Why Twitter Turned Its Back On Instagram

It’s just one aspect of a giant data freeze that’s going to make our favorite apps and services less awesome. posted on

The fastest way to find who to follow on Instagram is to look up your friends on Facebook and Twitter. Except that Instagram can’t access your Twitter friends anymore — Twitter is now blocking Instagram from using its API. Which is terribly annoying on its own. But it’s part of a much bigger problem that goes far beyond being simply annoying.

We’re in the middle of a data embargo war, where the data we pour into services is increasingly siloed, so our experiences are less rich than they could be. I would love to see Facebook making my Google searches more relevant and Google making it easier to find amazing stuff on Twitter in real time. And yes, I’d sure like Twitter to help me find my friends on Instagram, too. That’s not going to happen, for a host of reasons.

Instagram is owned by Facebook now. And Facebook sorta kinda started this whole thing, when it blocked Twitter from accessing your Facebook friends way back in 2010, to keep Twitter’s hands off of its social graph. So now Twitter’s keeping Instagram’s — and by extension, Facebook’s — hands off of its interest graph.

This is where we should step back for one second: What the hell is a “social graph”? And what the balls is an “interest graph”? They’re the most valuable things that Facebook and Twitter own. It’s the sum of all of their data, the heart of what makes everything they’re doing work. For Facebook, the social graph is “the global mapping of everybody and how they’re related,” as CBS News put it. In other words, it’s a giant diagram of how everybody is connected, and knowing who you’re connected to — and who the people you’re connected to are connected to — is the engine that drives Facebook. (It’s also what Google and Microsoft are trying to bolt onto their search engines to make them better at finding stuff relevant to you, hence Google+ invading all of Google, but that’s another story.) Twitter’s interest graph is sort of similar as a concept, but it’s a map of stuff you’re interested in, based on who/what you’re following, and what they’re following in turn. Example: If I follow Sweetleaf Coffee on Twitter, then I’m probably interested in coffee in Long Island City or Brooklyn. (Facebook obviously has some sense of what people are interested in, just like Twitter has some sense of who people are connected to, but each company’s strength is in their social and interest graphs, respectively.)

A social graph of famous people, composed using data from Wikipedia hackdiary.com

If one company had access to both of sets of data — a map of who everybody is connected to, and all of the stuff everybody is interested in, they’d have a mighty powerful (and scary) set of data, useful for everything from recommending stuff I should or read (or do) to delivering incredibly targeted advertising. And that dataset would be even more valuable if only one company had the fullest access to both kinds of data.

So now Twitter and Facebook and Google are erecting walls around their highly valuable data sets. Also back in 2010, Google blocked Facebook’s access to users’ Gmail contacts. Google’s official reason is that it decided it would “no longer allow websites to automate the import of users’ Google Contacts (via our API) unless they allow similar export to other sites.” To get Google’s data, you’re going to have to reciprocate with your data. And Facebook had (and still has) no intention of doing that — it blocked a Chrome extension for importing Facebook contacts into Google+ last year since its social data was (and still would be) far more valuable to Google than Google’s Gmail data would be to Facebook.

The other thing in play with Twitter blocking access to Instagram is that it seems to have a far higher opinion of the value of its interest graph than it did even a couple of years ago — that its interest graph is just as valuable as Facebook’s social graph. To be precise, that it’s invaluable. Just read between the lines of Twitter’s official statement on the Instagram matter (which refers to its “follow” graph, which is an indirect way to look at its interest graph):

“We understand that there’s great value associated with Twitter’s follow graph data, and we can confirm that it is no longer available within Instagram.”

Last year, Twitter dropped its deal with Google to index tweets in real time, killing Google’s realtime search (which was supercool) — partly to keep Google from using Twitter’s data against it, and partly because I think Twitter realized its data was more valuable than whatever money Google was paying it. You can also see this in the evolution of Twitter from an API-oriented company — almost anybody can do cool stuff with our data! — to an advertising-supported media company — we’re not going to give our data away, and BTW we want to control every aspect of the Twitter experience. Sounds a lot like Facebook, no? When Twitter cut LinkedIn off from accessing tweets a month ago, head of product Michael Sippey warned at the same time ago that Twitter “will be introducing stricter guidelines around how the Twitter API is used.” So LinkedIn and Instagram are just the beginning, not just for Twitter, but for every social service.

It’s obvious that social services would work better together, at least for users. But their inability to share — ironic, huh — with each other means we’re all alone on that front. It may be that no man is an island. But every man’s social network will be.

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