While I tend to find some of the applications that people use Twitter for annoying as they serve the self-serving side of human nature, I am learning to appreciate their co-founder Ev Williams.
Why? Well, amidst the bluster of the Internet industry he is one of the few industry leaders who appears to be comfortable in his own skin and who comes off as genuine. That is saying something when most people in the Internet space have a snakeoil salesman like quality or they seem so uncomfortable doing what they do that it is painful to watch.
Not with Williams, at least not to me that is. Yesterday was further proof of that when he made an admission to interviewer John Batelle at the Web 2.0 Summit that many wouldn’t have the stones to admit (no, that is no reference whatsoever to Biz Stone so you can stop right there). He said about Twitter’s relationship with developers, as reported by GigaOM
Like a teenager apologizing to his parents for having a party and breaking the furniture, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Evan Williams admitted today that the company “screwed up” its relationship with third-party developers, and says that happened mostly because the startup didn’t originally plan to become a platform company. Now that it is actually trying to be a platform, Williams — who has taken over the company’s product development strategy — says that Twitter will continue to try and provide opportunities for developers, but isn’t ruling out moving into any current Twitter-related service or feature area, with the possible exception of gaming.
In other words, he said that the way Twitter has evolved has been a bit of a surprise and as a result some things happened that may have pissed off the development community. Mainly, Twitter is now developing its own version of certain functionality that was originally done by third parties and not Twitter itself.
What I appreciate is his ‘matter of fact’ handling of the situation. From an outsider’s point of view, I don’t think he needs to say any more than this and sincerely ‘apologizing’ to developers. The reality is that if Twitter didn’t exist, neither would this third party ecosystem. If these developers were so smart why do they need to find something to leech off of instead of doing their own thing? Anyone who ties their own ship to a platform they don’t own runs the risk of having this happen.
What I don’t understand is the whiny, entitlement attitude that most of these developer communities take on when there is a perceived sleight by the mother ship. Twitter owes the developer community nothing other than its sincere thanks for proving that the Twitter community desired certain functionality. As far as I can tell, Twitter was not built for developers, it was built for end users. And if the developers had the right approach they should have been thinking that their run was on a potentially short leash and they should make hay while the sun was shining. Williams said:
We launched Twitter sort of as a Model T — it was very basic, but was popular, and it got people excited, and a swarm of developers came in and made it better in the after-market, and that was great [because] it increased demand for the Model T and we could focus on increasing production… but gradually we realized that wasn’t really serving users as much as we should.
So Twitter will move on and continue to build native versions of the functionality that Twitter users want. That’s the smart thing to do. Companies in the Internet age exist for the same reason that they have since the dawn of time: to make money, to keep investors happy and to provide the best experience for their users so the company can continue to make money and keep investors happy. That’s it. Internet companies that find themselves beholden to every whim of their developer community are like traditional companies that are hamstrung by unions. It eventually limits the company’s ability to grow in some cases because the company has to spend more time pleasing the infrastructure and less time doing what it needs to do to make money. That’s a bad formula. To be sure he is not looking to jettison the developer community at all but it may look very different moving forward.
But the former CEO said that the company wants to ensure that the platform it is building also has plenty of opportunities for outside companies and startups. “We need to keep evolving Twitter, but we also need to keep providing new opportunities for developers,” he said.
So it truly is refreshing to see a guy like Ev Williams – who has already stepped aside as CEO and taken over the product again because it’s where his talents are best suited – to handle this in a grown up way. The Internet industry needs more of his attitude and I think it will move along not only faster but also in a better direction.