When Paul Haddad unfolded his laptop to start working after dinner on a Thursday evening in mid-January, he didn’t realize his life was about to be turned upside down. Haddad, the brainy cofounder of Tapbots, an award-winning software company that develops apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Mac, clacked away writing lines of code in the living room of his home in Flower Mound. A text message interrupted him. “I’m having problems logging in,” wrote Mark Jardine, Haddad’s mild-mannered business partner, referring to Tapbots’ flagship product, Tweetbot. As a third-party Twitter app, Tweetbot provided a more personalized and curated experience by allowing users to customize their timelines with robust filters and view their feeds in reverse chronological order.
Users were getting an error message when they opened the app, and they were unable to access Twitter. Haddad hoped it was just a temporary bug; sometimes these things happen. But he figured it wasn’t a mistake. After Elon Musk purchased Twitter for $44 billion in October 2022, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO began to reimagine the social media platform. Haddad and Jardine—and many in the vast developer ecosystem that contributed to the tech giant—knew their days were numbered.
On January 12, those fears were confirmed: Twitter revoked access for dozens of third-party apps and forced users to only interface directly with the social media platform via its website or the official Twitter app. The decision arrived without explanation, threatening the livelihoods of small, independent developers such as Haddad and Jardine overnight and marking an end of a DIY tech ecosystem outside of Silicon Valley. “There was definitely a lot of anxiety,” Haddad recounted recently. “Eventually, it kind of felt like a relief. We can get off the merry-go-round of what crazy thing Musk is going to do today.”
Haddad and Jardine’s origin story was a common one in the boom of app developers after Apple released the iPhone. They met in 2007 through their jobs as a web developer and designer, respectively, working for Oakley, the California-based sunglasses company. At the time Jardine lived in Irvine, California, while Haddad worked remotely in Flower Mound, an affluent Dallas–Fort Worth suburb. When Apple launched the App Store in 2008, Haddad recruited Jardine to collaborate on building a weight-tracking app. Jardine set out to make a simple product—its entire functionality was creating a graph of one’s weight over time—something people would take delight in using. Inspired by Pixar’s WALL-E, which had just been released in theaters, Jardine created a robot theme and named the app Weightbot. Jardine posted a demo video on Twitter and it spread, especially after a few blogs picked it up.
After the success of Weightbot, the two friends quit their jobs at Oakley in 2008 and officially started Tapbots, which launched the app Tweetbot on April 14, 2011. While other successful third-party clients existed, Haddad and Jardine both loved Twitter and wanted to build on it. “We were kind of doing it mostly just to see what we could come up with,” said Jardine, who relocated in 2020 to Allen, which is about a half-hour drive from Haddad. “We had no expectation that it would do so as well as it did at the time.”
The distinctive features of Tweetbot, known for its clean and inviting design, quickly made it one of the most popular third-party Twitter clients. The app had the capability of always remembering users’ last read location so they could continue reading from the same spot even if they opened the app on other devices; it had one of the smoothest scrolling experiences, compared to its competitors; and there were no ads in the timeline. It was initially offered as a onetime purchase in the App Store before Tapbots transitioned to a subscription model in 2021. The company has won more industry awards than Haddad and Jardine can keep track of. Jardine would not disclose how many active users Tweetbot had, but six million people installed the top five third-party Twitter clients—including Tweetbot—between January 2014 and July 2018, according to TechCrunch.
Third-party apps such as Tweetbot helped expand Twitter’s user base by making it more accessible and user-friendly to a wider audience, and previous ownership of the tech giant believed them useful to the company’s growth prospects. The word “twit” (later picked up as “tweet”) to refer to messages posted on the platform was introduced on a third-party app, as was the famous bird logo, which the company later adopted. So too were user-experience features like the pull-to-refresh gesture, which is now common across apps on the iOS and Android platforms. Amir Shevat, Twitter’s former head of product for the developer platform, who lives in Round Rock, was responsible for ensuring that the tools Twitter provided independent software developers using the platform met their needs. He said about 17 percent of engagement on Twitter, historically, was through third-party apps, which played a vital role in defining Twitter’s identity.
“Early users and early developers were joined in the service of cocreating what Twitter ultimately became,” said Chris Messina, the former developer experience lead at Uber who is best known for inventing the hashtag. “The irony is that for all the people who are using Tapbots’ products to publish to Twitter, now suddenly those people don’t have their tool of choice. So they’ll probably leave [the platform] as well,” Messina said. “[Twitter] cut off the liver and cut off all the downstream benefits of that.”
When Musk revoked access for third-party apps, Twitter said third-party clients such as Tweetbot were in violation of “long-standing API rules,” the set of guidelines that govern the usage of the tools app developers use to create third-party clients. Haddad reached out to Twitter for clarification. None came. A few days after Tweetbot and other third-party clients stopped working, Twitter retroactively updated its developer agreement with language that banned third-party clients. (When Texas Monthly reached out to Twitter via email for an interview on this story, Twitter replied with a poop emoji.) Experts speculate Musk killed third-party clients because they don’t contribute to ad revenue, which has declined as much as 89 percent since Musk purchased the company, according to Bloomberg.
Twitter’s decision to revoke Tweetbot’s access had immediate financial implications for the two indie developers. The app accounted for around 90 percent of Tapbots’ revenue, Haddad said. With three young children, Jardine quickly cut back his family’s expenses, including by canceling his son’s tennis lessons. He and his wife discussed selling one of their cars. Haddad, who has two children in college and another entering college in a few months, wondered how he would pay for all of it.
“It’s just a chickenshit maneuver on [Twitter’s] part,” said Craig Hockenberry, developer of third-party app Twitterific. “The thing that bothers me the most is just the lack of respect that they showed us and basically everybody else in the developer ecosystem.”
A couple of weeks after Tweetbot was kicked off Twitter, Tapbots released Ivory, its third-party client for Mastodon, a decentralized, difficult-to-use social media platform, which garnered a significant increase in users after Musk’s purchase of Twitter. Since no one single company can control the platform, anyone can create their own server and connect with other servers in the Mastodon network. This allows for more control over data privacy and content moderation. “When third-party apps like Tapbots thrive, we all thrive,” said Mastodon CEO Eugen Rochko in an email responding to written questions.
It’s extremely difficult to replace a social media network, Shevat said. “If you’re old enough to remember Myspace, it took a long time for Facebook to conquer that space.” However, the rise of Mastodon and other Twitter-like social networks—Bluesky, Post.news, Artifact, Substack Notes—signal that Twitter’s dominance is in decline, he observed.
Jardine said he has received positive feedback on the initial launch of Ivory, which he admits was released without all the features he wanted to include. Users being excited about his work is uplifting, he said. But that’s not what entirely motivates him. “Without [Ivory], we have no business,” Jardine said. “There’s a lot of pressure riding on it.”
Despite the pressure, Haddad seems to be thriving in this brave new world. “I’m not at the whims of a dictator anymore,” he said.