The Problem with Twitter’s User Cap

A Macworld article yesterday pointed out how Tapbots pulled their alpha of Tweetbot for Mac, because of worries about Twitter’s new user caps. Twitter is now limiting the number of users a third-party app can have. As Lex Friedman said in the Macworld article:

For existing apps, the limit is either 100,000 users or double their user counts as of August 16, whichever is greater; for new apps, the limit is 100,000 users.

There is a serious problem here, not only for the future of third-party apps, but also for users who purchase these apps. First, the fact that these “tokens” – when you allow an app to access your Twitter account, it uses a token – are limited means that users may come up against these limits in unexpected ways.

For example, imagine that I’ve bought a Twitter client – I have bought several, in fact, both for OS X and iOS. Today, I have one Twitter account, but I want to set up another. I may be able to do so on Twitter’s web site, but if my client no longer has any available tokens, then I won’t be able to add the account to that client.

Or imagine that a client is approaching the limit. I may be able to buy a copy of the client, but if I don’t set up my account with it quickly, there’s a chance that I won’t be able to use it. This leads to problems of refunds, and we know that refunds via the iTunes Store and Mac App Store are problematic.

Here’s another scenario. I’ve allowed several apps to access my Twitter account. Let’s assume that Twitter decides to revoke these accesses after a certain amount of time if they are not used. This could be a way to free up tokens for third-party apps. However, if my token is revoked, I may find that I can no longer use a specific app that I stopped using, if, after an update to the app, I decide to start using it again. (This assumes that the app in question has hit its limit.)

There actually is some logic to Twitter revoking access. Let’s say that you downloaded a demo of an app, granted it access, then decided you didn’t like it. If you didn’t revoke that access, then that’s a token that can’t be reclaimed. (By the way, it’s a good idea to revoke access to any apps that you don’t use; not just so the tokens are freed up, but for security reasons. Go to your Twitter Apps settings to do this.)

The reason for these caps is simply that Twitter wants to phase out third-party clients, yet it is likely that if they did so abruptly they would face legal action. This is a shame – and stupid – as third-party clients are part of what made Twitter as successful as it is. Creating these caps not only limits what developers can do, but also will limit what users can do with apps that they have paid for.

One final point. If I were a developer, I don’t think I would want to be working with a business plan that says, “If my app is really successful, I can no longer sell it.” In fact, this may be Twitter’s goal. By dissuading developers from creating third-party apps, they hope that these apps will simply disappear.