spirit of hacking and being creative with the Twitter API. Twitter should be proud of people like this.

This Tuesday, though, at the latest #devnest meeting, Angus announced – to my own, and everyone else present’s shock – that Twitter is planning to host #devnest events of their own worldwide, including London, and that they plan to call it #devnest without involving #devnest at all. This is very confusing.

To make matters worse, they have contacted all the sponsors of #devnest. Fortunately three of the main sponsors, Amazon Web Services, The Guardian, and Multizone, have all indicated that they are 100% behind #devnest, despite whatever Twitter spoke to them about (the exact nature of these dialogues are unknown).

Throughout making the above announcement, Angus Fox defended Twitter’s side of the issue with saintly gusto. He explained how Twitter needs to make money – how they’re a business and not a charity.

He went on to say that Twitter had subsequently declined to enter into any kind of written agreement for use of the name, format or twitter account. Furthermore, they did not wish to involve the London organisers (outside of letting them continue to run their own #devnest events and continuing to let them contact Twitter representatives for Q&A sessions via Skype).

He posed the question, “what next for #devnest?” and invited participants to join the organiser discussion.

It was tragic and gut wrenching for me as an outsider to see how these good people are continuing to “do the right thing”, while their passionate efforts are being disregarded by Twitter like an old rag.

Et tu, Twitter?

What has happened here? Twitter doesn’t belong in the evil corporation category? Or does it?

In the past few months, Twitter has started baring their teeth at their development community at an alarming rate. Let’s take a look:

  • March: Twitter tells their development community to stop building Twitter client apps. The idea is that apps should not attempt to do what Twitter already does, with a modified user experience. Reading between the lines, this stance could easily be extended by Twitter to other classes of tools they have also built, like URL shorteners, stats tools and Twitter search engines. Concerning.
  • May: Twitter announces that apps will require a new, separate permission to access and send DMs – a move welcomed by the developer community for security reasons. At the same time though, they announced that all apps that do not run in a web browser, or cannot at least redirect a user to a web browser, will not be able to get this permission, and thus not be able to read or send DM’s. Another nail in the coffin for many desktop and mobile Twitter clients.
  • May: A fun account called @towerbridge, automatically tweeting the up/down state of the London Tower Bridge (a drawbridge) gets deleted by Twitter and given to the London Tower Museum. Apparently Twitter did send a notification to the owner before they deleted his account. (Since then, they have reinstated his data under a new account, @twrbrdg_itself. Hip hip hooray.)
  • May: Twitter hosts their own developer event in San Francisco, and also calls it #devnest.
  • June: #devnestocalypse – they let #devnest know they’re taking #devnest worldwide, including London, without the original #devnest.

Here I think Angus is right. Twitter is just a business, and they are trying to do whatever it takes to make as much money as possible.

However, we had all hoped for more since their open, user-lead beginnings pointed to the possibility of something bigger and greater – a new way of doing business. In that sense, unfortunately, Twitter has failed us in a way that even Microsoft, at the height of its empire, did not manage to. At least Microsoft tried, and largely managed, to stay loyal to its developer community.

Does anyone else find it ironic that Social Networks tend to be guilty of the most severe antisocial behaviour?

UPDATE: Do read Angus Fox’s comment below with exact details of communication between Twitter and #devnest

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  • Posted by Angus Fox
    June 17, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    If you would like to join the organiser discussion about the future of Twitter #Devnest please seek the organisers out at http://www.devnest.org, and at the google organisers discussion at http://groups.google.com/group/devnest or of course on twitter @nuxnix @jot @markabaker and @stewarttownsend although you can’t assume necessarily that is secure :)

  • June 17, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    If I’m not mistaken devnest actually have a trademark in the UK. Not that this is legal issue, its an ethical one. As you point out.

  • Posted by Adriaan Pelzer
    June 17, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    They have, yes. But you’re right, this issue goes beyond legal.

  • June 17, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure I understand.

    Do Twitter want to monetize #devnest?
    Are they going to charge for it?
    I’m not sure that could work.
    And if they are relying on sponsors funding as a business model, the situation does really look grim for them.

    That said, big developers conferences are already paid-for events (Apple and Google take the lead here) and that’s not a scandal.
    What shocks me is how a community-based event like a #devnest can be interpreted as a make-money event.
    The nature of a #devnest is that of a ‘small’ event. It becomes big as it’s distributed, but it’s mostly a local gathering of developers that get to know each other and use it to exchange ideas.

    It’s more or less a gathering of like minded people that go to the pub to talk business, and that’s its strength.

    Twitter’s stance on it sounds to me like a misunderstanding of the nature of #devnest and, ultimately, of its developer community.

  • Posted by Adriaan Pelzer
    June 17, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the info, Angus. I hope everyone reading this joins the discussion in some way or another – the more people become passionate about this, the bigger the chance that it will have an effect.

  • Posted by Adriaan Pelzer
    June 17, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Giuseppe: I think you hit the nail right on the head when saying Twitter is misunderstanding the nature of its developer community. And this is a new development – only recently have Twitter’s attitude towards the developer community started to turn sour. I think the general feeling is that they’re just “turning corporate”, but the speed at which it is happening is concerning.

  • Posted by Anthony
    June 17, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Another thing Twitter is doing/has tried that fits the bill: trying to trademark the word ‘tweet’.

  • Posted by Angus Fox
    June 17, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    They did consult with me (@nuxnix) first to be fair to them. I was in favour of the idea because a)they told me in clear terms that they were going to run developer outreach events worldwide anyway including in London and b)I felt we had a shot at better influence and ultimately better governance from the inside. I was very positive about it to them, gave my agreement and suggested they speak to @jot. I had to make an instant decision and I did. I stand by it.

    This was during the royal wedding holiday ten days when the UK was closed. (Americans, think about getting a decision made on the afternoon of the wednesday before Thanksgiving through to the friday evening and you’ll get the picture).

    They could not get hold of @jot so they announced devnest san francisco (and @Alexia at TechCrunch blogged it) and then they ran devnest_sf.

    Twitter declined to invite me or @jot to devnest_sf, citing budgets, (approx £1k – I would have used frequent flyer points) but they invited The Guardian who were there anyway (our sponsor is The Guardian Open Platform) to speak. I had invited The Guardian to represent us at the event. We sent them a FAQ on the ingredients of a devnest. We got no real feedback during or after the event.

    On reflection we felt we should have a written agreement between twitter and devnest to provide for clarity over name, and sponsorship, and twitter account, and that if they wanted to take over the whole devnest name they should provide some notional funding (around £20k) for new UK developer outreach events. Having total control was just one of the options we presented to them. At all times the objective was just clarity. I don’t think they read our document the same way we wrote it and we told them so.

    Anyway, Twitter declined, in a pretty ugly series of emails implying we were holding them to ransom and saying they didn’t ever see the need for such things to be in writing, preferring a gentlemans agreement.

    They have repeatedly told me they have no wish to take over our events hashtag or twitter account. But I have been told that they sought sponsorship for their new official events from our sponsors (twitter have not confirmed this with me). This, while not taking over our events, dilutes the tiny pool of money we rely upon for independent events.

    We were planning with our sponsors (current and undisclosed prospective ones) to take devnest worldwide as the time appears to be right for that. We have previously run devnest in New York so this is not new. One prospective sponsor told me they couldn’t do anything to ‘upset’ twitter so they wanted to wait for the outcome of our discussions with them.

    As I said at devnest over 2 years ago, when I first raised the question of governance, twitter want to behave like a startup, but have to think about the fact that they have some of the responsibilities of a telco. I would like to see a more open governance along the lines of ubuntu or even the jcp where there is a level playing field for developers, end user account termination, API access, legal disclosure, predatory market behaviour, and many other things.

    We are seeing the startup behaviour here. They are going fast to avoid sailing too close to the sun, and I dont blame them for that, I would do the same. But I have to question their ultimate motives given that the puppetmasters in their senior management are themselves are being set incredible challenges by their venture backers.

    Twitter Devnest has cost my own company @multizone plenty of money and time and we have had invaluable help from sponsors to whom I am extremely grateful and without which it would be an impossible burden. It has never been about making money.

    Devnest is about a self organising local community that seeks to get like minded people together. My initial motivation in getting involved was to help people avoid wasting their own startup investment and time in some app that was doomed or in a place where twitter would take it over.

    Perhaps devnest, and even twitter’s time has passed, I hope not.


  • June 17, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Adriaan, yes – speed at which this is happening is worrying.

    Although to be honest I’ve seen some signs of Twitter’s sour approach to developers in the early days – I clearly remember, at my first devnest in London, some feeling of contempt during the Q&A session that upset some of the developers present.

    Angus’ account is accurate and I really thank him for the transparency and care with which he’s dealing with this issue. I respect the way you dealt with taking the decision and the pressure under which the decision had to be taken.

    I think a wider discussion in the community should be taken.

    Angus says: “Devnest is about a self organising local community that seeks to get like minded people together. My initial motivation in getting involved was to help people avoid wasting their own startup investment and time in some app that was doomed or in a place where twitter would take it over.”

    There are two ways of dealing with this: fighting back the possible trade mark issues or just let it go and move it to some other community event (as @ollieparsley suggested, #devhatch).

    As far as Angus’ last remark, “Perhaps devnest, and even twitter’s time has passed, I hope not.” – it might be that the momentum of getting new apps on Twitter is vanishing. I believe Twitter’s API set will never be too different in content from what they’ve been in the last year – human fantasy is limited (especially with Twitter’s attitude towards new clients), so I assume we won’t be seeing any more groundbreaking Twitter apps.
    But that’s another problem.

  • Posted by David Lowe
    June 17, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    I missed my first Devnest for ages this month and am horrified reading this & at Twitter’s attitude.What the he’ll are they thinking? Is it possible that it’s just one crazy individual doing this stuff without the rest of Twitter knowing (I’m being hopeful there)? I’ve missed who has the trademark for Devnest; if it’s @nuxnix, why would we change to #devhatch?

  • Posted by Angus Fox
    June 17, 2011 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    Inuda, @jots company own the Trademark and branding.

  • Posted by timwhitlock
    June 18, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Twitter will continue to be relevant, but personally I’d like to see Devnest become more of a general API hacking group. I don’t see much point in fighting Twitter, but equally I don’t see much value in a group that’s dedicated to the sole topic of Twitter – not now they’ve moved on so far from their fluffy beginnings.

    There’s a useful lesson for new startups here though. If you offer a fully featured API and open up your brand as a copyright free-for-all, you may find yourself one day needing to do a U-turn. A developer community can be deviceful in a company’s growth, but it needs to be approached with foresight and tact. Not easy.

    On the IP topic: You may find these US trademarks interesting.
    I’m no legal expert, but it’s interesting that the marks have verbal descriptions of their ‘features’. I imagine a lot of the alternative-looking Twitter bird illustrations you see on the web are probably contestable if Twitter chose to take issue. #JustSayin

  • Posted by Wireworld hdmi
    October 31, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I think Twitter wanted to organize all those events that #devnest used to. So there is nothing wrong in this takeover.

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