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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Twitter’s API changes will have a real impact on news developers

When your product depends on a (free) third-party platform, the rules can change at any time. Twitter’s are now.

The Twitter birdTwitter’s newly fortified mission to “deliver a consistent Twitter experience,” which is FREAKING OUT the tech world right now, will also force some news organizations to re-examine their code.

In a blog post, Michael Sippey, Twitter’s head of consumer products, said the company will crack down on apps that “reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience.” Think TweetBot, EchoFon, etc. While there’s no Seattle Times-branded Twitter client, changes in the API terms will have a subtler impact on Twitter-powered news apps.

Two of the most important changes: Tweets displayed to users must follow the company’s Display Guidelines, which require “Reply, Retweet, and Favorite action icons must always be visible.” And “No other social or 3rd party actions may be attached to a Tweet.” (Let’s hope Twitter’s next move isn’t to require us to capitalize “tweet.”)

That means news apps like The Washington Post’s @MentionMachine, which tracks presidential candidates on Twitter, will have to be reworked on the front end, where tweets are presented to readers, to match a style similar to Twitter’s own tweet embeds.

“Everything that we do with partners in social and tech is just an evolving scenario,” said Cory Haik, who manages digital projects at the Post. “Bringing that attitude forward is just helpful anyway, because, you know, it’s all subject to change.”

It’s a reminder that anyone who builds a product on a third-party platform, especially a free one, risks losing everything, anytime, on a moment’s notice. Just this morning I received a pitch from a startup called EmbedTree, which “aggregates rich media from Twitter and embeds this content within our site.” Looks cool, good idea, but Twitter’s new terms may kill it dead: One of the new rules is that pictures shared on Twitter must be displayed alongside the original tweet.

Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, worries that “I can’t just display a tweet as a link and blockquote when I want to quote it.” I think he’s wrong, though, because Twitter can’t revoke a person’s writing privileges — God, not yet — for misuse of their content, since embedding a tweet doesn’t require an API key.

The rules also forbid intermingling tweets with non-Twitter content, “e.g. comments, updates from other networks.” That immediately raised concerns that Storify — a favorite tool of journalists — would bite the dust.

Twitter’s Ryan Sarver said Storify would be safe. (“They are what we *want* in the ecosystem,” he tweeted.)

Even if your organization doesn’t build apps, there may be changes to services journalists use. On Twitter, Dan Cohen told me: “We often find stories for Digital Humanities Now (@dhnow) using some Twitter processing services (like, TweetedTimes)…we’re trying to figure out how those services will be affected, esp. since Flipboard seems to be on the ‘Dead to Twitter’ list.”

For example, the resurrected displays tweets on its home page underneath popular stories. The reply/retweet/favorite buttons do appear when you hover over the tweet, but not until then. Does that break with the display guidelines? Bananastand Inc., the Betaworks company that now runs the site, did not want to comment for this story.

Our own Fuego, which monitors a universe of about 7,000 journalists to determine what they’re talking about in real time, will probably have to change. We display the screen name, avatar, and text of the first tweet associated with a popular link. Under Twitter’s rules, we’ll have to comply with Twitter’s Display Guidelines or risk losing our privileges.

The Nieman Lab’s iPhone app, like those of a lot of other outlets, displays a simple view of our Twitter feed. We think that’s okay, because it’s powered by RSS and not the API, but we’ll see.

It seems like a long time ago that journalists were debating the merits of Twitter. Now, Twitter is so integral to our work that it feels like a utility — electricity, the phone, Gchat — and less like what it is: a for-profit company trying to protect its business interests. Everything is subject to change. Worth remembering when you’re deciding where to invest your development efforts.

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  • Kleemi

    Twitter is a traditional “Company” and this means that their intrest are and will always be aligned with investors and other “traditional” Companies” that provide the possibility of revenue or further investment. Twitters has no writ or will to do any thing that will benefit the twitter “Community” or the “Public” at large.
    As a traditional internet “Company” Twitters goal is not to build on top of existing “Open” standards “Companies” like Twitter generate large amounts of revenues by creating frameworks of scarcity; the idea that the “Company” is the only owner of X, or that X is in limited supply. Twitter creates frameworks of scarcity around its services and api.
    This is their core revenue model and as such they will seek to create a dependence on a “one of a kind” offering that excludes any input from the very “Community” that gives value to the “Twitter” “API.
    Without the content and data created by the “Community” the API that twitter uses to generate revenues and value would be worthless….. Interesting that the framework of ownership when it concerns community generated content has been so skewed and spun that we now think it is perfectly acceptable to allow a “Company” to create a TOS for access to content that they do not own…

  • avi
  • wfpman

    As much as we all love Twitter and depend on it for news and communication; we have to realize that like Facebook-we don not have our full freedom. There are other options out there like Statusnet which anyone could utilize. The reason FB and Twitter are powerful is because of the users they have. If those users move somewhere else then the equation changes. 

  • erwin blom

    Says @twitterapi “Note: the 100,000 access token limit in API version 1.1 applies *only* to clients. It does not apply to the rest of the ecosystem.  ^JC”

  • Aron Pilhofer

    So, people just need to relax.

    First, most of the display guidelines are simple common sense we all ought to be doing anyway. Looking at the myriad ways my own publication has displayed tweets, I think a little consistency is in order. Designers might not like it because everyone has an opinion how a Tweet should look. But you know what? Deal. All that design creativity across all those websites results in nothing but confusion for readers. Twitter is right to want (now, demand) a consistent experience, and it will be a relatively painless process for us to comply with it.

    Second, the vast majority of the changes are meant to target stand-alone Twitter clients, not newspaper websites or third-party services. Again, relax. Storify isn’t going anywhere, and I’m sure Fuego will survive just fine.

    Third, this is going to be rolled out over six months once the v 1.1 API is released. We have time to evaluate and make whatever changes we need to.

    The sky is not falling. It’s all going to be OK.