Was 2017 the Beginning of the End For Third-Party Twitter Apps?

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The past year has seen Twitter taking more action than ever before in a bid to clean up its image. The site has declared war on abuse, and exploited its own control over tweet visibility to wipe many serial abusers out of the picture – even if they’re still technically active on the site.

Twitter has hit porn bots hard and strengthened its protections against sensitive content. It’s blitzed the scourge of List spam, which was allowing some of Twitter’s most annoying marketing bots to crawl under the punishment radar. It’s rationalised its email notification system to avoid inbox chaos. It’s tightened its controls over aggressive following and unfollowing. And perhaps most dramatically of all, it’s revised its developer guidelines to outlaw the use of third-party apps for obvious spamming purposes.

This has not been empty rhetoric. Twitter has been blocking apps which don’t comply with the Terms – effectively putting them out of business. A shiver of fear has blown through the ‘apposphere’.

DM SPAM BANNED

If you’ve noticed a seismic drop in auto-DMs within recent weeks, that’s because Twitter has tackled the problem at root. It’s advised the third parties whose apps were facilitating that tidal wave of worthless self-promotion, that they can either disable the function, or lose their API authorisation. Why Twitter ever let the most annoying DM spamming tools persist for so long in the face of clear public revulsion is a mystery. But let’s be glad that common sense is finally dawning.

VALUED CONTENT REACHING FURTHER

And if you’re a user who has something of value to offer, it’s never been easier to reach an engaged audience. I’ve seen evidence of this for myself, with a fairly localised special interest photo page making massive gains in engagement this year. In the first three years from 2013, when I opened the account, the tweets would generally get between 0 and 3 Likes. In 2017 they’ve more commonly got between 25 and 100. The page currently has just 770 followers, and a significant number of the people regularly Liking are NOT followers. They’re consistently getting the content regardless.

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The year 2017 will certainly be remembered as the one in which Twitter finally waged a serious attack on worthless, selfish crud. The site was increasingly being seen as a refuge for link pedlars who wanted to gun out a fire of one-way communication without actually being there. The battle against this mentality will not be won until Twitter bans automation outright, but unquestionably, the tide has turned. It’s the first year in which it’s appeared that Twitter is actually listening to ordinary people. And it’s certainly the first year I’ve felt that posting images on Twitter makes more sense than posting them on a photo blog. Now Twitter has upped the character limit to 280, it’s even possible to write decent, informative captions.

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THE IMPACT ON APPS

But what will now become of third-party Twitter apps? Even a terminal optimist would surely admit that the recent tightening of developer rules has raised questions about the Twitter app’s future. And 2017’s clampdown has already seen even the biggest of the apps in absolute chaos. Not only have ManageFlitter, Crowdfire and Tweepi been forced to implement sweeping limitations to follow/unfollow volume – they’ve also run into profound side-effects.

ManageFlitter has experienced major technical problems, presumably due to the extent and deadlining of its re-engineering programme. Tweepi has been forced to re-invent its follow system after its users’ accounts were locked en masse. And Crowdfire has lost a very high-reach means of introduction to new users – a self-promo at the end of the spam DMs it can no longer send.

Some of the more aggressive and valueless apps are still around, but their reach has been minimised by Twitter’s updates to content priority. Twitter can attack app spam from the user side, as well as enacting sanctions on the apps themselves. Users employing apps to spam the Twittersphere are being taken off the timelines – essentially made invisible. And even if their tweets are not made literally invisible, they’re being subordinated by higher quality content as Twitter becomes more engagement-driven.

The question is, as it becomes clearer that third-party apps are at the life-or-death mercy of Twitter’s whims, will users be confident enough to subscribe to them? Will developers be confident enough to develop new ones?

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THE FUTURE OF TWITTER APPS

It’s fair to say that many of the third-party Twitter apps were built with no regard for the Twitter user experience. And plainly in some cases apps have directly encouraged people to behave in an incredibly selfish, intrusive, destructive and annoying manner.

Of course, Twitter allowed the app-makers to get away with implementing these monstrosities, and that only encouraged developers to produce more of them. Appealing to the lowest denominator of human selfishness became a default for the Twitter app. But now that Twitter is drawing a line above that grim pit of annoyance, is there anything left for an app to do, that Twitter can’t do better itself?

FOLLOW GAME CRUMBLING

Following and unfollowing is still the foremost function for third-party Twitter apps, but there are problems with this, and I’m guessing those problems will increase moving forward. The number of Twitter account lockings due to over aggressive follow/unfollow tactics seems to be on the rise, and all of the major follow/unfollow resources have this year acknowledged a heavier attack, by Twitter, on aggressive ‘churn’. The tolerances for mass following, even if it’s accomplished manually, have clearly been significantly reduced.

But alongside the penalties for abuse of the follow system, there’s also come a feeling of pointlessness in building a massive following that is not engaged and will never listen. Maybe that’s just my cognitive dissonance coming to the fore (it’s too difficult to do, so I didn’t really want it anyway), but I think there has been a shift in the way Twitter followings are perceived in relation to engagement. In fact, now that Retweet and Like totals are shown more clearly on tweets, I wonder if I’m the only one who immediately cross-references a Followers total with a Likes-per-tweet total when checking out a Twitter account? As we near the end of a landmark year for Twitter, is it more embarrassing to have fewer than 10K followers, or to have 200K followers, only one of whom actually Likes your tweets? At face value, the latter is the digital equivalent of making an address to a stadium full of people, afterwhich only your mother claps. Whatever that may be, popularity it ain’t.

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REFOCUSING

The problem for the third-party Twitter app is that, Favstar aside, it doesn’t currently have much of a role in the new age of engagement. It seems that unless app developers can come up with some seriously radical ideas, the third-party app’s lifeline still lies in the follow game. A game which is entirely at Twitter’s mercy, and which could face the full force of the guillotine at any time. True, the apps have loopholed some of Twitter’s recent restrictions. Tweepi, for example, no longer follows directly from the app interface. It instead sends all intended follows to a Private List, and the user then follows each account on Twitter itself. But that system could go west with a single revision from Twitter.

Maybe it’s time for app developers to start thinking about the reader experience. Provide some innovative, customised search routines, for example. Imagine an app that could harness Twitter’s advanced search capabilities in a much more simple and intuitive interface. Build categories of interest with sophisticated, personally-tailored filtering. Remove common spam. Help people find the things they want to find, and then engage with it when they find it. We know that businesses use advanced search techniques to respond to their customers, but there’s no mass market app which makes this type of control accessible to ordinary users. Such a resource could help snowball real site usage, and tie in perfectly with Twitter’s desire to reward contributors of valuable content.

It remains to be seen what will happen to the third-party Twitter app, but developers must surely now know that they need to switch focus. Whatever developers do decide to build, it MUST be in keeping with Twitter’s own vision of the user experience. And this year, we’ve seen Twitter aligning itself, empathising, with the user who is most likely to look at, or drive engagement to, its adverts. In the app development of 2018, “selfish” will not be a loser per se, but “selfish at the expense of the whole site’s enjoyment” has definitely run out of steam.