Matt Kruse wants to improve your Facebook experience. He’s invested considerable time and energy to do so, creating a browser extension in his free time, outside his web development job, that allows Facebook users to customize the site’s interface and appearance. For his time, Kruse has received little in the way of compensation, but his extension, Social Fixer, has amassed between 500,000 and 1 million users, and built a Facebook page community with nearly 14,000 members and 338,050 likes.
Then, a few weeks ago, his community was gone. With no warning or explanation, Kruse’s Social Fixer page was deleted and his personal account blocked. After more than three weeks and a personal blog post on the matter that amassed over 100,000 views, Kruse still hasn’t heard from Facebook. He’s adamant he hasn’t violated Facebook’s terms of service, and while he’s not angry, he is disappointed. From his point of view, as a power user, all he wanted to do was help other power users.
This is not unprecedented. Kruse’s experience is simply part of a much larger, troubling trend for developers dealing with adolescent social networks. As these companies grow from their humble beginnings and altruistic mission statements into global behemoths with ticker symbols, many have no choice but to kick their most die-hard users to the curb in order to cater to the only ones who matter — the ones who engage with ads, who use the services as they were meant to be used.
“It’s discouraging, considering that I do this in my spare time,” Kruse told BuzzFeed. “I’m somebody who wants to optimize and tweak my life, and I want to give that option to other Facebook power users to allow them to enjoy their experience better. Now I’ll have to find other forums and write blog posts, and that’s not how I want to spend my time. It’s just a distraction from me building new things,” he said.
Facebook isn’t alone here. For years now, Twitter has continued to tighten its grip on its API, cutting out developers while building in-house products: Mobile apps, image hosts, and URL shorteners were once entirely supplied by third parties, most of whom were forced to move on.
Here’s a Quora thread from 2010, where one Twitter app developer, James Peter, laments Twitter’s terms of service developer crackdowns:
Overall it’s made it much harder for us to justify spending time working in Twitter’s ecosystem. If we felt we could trust Twitter to treat 3rd party companies fairly we would have become a much larger Twitter application shop and produced more commercial grade products. Personally I feel it’s why so many Twitter applications feel unpolished. It’s hard to justify spending hours on a product you know could be squashed out of the blue.
Twitter’s maturation came and went, and it’s hard to find people still angry about it; resignation, or begrudging understanding, are more common emotions. But currently, Tumblr developers are going through a similar experience. The company, from their perspective, is piggybacking on their work and then shutting them out. Last month, one user by the name of Unwrapping Tumblr noted that a design change to the avatar menu on Tumblr’s dashboard bore more than a casual resemblance to another third-party developer’s tool called Tumby: “You know, not to raise any concerns, but this looks an awful lot like what Tumby’s Chrome extension does.” To which another popular Tumblr user sarcastically replied, “Tumblr lifting features from a ‘browser hack’? No. Say it ain’t so! I don’t believe it!”
Tumby founder Robert Buckley notes that despite attempts, no substantive relationship has evolved between the two companies. “We never needed any technical help to build our stuff, so no harm there. On the other hand, Tumblr’s business side has been uninterested with what we’re doing. That’s surprising and disappointing,” he said. “Worse, they’ve either ignored or rebuffed our every attempt to reach out and establish a dialogue intended to explore and form the right kind of mutually beneficial relationship. We’ve acquired lots of valuable Tumblr domain expertise and insight that we want to and we’d be delighted to share — no takers at Tumblr. That indifference means missed opportunity that harms us and harms them.”
In fairness to the social networks, these companies are all well within their rights to remove unwanted pages or restrict developer access. In Facebook’s case, Kruse’s Social Fixer can modify Facebook so that users avoid seeing advertisements. Since Social Fixer is a browser extension and not a Facebook application, it doesn’t appear to violate the company’s terms of service, but it seems Facebook has chosen to make it harder for users to use a tool that actively skirts the company’s primary revenue model. Likewise, a company like Twitter has every right to restrict its API and has effectively turned the company into a formidable advertising machine by doing just that.
“I realize this is all business,” Kruse said. “I don’t think there’s anyone behind a desk saying, ‘I’m going to screw this guy over,’ and I assume these decisions are not personal. It’s part of the game, and I respect that.”
And yet none of that changes the fact that many developers have come to feel alienated by the products and companies they’ve invested serious time and money into. Apart from sometimes acting as an unofficial research-and-development department for the companies, oftentimes developers are also among the most ardent users and enthusiastic supporters of the platform. In a rather tragic turn of events, it’s often this group that is pushed aside as social networks age.
Talking to Kruse, it’s less a sense of frustration with the companies themselves and more of a feeling that the internet’s monetization structure makes it impossible for many social networks to remain cordial and open with developers. “All of this is really driven by people’s unwillingness to pay for services,” he notes.
“We’ve become this culture of tech companies catering to ads,” Kruse says, “and to do that the companies need more control. If tech companies had an alternative way to make money they would be more willing to cater to users. As a power user myself, I’d gladly give Facebook $100 a year. I’m willing, but not enough people are, so that’s what you get.”
It feels, in many respects, like the end of an era for a certain kind of developer, and the users they serve. Building out a successful platform — at least partially — on the backs of outside developers has been a hallmark of tech innovation for decades. But now there is little left for them to build on. Facebook is a powerful public company with an interest in keeping things proprietary, Twitter is weeks away from its stock market debut, and Tumblr has been swallowed up by Yahoo. Of the new breed of mega services out there, most are self-contained, focused apps. There’s no room in the Snapchats and WhatsApps of the world for a third party. A Snapchat app for power users is just Snapchat.
This might come as a relief to a particular type of developer, prone to guerrilla projects and unable to ignore solvable problems in the services they use every day — they’ll never be spurned again. But it’s also hard not to feel like something might be lost as this relationship changes. A degree of freedom, certainly, if not a more substantial shift in power.
“The outside people who are trying to optimize the experience, they are the ones that love your service and use it to its maximum potential,” Kruse argues. “In reality, they’re not going to lose out on any meaningful revenue from uses of my app out of billions of Facebook users, but that’s just the way things are now.”