The Twitter API: Giving away the store?

One of the interesting things to me about Mike Arrington’s interview with Twitter founder Evan Williams isn’t so much the discussion of business models (although that’s obviously something the company will have to deal with eventually) but the debate that seems to be going on inside the company about how it handles API access to Twitter’s data. As Mike notes, the service only gives four outside companies full access to the entire Twitter data feed, and one of those is Summize — which of course is now part of Twitter. The others are FriendFeed, Twittervision (which overlays Twitter posts on a map) and Zappos, which is an online shoe retailer that makes extensive use of Twitter.

The ability to get access to that “firehose” of XMPP data was what allowed Summize to produce @ replies from Twitter when users couldn’t get access to those replies through Twitter itself, one of the features that I think drove interest in Summize over the past few months — although it would arguably still have been a useful service even without Twitter’s repeated downtime issues. But while Summize used it to build something that made sense as an adjunct to Twitter, a service like FriendFeed.com is using the data firehose to build something that is closer to being a very real competitor. Like some other people, when Twitter was having its issues, I effectively duplicated the most important part of my Twitter follow list by following or creating friends in FriendFeed.

Mike asks Evan about this during the interview, after the Twitter founder notes that Summize and FriendFeed have access to the full XMPP feed through the API, and says this is just a much more efficient way of getting user updates — at which point Mike says:

MA: Is it too efficient? I mean they are a competitor. It’s great to be open with open data and all, but they are a competitor of yours, and you are handing them all of the data.

and Ev replies:

EW: Well it’s not ideal, and there are definitely business implications to giving all our data away to anyone, and we are somewhat nervous about that.

Williams goes on to talk about how just handing over all of the Twitter data to even a “friendly” service like Summize or the AIR app Twhirl raises issues, but when it is a potential competitor then it becomes even more problematic — and not just because of the competitive issues, but because users posting their updates to Twitter might not feel comfortable with those updates appearing all over the Web. Interestingly enough, however, Ev doesn’t indicate that Twitter is thinking of charging companies for full API access, or at least not yet.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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