is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Buzz Andersen has posted some really insightful comments on how the landscape is changing in the world of third-party Twitter apps. Quoting his partner in developing a Twitter app of their own, Andersen claims that “Twitter clients are going the way of email clients, ” i.e., becoming a commodity, and that the age of third-party innovation in this space is largely over.
For those who don’t monitor every pulse of the Twitter-scape, in recent months Twitter itself has made a marked change in strategy by investing considerable energy and care into updating its client applications (e.g., Twitter for iPhone and for iPad) and, very recently, its own Web site. For any other Web startup it would sound odd to say that these are surprising initiatives. However, in its short but rich history Twitter has become defined almost as much by third-party interfaces like Twitterific, Tweetdeck, Echofon, and others as it has by its own interfaces, so this activity is novel.
There’s No There There, and That’s Good
As Twitter the company has matured into a more focused enterprise, that was a situation that the company clearly regarded as potentially dangerous. Their attempts to rectify it have caused ripples of concern in the community of impassioned developers and users who have helped to build Twitter into such a success over the years, potentially (but not conclusively) dampening any further enthusiasm to create new forms of Twitter clients.
I think this is a tremendously interesting development to watch, mostly because I think Twitter is an amazing case study in an entirely new form of branding. Can you think of another brand that’s so thoroughly distributed and yet still so potent?
For many people, there’s no there there when it comes to Twitter; their experience is entirely based upon third-party applications. While I’m sure many people use Twitter.com and Twitter’s own apps to access the service, most of the people that I know don’t. And yet that has done nothing to diminish the Twitter brand; if anything it’s enhanced it, helped it evolve and take hold of the popular imagination in a way that would have been unlikely had the company gone it alone.
A Brand New Way
This is not the way brands traditionally develop. Usually, the critical factor for growing a new brand is a level of control; control over the product, control over the logo and typography and color, and control over the experience. Twitter is perhaps the most significant new media channel of the past five years and, for the most part, the traditional practices of branding have been largely irrelevant in its success. More to the point, the traditional practitioners of branding have been absent from this story; there’s no brand designer at the core of Twitter’s success, no ad agency or design studio or marketing genius there. The core of Twitter’s success is built on distributed, unmediated access and highly variable user experiences, things that are completely anathema to old fashioned branding.
So what happens now, when Twitter itself attempts to reformulate that equation by centralizing the brand? I honestly don’t know, but I think it will be very illuminating to watch. (And certainly incidents like today’s mouseover security flaw suggest it will be a rocky road.) Twitter’s challenge is to bring as many of its users as far back into the fold as it can. At the same time, they must recognize that continued third-party innovation is a must for their continued survival. Centralized control of the user experience and distributed and unmediated access are potentially opposing ideas, but they’re not necessarily irreconcilable.
Third-Parties as the Fifth Wheel
That said, maybe the saddest part for me is the idea that the age of Twitter apps may be coming to a close. Taken together, the many third-party clients that we’ve seen emerge in the market over the past several years represent a fascinating kind of debate about how to communicate in digital media. Each client presents a particular view on a new world, a kind of attitude in and of itself, whether it’s the comprehensive dashboard approach of Tweetdeck or the minimalism of Tweetie (now owned by Twitter).
If Twitter’s newfound assertiveness dampens enthusiasm in this arena (again, I’m not completely convinced that will be the case), then it will be a shame. I felt like the conversation was just starting. In my opinion, there remains a tremendous amount of potential in how we interface with the Twitter stream, lots of ideas yet to tap. In fact, I have an idea for a new kind of Twitter app myself. Let me know if you want to build it for me.+