Shuttering the API was the "Worst Thing We Did."

Jack Dorsey, Twitter, and the API platform lessons to be learned from nearly two decades of strategic pivots. (2006-2024) - ¡APIcryphal! 07

In this issue of "¡APIcryphal!" I will attempt my most ambitious historical retelling to date. I'll delve into the tumultuous saga of Twitter's API - a set of narratives with as many twists and turns as the 2000s technology landscape itself. From its open-door beginnings to the controversial restrictions that fueled developer discontent, the history of Twitter's API is a compelling study, and perhaps cautionary tale, of strategic pivots. 

Occasionally, moments emerge in daily business, changing the course of entire industries. The API landscape is a space as molded by legend as any other. While their accuracy to actual events remains debated, these tales remain the cornerstones of hallway tracks and executive talking points. These are API's apocryphal stories - the ¡APIcryphal!

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Since its inception, Twitter's API has been at the forefront of the developer community's consciousness. It serves as a litmus test for the evolving tension between open platforms to build upon and centralized business imperatives seeking to limit external options. The balancing act has mirrored broader industry trends and continues to influence the dialogue around the potential and pitfalls of API integration in business today.

The Twitter API and, by extension, Twitter's relationship with 3rd party developers can be broken into following five significant eras. 

Twitter's 'Open' API Accelerates Initial Growth (2006-2010)

Twitter itself began with a pivot. 

In the early aughts, podcasting was a phenomenon that attracted both listeners and tool builders. Apple, sensing an opportunity, added podcasting support to its iTunes application and, in the process, obsoleted a small startup named Odeo. Odeo's team, which included ex-Googlers Evan Williams, Biz Stone, and Jack Dorsey along with Noah Glass, launched Twitter in 2006 to little fanfare. Six months later, in September of that same year, Twitter launched its API in hopes of attracting additional interest. 

Twitter's presence at the 2007 SXSW (South by Southwest) conference was a pivotal moment that propelled the platform into mainstream developer popularity. Attendees, exposed to the service for the first time via large screens about the Austin Convention Center, used the service to coordinate meetups, share updates, and communicate with friends. Before the event, Twitter averaged around 20,000 tweets per day. During the conference, that number tripled. Media outlets like Wired and The Guardian declared Twitter the "winner" of SXSW.

The success would cement Twitter as a cornerstone of the Web 2.0 era. Its API became a necessity to prevent expensive scraping and encourage the development of third-party applications. While this first API was simplistic, requiring only basic authentication, for example, it was a hit among "social web" developers.

This period is marked by the rise of iconic third-party clients like Twitterific, which introduced the now-familiar bird icon and also the term "tweets". Tweetie innovated the "pull to refresh" convention. These third-party apps filled gaps in Twitter's functionality, offering features such as ad-free browsing, photo sharing, and URL shortening through services like TinyURL,, and TwitPic further enhanced the Twitter experience. Summize created the first full-text search engine for tweets, setting a precedent for future enhancements. 

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey served as the company's first CEO until 2008. Evan Williams, another of the co-founders, then led Twitter from 2008 to 2010. 

Twitter's growth strained the company and forced it to change. In 2010, Twitter ended basic authentication support in favor of OAuth, a move that tightened security but also increased control over how the APIs were used. Dubbed the "OAuthcalypse," the change was a harbinger of things to come.

Twitter's API Openness Becomes a Threat On The Way To IPO (2010-2014)

At the start of the 2010s, Twitter faced growing expectations to convert their growing popularity into financial success. During this era, their playbook increasingly resembled their 2008 acquisition of Summarize, which was renamed Twitter Search. Twitter purchased Tweetie in 2010, turning it into the official iPhone app, and later bought TweetDeck for $40 million in 2011. These acquisitions were part of a broader strategy to internalize successful third-party solutions that had filled gaps in Twitter's service offerings. This extended to applications for link shortening, which Twitter essentially made redundant with the introduction of its automatic URL shortener in June, 2011. New feature introduction extended the redundancy to other apps like TwitPic, yfrog, TweetPhoto,, TwitVid. However, nowhere was this change in strategy to integrate and centralize critical functionalities more visible than Twitter's 2012 response to tech entrepreneur Bill T. Gross. 

Gross founded TweetUp in 2008 to serve ads against Twitter timelines. After Twitter's protest, Gross changed the company's name - first to PostUp and then UberMedia. Along the way, UberMedia sought to buy the remaining third-party Twitter clients and monetize them through ads. Throughout the early 2010s, these purchases included Echofon, UberTwitter, and Twidroid (among others). In 2011, UberMedia clients were suspended for violating Twitter's API rules, although which rules or the best way of avoiding additional disruptions was not always made clear. 

Then, in 2012, Twitter proposed new API changes. The largest was imposing a 100,000 token limit on API clients - more than enough for single account usage, but effectively capping the number accounts that any one 3rd party client could support at an unprofitable number. These changes were accompanied by an official statement that "Twitter isn’t really interested in supporting services that compete with its own client apps," along with an infamous quadrant suggesting where external developer effort should (and should not) be focused

A quadrant, released in 2012, defining the different types of business uses for Twitter's API.

At Twitter's helm during this period was Dick Costolo. Costolo joined Twitter as COO and became CEO in 2010, with the responsibility of readying Twitter for IPO. A loss of control over Twitter's advertising environment, whether that was from Bill Gross and UberMedia or elsewhere, threatened this plan. The Twitter API v1.1, launched in September 2012, mitigated the threat from Gross and sent a clear message to the rest of the industry: Twitter would not support access for services that rivaled its own.

Twitter IPO'd in 2013. That same year, Business Insider referred to Costolo as "one of Silicon Valley's most impressive CEOs". 

This period underscored a significant transition from an open innovation platform to one guarded with a keen eye on revenue and strategic control. By many appearances, the strategy worked. In March 2014, Ellen DeGeneres' Oscar Selfie was not posted to Facebook and its billions of users, the trendy upstart Snap, or Yahoo's new $1.1 billion microblogging acquisition, Tumblr. Instead, Ellen DeGeneres uploaded the picture to Twitter, representing a high point in Twitter's cultural relevance. Twitter also used its newfound cash to continue its acquisitions, a month later purchasing Gnip, a data analytics company. The purchase further entrenched Twitter's data control capabilities.

While Twitter successfully fended off business threats and enjoyed its newfound business and cultural relevance, the changes during this era eroded external developer trust. The ramifications would last years. 

With Growth Stalled, Twitter Attempts to Recapture The Magic of Its Formative Years By Winning Back Skeptical Developers (2015-2019) 

Two years after the IPO, Twitter faced criticism from Wall Street. Sluggish user growth, a failure to appeal beyond its core audience, and a leaked memo expressing embarrassment that Twitter "sucked at dealing with abuse and trolls" drove Dick Costolo to resign on July 1st, 2015. In his place, the company's board appointed Jack Dorsey, Twitter's co-founder and former chief, as "interim chief executive". 

What followed is a complex and sometimes contradictory relationship between 3rd party developers over the Twitter API. Dorsey aimed to revitalize Twitter by re-engaging with developers and championing a more open platform. In October 2015, Dorsey kicked off Twitter's developer event with an apology for Twitter's past behavior: 

“Our relationship with developers got confusing, unpredictable. We want to come to you today and apologize for the confusion.” - Jack Dorsey 

However, developers greeted the sentiment with skepticism. Additional restrictive actions that did not help. The acquisition of live video-streaming service Periscope, a defensive action by Twitter following the rise of competitor Meerkat, highlighted this approach. Twitter not only bought Periscope but temporarily revoked Meerkat's access to its API, effectively stifling its growth in favor of its new asset. This year also saw Twitter ending its agreement with Datasift for access to Twitter's firehose data - a move that consolidated its control over data analytics but was criticized as "innovation-destroying" and indicative of a long history of decisions harmful to its ecosystem.

Twitter removed a useful JSON endpoint for tweet counts, limiting the data developers had relied on. Despite introducing user-friendly features like increasing the tweet length from 140 to 240 characters in 2017, the developer tools did not keep pace. By 2018, Twitter's development team openly acknowledged issues around API support. The older APIs, such as user and site streams, were stuck in beta for nearly a decade. This culminated in the hashtag movement "#breakingmytwitter", spotlighting how changes broke the functionality of popular third-party clients like Tweetbot and Twitterrific.

Furthermore, studying the influence of social networks was of increasing importance to academic researchers post Brexit and the US 2016 presidential elections. However, actions taken after the Cambridge Analytica scandal caused companies like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to significantly modify the way their developer programs worked. This included additional identification requirements and manual approval steps. The changes caused one researcher to declare a "Post-API" era of academic research.

Twitter's aspirations to return to growth with developer help were at odds with its defensive actions. But things were about to change for the better.   

Greater Access and Support Draws Developer Interest But Doesn't Convert to User Growth (2019-2022)

From 2019 through 2022, Twitter - under continued market pressure - introduced numerous features like Twitter Blue (subscription service), Twitter Spaces (live audio conversation feature), localized content, and better moderation to grow its user base. While accelerated account growth remained elusive, a greater commitment to seeing these features added to the APIs began to shift third-party sentiments. 

In June 2019, Twitter launched Developer Labs, a program that marked a significant step towards mending its previously strained relations with developers. This initiative was a comprehensive overhaul that addressed long standing criticisms by introducing more robust and flexible APIs. The intent was clear: to re-engage developers by providing them with tools aligned with modern app development needs. 

The launch of Twitter's Developer Labs coincided with Twitter's first profitable year. By this point,  more than 500 million tweets are sent each day.

An additional example of Twitter's more open, responsive approach to public's desire for access was the February 2021 release of the Academic Research Product Track. The effort provided academics with enhanced access to Twitter's data, facilitating research on critical issues like disinformation and the effectiveness of emergency responses. 

The culmination of these changes ultimately contributed to Jack Dorsey's comfort in turning over leadership to someone other than Twitter's founders. Parag Agrawal became CEO in 2021, seeking to sustain this era's momentum. That same November version two of the Twitter API left early access. 

Later that year, when Dorsey was asked what he thought about the Twitter API's restrictive era , he responded:

"Worst thing we did. I wasn't running company at the time. Company has worked hard and will continue to open back up completely."

However, this period of steady developer improvements and improved financial performance was about to take a sudden and dramatic turn.

Musk's Purchase Killed the Twitter Developer Program (2022-2024+)

In April of 2022, Elon Musk initiated his private acquisition of Twitter. After months of uncertainty, including a court case that wasn't, Musk completed his purchase that October for $44 billion. Most of Twitter's previous leadership was either fired or left shortly after that. 

The change in leadership coincided with several changes to Twitter's API terms and conditions. By January 2023, Iconfactory discontinued Twitterific, Fenix was pulled from app stores, and Tapbots posted a memorial for Tweetbot after Twitter cut off their API access. Twitter strengthened its API's terms of service to justify ending access to certain applications

In March of 2023, Twitter announced new API tiers starting at $500k annually for access to 0.3 percent of the company's tweets. The decision was because, as Musk stated, the "free API is being abused right now by bot scammers and opinion manipulators." The new pricing tiers further irritated developers and drove the remaining apps out of business. I provide comprehensive coverage of the API pricing aftermath in Net API Notes, #209: Twitter, or How to Kill an API Developer Ecosystem.


Few public API developer platforms are as high-profile or as long-lasting as Twitter's. That longevity and degree of public discourse provide a wealth of insight for one's API efforts. Interpreting Twitter's on-again, off-again relationship with its external developers requires understanding the balance between business objectives and fostering a developer ecosystem.

A quippy, even shallow, oversimplification is that what happened on Twitter's journey is the inevitable destination for any platform. Coined by author and activist Cory Doctorow, "enshittification" assumes that the end-state of any user critical mass is an eventual extraction that exceeds the platform's usefulness. While the simplicity of that answer may be comforting, it doesn't make it true

In his book Platform Ecosystems: Aligning Architecture, Governance, and Strategy, Amrit Tiwana highlights the tension between innovation growth and platform control. These goals are often in conflict with each other. What's more, API leads and product managers should recognize that market conditions, competitive pressures, and internal business needs change the fulcrum a platform balances upon. As Amrit describes, a healthy platform strategy does not exist within an "open" or "closed" binary but along a continuously evolving spectrum - something demonstrated - with various degrees of effectiveness - by Twitter throughout its lifetime. 


This relationship between Twitter's business objectives and the developer ecosystem highlights several key aspects of how tech companies should approach their external API programs:

  • Provide Transparency and Communication: The goal is not to remain static. Rather, accept that change is inevitable and to provide frank communication well in advance when it happens. One of the recurring themes in Twitter's history with developers is the impact of sudden changes or perceived reversals in API policy. Clear, timely information about changes, along with the rationale behind them, helps maintain trust. It is also crucial to actively listen to and address the concerns of the developer community.
  • Be Strategically Flexible: Twitter's various pivots highlight the necessity for strategic flexibility. Product managers and API leads should be prepared to pivot or iterate their strategies in response to external threats or opportunities. Ultimately, the API program is in service to the business. However, these shifts should be managed carefully to avoid alienating users and developers who depend on the platform's stability.
  • Understand and Monitor API Threats: A tremendous amount of information exists about API security and malicious actors. Competitive threats are less often thought about, but just as big of a concern. In Twitter's case, this was exemplified by Bill Gross's attempts to consolidate Twitter clients. API leaders need to be on the lookout for critical dependencies and exploitation by third-party entities - that is as conducive to a healthy, productive ecosystem as growing the number of integrations.
  • Consider Ethical and Community Impact: Twitter's handling of API access, particularly regarding data usage in light of the Cambridge-Analytica fallout, highlights the broader ethical considerations and the potential impacts of API access on society. Those offering APIs should consider the ethical implications of their decisions, mainly how the data provided may be misused
  • Invest in Developer Success: Simply providing API access and perhaps some documentation is insufficient to create a healthy and robust developer ecosystem. As Twitter’s Developer Labs initiative suggests, robust tools, comprehensive support, and growth opportunities for developers enhance the platform’s value and drive mutual success if they are funded at adequate levels for a sustained period. 


As clear from the numerous strategic shifts, Twitter has never been a decentralized platform. Twitter centralized functionality or restricted API terms when threatened to preserve its business interests. The same could be said for recent Reddit or Google Maps API program changes. However, as Dorsey led the charge to "reopen" Twitter to 3rd party development, he spoke openly of an alternative path Twitter could have taken:

"twitter (sic) was so open early on that many saw its potential to be a decentralized internet standard, like SMTP (email protocol). For a variety of reasons, all reasonable at the time, we took a different path and increasingly centralized Twitter. But a lot’s changed over the years…"

While Dorsey was still CEO, he funded the team that would become Bluesky. Bluesky was intended to develop an open, decentralized protocol for social media, with "the goal being for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard."  

ActivityPub, a competing protocol that underpins decentralized social networks such as Mastodon and adopted by Threads (among others), represents a similar foundational shift. 

A protocol-driven approach separates the service layer from the data layer. In this model, independent services can interoperate through common standards without a centralized authority dictating the rules or monopolizing the data. With ActivityPub, this ecosystem of independent but interoperable services via a common protocol is referred to as the Fediverse

The shift from a platform-centric to a protocol-driven model poses several challenges, including economic viability, user adoption, and greater technical complexity. However, adopting either Bluesky or ActivityPub protocols offers a compelling alternative to the kind of disruptive pivots demonstrated by Twitter. Open protocols also more closely aligns with early internet philosophy of open, decentralized systems. This collection of interoperable networks governed by protocols remains a work in progress. 


Overstating Twitter's importance in API's formative development is hard. Twitter remains the source of countless tutorials. A search for "Twitter API tutorial" returns more than 46,600 Google results; compare that to 3120 results for "Stripe API tutorial", 1930 for "Sendgrid API tutorial",  and 1180 results for "Twilio API tutorial". Similarly, searching Github for "twitter api" returns more than 23,500 results, a far cry from 4,200 for "twilio api" or 4,600 for "stripe api". 

Numerous sites still display "Share on Twitter" functionality, channeling attention and content to a private company. The inertia, initially built in good faith, provides tacit approval to a company that no longer performs the same role in the larger culture. 

Elon Musk was outraged in April of 2023 that Microsoft refused to pay for Twitter's API. Shortly after that, Twitter launched a new $5000 per month API tier for startups to a mostly indifferent response. Even for developers paying the newly established and exorbitant prices, Twitter's API kept breaking

Musk renamed Twitter to X in mid-2023, destroying billions in brand value. Likewise, Fidelity marked down its value of Twitter/X by 65% over reports that usage had dropped 30%. Other measures of activity paint a similar story. However, given the initial headstart and decades of inertia, Twitter/X might continue to coast for some time, fulfilling the place in the technology zeitgeist once occupied by Yahoo!

Once a proponent of the acquisition, Jack Dorsey later criticized Musk, stating that Musk was not the best possible steward for the platform. The statement coincided with Dorsey's beta launch of Bluesky, a Twitter-like competitor.

In addition to Bluesky, Jack Dorsey remains the principal executive officer of Block, Inc., the Square financial services platform developer. He has also financially supported the development of the Nostr social networking protocol (re: Dorsey and Bluesky, see the update, below). 

In March 2024, several former Twitter executives - including Parag Agrawal - sued Elon Musk to recover more than $128 million in unpaid severance

The ¡APIcryphal! story of Twitter's API is a multi-decade saga rife with insights about innovation and control. It is an illustrative microcosm of technology's delicate balance between doing what's best for the business and growing an ecosystem beyond one's walled garden. Twitter's pivots, from open beginnings to its defensive phase (and back again), hint that success is as much about managing change as it is about creating it - a cautionary observation API leaders should heed while building the next great API platform.

A 2023 promotional email sent to registered users of the Twitter developer platform after new API prices increases were announced.

Update: 2024/04/26

A LinkedIn comment immediately after this article's release is worth mentioning. While I characterized GNIP and Datasift as analytics companies, they were technically "value-added distributors". They syndicated data to others that, subsequently, then might do analytics. Further, Datasift’s usage ran afoul of Twitter's allowed use cases before the GNIP acquisition.

Today I learned.

Update: 2024/05/06 (Dorsey and Bluesky)

Over the past weekend, Jack Dorsey referred to Twitter as "freedom technology" in an X thread. Dorsey then deleted his Bluesky account and revealed that he is no longer on Bluesky's board of directors.

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