Twitter is facing a lot of flack from developers today over the forthcoming changes to its API that will essentially throttle the growth of third-party clients.

Twitter’s announcement should have been little surprise to anyone given that the company has been making signals in this direction for over a year now, but the ride could have been so much smoother for everyone if Twitter had a better communications strategy in place.

Let’s get one thing out of the way here before we start. Twitter needs to change its relationship with some developers – there’s no getting away from that. It’s chosen the path of becoming a media company that aims to offer a consistent user experience wherever it’s consumed – be that on the Web, in an app, embedded in a blog post or featured on television. That’s Twitter’s prerogative whether you like it or not, and complaining about it probably won’t achieve anything. However, we do have a right to be upset by the confusing, fumbling way Twitter has communicated this transformation to developers and users.

Confused and worried developers

Anyone paying attention to Twitter would have realized long ago that developing new third-party clients was a bad idea. However, Director of Platform Ryan Sarver’s message was pretty light-touch at the time – a gentle prod to say Twitter would prefer you to work on other things. ‘No, you shouldn’t build alternative Twitter clients’ isn’t the same as ‘No, we won’t let you.’

Given that Twitter’s own apps are generally no good for most ‘power users’ (more about them below), it’s no surprise that developers continued to work on apps that fulfilled the needs of that market. Since then, we’ve had the forced withdrawal of tweets from LinkedIn but firm, hard details of a full-on clampdown on third-party apps were only ever hinted at, leaving developers in the dark and concerned about their futures.

So, after 17 months of whispers, hints and suggestions, Twitter finally came out with hard details a few hours ago, and even then the message was confusing. Text that was open to a wide range of interpretations (Instapaper’s Marco Arment breaks down a lot of the particularly ominous stuff on his blog) and a diagram that didn’t make itself entirely clear and even left certain types of apps off altogether left the Twitter dev community anxious, and Ryan Sarver had to tweet clarifications from his personal account, admitting that “We definitely could be clearer if there is so much confusion.”

It could have been so much better. Anil Dash (whose company’s ThinkUp app is safe under Twitter’s guidelines) has published a rewrite of the announcement that shows how it could have been spun so much more positively. It begins…

“We have awesome news for Twitter developers: Today we’re announcing the upcoming release of the biggest new set of features and changes to the Twitter API ever, which we’re calling Twitter API version 1.1. We know change is scary, so we’ll talk about what’s new, why we’re making these changes, and when you can expect to see them. Don’t worry — it’ll be worth it!”

This approach may have overly sugar-coated the negative impact on third-party developers, but there’s no doubt that the language is a lot clearer and easier to understand.

Developers who have invested time and money in Twitter deserve clear, open honesty, not a long period of anxious waiting followed by an announcement that is not only confusing but warns of even more changes to come. As Marco Arment’s post notes, “Twitter has proven to be unstable and unpredictable, and any assurances they give about whether something will be permitted in the future have zero credibility.”

Neglected power users

If there’s a ‘stakeholder group’ Twitter has routinely ignored, it’s power users – those people who monitor multiple streams of tweets, saved searches and lists at once, tweet compulsively and find Twitter’s own apps insufficient for their needs.

Some of these people still use the old Adobe Air version of TweetDeck because it offers a more useful feature set than the versions of the app released since Twitter acquired the company. They’re people who proudly use Tweetbot on their iPhones, or any number of weird and wonderful clients that precisely suit their needs.

It’s easy to write power users off as irrelevant to Twitter’s mass-market, mass-media future, but they’re an influential and noisy bunch.

Aside from acquiring TweetDeck, Twitter has made no real nods to the power user group in a long time, and the slow pace of Tweetdeck’s development, and its cut-down feature set indicate that Twitter doesn’t really care about them anyway. Yet, power users put more time and effort into creating and curating Twitter content for the masses than anyone else.

Power users deserve to know what’s happening to the client apps they love. At present, they’re left to interpret developer-focused announcements, when a straightforward message from Twitter such as:

“We know what you want and TweetDeck’s getting better very quickly – tell us how we can improve it for you.”

or

“Apps like Tweetbot are safe because we know you love them.”

or

“The way you use multi-column clients right now is on the way out, but we’ve got some great new ways of using Twitter lined up for you.”

…would be far better and would show that Twitter at least acknowledges an important part of its userbase.

Straightforward, honest, unthreatening and clear

Criticisms of Twitter’s communication of its future plans and developer guidance aren’t new. Referring to his original statement about not developing clients similar to the native experience, Ryan Sarver admitted to us last October that “We could’ve improved the way we messaged it.”

While Twitter should be commended for at least having some form of communications policy in place about its evolving platform, there’s no doubt that drawing the process out over many months (even now it’s not over – “Stricter guidelines around how the Twitter API is used” are planned) is harmful to an important community of developers and users who simply don’t know enough about what’s coming.

Twitter can’t give a concrete roadmap of what’s to come – there are too many variables that could lead to changes later – but it could save itself a lot of pain by being straightforward, honest, unthreatening and clear in its communications about its future with those who have a big interest in its present.

Also read: We can’t entrust Twitter with the future of the real-time web

Image credit: Ryan Milani