The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

The Hand That Feeds

My life changed on April 9, 2010. At least, my work life did. And when you own your own business, your work life tends to bleed — heavily — into every aspect of your life. So when I received the announcement early on a Friday evening that Twitter had purchased atebits, it was a punch to the gut.

Backstory

Let me go back one year, to April of 2009. Tweetie on the iPhone was a smashing success. I'd read the likes of Gruber sing its praises, but hadn't gotten around to trying it. I think I was using Twitterrific most of the time (which included ads from the Deck).

Meanwhile, Michael Mistretta and I were doing everything we could to build up Fusion Ads, our relatively young (5 months) boutique advertising service. When we received an email from Loren Brichter asking if we'd be interested in putting our ads in his soon to be released Tweetie for Mac, we were excited. It was then that I finally picked up Tweetie on the iPhone and realized the genius that it was (which is what makes it so hard to watch Twitter flush that genius down the investor-backed toilet).

Tweetie for Mac was released in May 2009, for free. It came with some pretty ads. In the space of 2-3 months, our little ad service went from a couple hundred thousand of impressions per month to millions. And revenue rose accordingly.

Hindsight is a Beautiful Thing

Truly, every first time business owner learns a lot with their first venture. Looking back, there are many things I would have done differently. The most important lesson was allowing my company's health to be so closely tied to someone else's business. Twitter, via Tweetie for Mac, was such a large component of our ability to earn an income that when the news hit, I felt my feet coming out from under me.

As for Fusion, after that day, I vowed to never let our company depend so heavily on one source of traffic. If we survived.

Survive we did, and it's still a profitable business today. But it was never the same once Twitter took control and our ads were removed from Tweetie on the desktop.


I can only imagine how much money Loren was earning from the iPhone client. He never seemed overly concerned about the revenue coming in from the Mac client. Even though we paid him what would be a respectable full time income over the course of a year, I believe it was a drop in the bucket to what the iPhone client brought in. He certainly never warmed up to our idea of offering a free iPhone client that included Fusion's ads. That would compete directly with his fire hose of cash.

But I respected all his decisions — to keep our ads out of the iPhone client, to sell his business to Twitter — all of them. He treated us well and our business took off because of his talent. I'll always be grateful for the opportunity that came from our partnership with his hard work. It allowed us to build a business, a profitable business that enabled writers, designers and developers to earn some income for sharing their thoughts and work with the world.

I have nothing but respect for Loren Brichter.

I Can't Say the Same for Twitter

I share my story because it singles the beginning of how my view of Twitter began to change. Our few interactions with them, consisting mostly of a few brief emails after the acquisition, made it quite clear that they were not concerned about the health of the various other entities that contributed to the Twitter ecosystem. They were concerned about Twitter, period.

We never truly expected them to adopt our ads or make Fusion somehow a part of their service. But there was a lack of clear communication — a simple, direct attempt to make clear their intentions would have gone a long way. We never received that.

My experience with Twitter as a company, coupled with my experience as a user of their service, has only soured over time. Watching their decisions become increasingly hostile to their early adopters and developer community, along with the most recent API announcement, only further cements the fact that my time as a user of their service is soon coming to an end.

A Tale of Two Services

In 2007, I quit Facebook (at least, I stopped using it — my account is still taking up resources somewhere). Partially because of their clear disdain for privacy, but also because it was becoming so mainstream. I have to admit my penchant for exclusiveness — when my parents and non-tech friends start using something I do, I feel the itch to find something new.

That issue arose with Twitter — it's mainstream now. Has been for a while. But the experience is different due to the mechanics of the service. I control who I follow, what content comes into my stream. If someone talks too much, or posts content I don't care for, I can unfollow them. For the most part, even if I disagree with Twitter's decisions, the experience hasn't suffered.

Sadly, Twitter is so forced to pander to investors, so set on earning ad revenue, that its users are the commodity. As it is with most free services. And it now looks all to likely that their intentions will in fact cause the experience, my experience, to suffer.

Clearly, the early adopters and 3rd party client developers are not the hand that feeds Twitter. We were at one point, but no longer. They are not biting the hand that feeds, but rather the one that helped them get to where they are.

They've long moved on, focusing on the hand that feeds now.

Illusionists

One other aspect of all this really bugs me. Twitter founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone garner a lot of praise, are credited for changing the world. And in a sense, their creations have. Blogger and Twitter have both had a significant effect for how people communicate online. So credit where credit is due.

But now that they've moved on from Twitter and are now launching and backing new services, here's what I'd like to see from them: the ability to earn a profit. They're clearly savvy creatives — they have the ability to put a team together, build a product or service, then market it successfully.

But earn revenue, period? Not so much.


What now? It's too early to tell if app.net will be successful. If it does, it most likely won't be a success of the scale of Twitter or Facebook. Or, maybe we need to redefine success. Dalton Caldwell's vision is a service that earns revenue from its users, not because of them.

If the service manages to bring in the kind of people that originally drew me to Twitter, then it will be a success for me. I'll happily pay for such a thing.

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