This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2014-12-03 at 9:13 a.m.
The permanent URL for this article is: http://tidbits.com/article/15266
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Thwarting Twitter’s Upcoming Data Collection

by Josh Centers

One factor in Twitter’s success was the service’s early support for third-party clients. One app that particularly shaped the course of Twitter was Twitterrific [1] for the Mac and iPhone. It was the first client [2] to use the term “tweet,” the first to use a bird icon, and the first to support replies and conversations. Without Twitterrific, Twitter arguably wouldn’t be the service it is today.

Unfortunately, Twitterrific’s future on the Mac is shaky. While the iOS version keeps trucking along, Twitterrific for the Mac hasn’t been updated in a year, with a promised version 5 in limbo. While the more popular iOS app remains on the cutting edge, its Mac counterpart feels like a museum piece.

Mike Beasley of 9to5 Mac [3] talked with Gedeon Maheux of The Iconfactory, developers of Twitterrific, to find out what the holdup is. While Apple’s transition to the iOS 7 design language derailed the Mac overhaul, the main reason for the long delay is Twitter’s now-strict limitations on client developers, which makes investment in an updated Mac client a risky business proposition.

Version 1.1. of the Twitter API [4], announced on 16 August 2012, placed severe limits on user tokens for Twitter clients: 100,000 for new apps, and older apps with more than 100,000 users were allowed twice their existing number of users in tokens. In simple terms, one token is required for each user, so limiting the number of tokens allotted to an app limits the number of users who can use that app. Twitter mentioned that it might allow more tokens for certain developers but has so far denied extra tokens for any apps that compete with its official clients.

This is especially frustrating since Twitter doesn’t pay a lot of attention to its own apps. For example, Twitter’s official Mac app [5] can’t even edit lists or sync timeline positions with its iOS sibling.

It was originally theorized that Twitter was shutting out third-party developers because it wanted to ensure that users were viewing its ads. That never quite made sense to me, since Twitter could have simply required developers to include ads in their clients instead of introducing draconian user limits.

With Twitter’s recent announcement of App Graph [6], another explanation for the company’s desire to dominate the user experience has appeared: the next version of the Twitter iOS app will try to collect personal information from your devices. App Graph will use the official Twitter app to gather the list of apps installed on your iOS devices and send that list back to Twitter. (It seems to do this by scanning a list of x-callback-urls [7] — a method of inter-app communications developed before iOS 8’s Extensibility functions.)

Fortunately, it won’t gather any information from the apps themselves, and the “feature” will be easy to disable. The Twitter app respects the Limit Ad Tracking setting in Settings > Privacy > Advertising, and will not gather app information if that setting is enabled.

You will also be able to disable App Graph inside the Twitter app itself once this next version ships:

  1. Tap the Me tab.
  2. Tap the gear icon.
  3. Tap Settings.
  4. Select an account.
  5. Under Privacy, disable “Tailor Twitter based on my apps.”

Of course, you could instead uninstall the Twitter app and use an alternative, but who knows how long that will be an option.

It’s good that Twitter is letting users opt out of App Graph, but I suspect this is just the beginning of Twitter’s data-gathering efforts. I doubt Twitter would have done so much to anger developers without a strong business reason, so it’s unlikely that the company will stop with the relatively polite App Graph.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, since gathering personal information seems to be the bread-and-butter business model of social networks. But it doesn’t seem like Twitter is thinking long-term here. Third-party developers have continually advanced Twitter’s service, and one of the draws of Twitter has been as a sort of anti-Facebook. I’m unconvinced that trying to become more like Facebook will provide the effect Twitter wants.

Twitter, of course, needs to generate revenue to stay in business, and I have no problem with that. After all, I want the service to stay around. But I also want to be able to use my own choice of client. I find Twitter’s official offerings to be mediocre, and Twitter was incomprehensible to me until I discovered the Tweetbot [8] apps. Without them, I might use Twitter significantly less.

Then again, maybe I’m not the sort of user Twitter is seeking.

[1]: http://twitterrific.com/ios
[2]: http://furbo.org/2011/03/11/twitterrific-firsts/
[3]: http://9to5mac.com/2014/11/25/twitterrific-5-twitters-war-on-developers/
[4]: https://blog.twitter.com/2012/changes-coming-to-twitter-api
[5]: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/twitter/id409789998?mt=12&at=10l5PW
[6]: https://support.twitter.com/articles/20172069
[7]: https://gist.github.com/genadyo/295a5e8f0d743f57137f
[8]: http://tapbots.com/software/tweetbot/