Thou shalt have no brand before Twitter

Tweetbot just updated to support Twitter's 1.1 API, and to partially support Twitter's new interface display guidelines. Come March 5, the old version of the app will stop working, and if you want to keep accessing Twitter, you'll have to do it with the new app, with it's new, more standardized look. Tweetbot won't be alone. Right now, every Twitter app designer is likely wrestling with the same problem -- how to conform to Twitter's new guidelines without losing what makes their app distinct, how to compromise without sacrificing what makes them special.

Here's the diversity we currently enjoy in 18 popular iPhone Twitter apps and 8 popular iPad Twitter apps. Take a moment to look at them and appreciate them.

Any and all of those that want to stick around will have to change, at least somewhat. The new guidelines include things like putting all avatars on the left, and displaying @usernames in specific ways and places. Mike Beas put together a post translating Twitter policy-speak to regular English to better explain the changes, and what they may mean to your favorite Twitter apps, depending on how consistently and strictly they end up being enforced. I'll do my best to sum it up in a single line:

  • Thou shalt have no brand before Twitter.

Or, less dramatically, "Twitter first". If you look over everything from the new display guidelines to the new user token limits -- no previous app can grow beyond 2x their existing account base, no new app can grow beyond 100,000 accounts -- then it becomes pretty clear what's at stake for Twitter -- perceptive ownership of their own platform. Twitter is in a battle for their own brand identity.

In a very real way, much of the brand identity now associated with Twitter came from those hard-working third-party developers. Indeed, much of it came from the Iconfactory and Twitterrific, including such fundamental things as the bird as mascot (see Ollie in the picture up top), and even the word "tweet".

We often look at that as a sign of how much Twitter gained from third parties. Their new management may look at it as a sign of how dependent they were on third parties.

For end users, the interface is the app, and the app is the service. Take a Twitter app and hook it up to a similar service, and the barrier of transition becomes incredibly low. Social has always been subject to migration, and from Friendster to MySpace to Facebook we've seen them rise and fall. And that was just with the browser as interface. The world has gone mobile, and now the app is the gateway.

From a brand identity point of view, Twitter made mistakes when they started. They abdicated ownership, and they failed to predict the importance of mobile apps. Facebook, by contrast, never really allowed third party clients to become established (and neither has Google for Google+).

"I use Twitter", from a branding perspective, should only ever be the answer a user gives. Not "I use Twitterrific" or "I use Tweetbot".

That's a simplistic take, and it ignores all the leadership changes, business (and non-business) directions, and mixed and conflicting messages Twitter has given developers over the years. But it is what it is now.

Twitter bought Tweetie from Loren Brichter's Atebits and then willingly sacrifices some brilliant interface work, and redesigned everything from web to iPhone to iPad to all look the same, and to all be unmistakably Twitter and nothing else. And they apply that strategy cross-platform.

At the same time, new guidelines for third parties instruct them, among other things, to display the Twitter logo (not their own logos) as a consistent interface element, and to otherwise conform to a singular, unified look and feel. That reduces differentiation and devalues alternatives.

They forbid mixing or mingling content with other services, likely in their minds to avoid a -- "hey, we now support X" [...] "hey, we now only support X" migration, as logistically tough as that might prove in reality. ("Tap here to re-find all your friends!")

Lastly, they impose user token limits so new brands can't take off and even powerful existing brands can't spread any further. Even if an app is spectacularly popular on iOS, with millions of users, if they try to go to Android or Windows 8, they'd be capped at 100,000 tokens (which means less than 100,000 users, assuming some users have multiple accounts, requiring multiple tokens). That makes for very little chance of reasonable profits, and very high chance for pissed off users caught on the wrong side of the cutoff.

As Twitter's ideal user goes from being a geek to being someone in the mainstream with almost no followers, who follows hundreds of celebrities, and who hashtags #americanidol everything, catering to, and ensuring the loyalty of, that user becomes paramount for them.

When your business model depends on brokering the attention of your user base, you have to control that attention. That puts Twitter in recovery mode, and preventing third party clients from establishing or growing their own brands, reducing their visual and feature differentiation to decrease their value, and always making sure Twitter is what the user knows and sees, is how they've decided to regain that control.

It just sucks for everyone who enjoyed making and using clients before Twitter figured that all out.

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, The TV Show, Vector, ZEN & TECH, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Thou shalt have no brand before Twitter

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Great article Rene. I’ve only ever used the actual Twitter app on BlackBerry, or IOS for iPhone and iPad and it fit my needs but I know users who like some of the clients out there and actions like this is basically taking away the choice and variety out there. On another note, folks over at Crackberry are up in arms about the lack of clients on BB10/Z10, I’m sure this has something to do with it.

Yes, no new Twitter app can probably ever get beyond 100,000 tokens (and if you have more than one Twitter account, you'll use more than one token). That means it makes no business sense to spend a lot of time and money making new Twitter apps.

I have no idea what's going on...so every Twitter app must have the same UI as the official Twitter app? I hate Twitter's official app. Does this mean my favorite Android Twitter app is also doomed?

Not the same interface, but increasingly the same conventions. So they become more like different paint jobs and decorations, less like different apps.

Hit up the link to Mike Beas article, wonderful explanation of what changes are required & what you'll see when implemented. Oh yea, this is complete and utter B.S. from Twitter.

I really can't figure out why the people who run Twitter are so stupid. They should keep their own free app, but charge devs a .50-1.00 fee per token or per app sale. It seems ridiculous that they haven't tried this model yet when it's the third party apps that are making the medium great.

Rene,
Please learn the difference between "its" and "it's". This mistake come up repeatedly on your blogs :
"Come March 5, the old version of the app will stop working, and if you want to keep accessing Twitter, you'll have to do it with the new app, with ––– it's ––– new, more standardized look."
"It's" is ALWAYS short for "it is". "Its" is the possessive form of "it". You meant to write "its".

If you're going to be a grammar nazi at least make sure there are no errors in your post. Different type of error, but makes you look like a clown, instead of just a pretentious douche.
Example:
"This mistake come up repeatedly on your blogs"
--->This mistake COMES up repeatedly on your blogs

Granted, this is based purely on my own informal questioning, but most people I know say that if they had to rely on Twitter's own web site to use the service, they'd simply stop using it. I know I would. Prediction: if its leadership continues down the path of alienating users by forcing conformity to its own crappy UI principles, Twitter will be a MySpace-like ghost town within 3 years. They are treading on very dangerous ground.