How Tweetbot died (and lived again)

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I had a dead body on my phone and I kept checking. Since January 12, my favorite iOS Twitter app had been locked in a freeze, frozen on an error modal informing me that “there was a problem authenticating with Twitter,” and wow, was there ever. Without any notice, Twitter had revoked the master access credentials for Tweetbot and any other third-party client not controlled by Twitter itself.

Unlike many decisions made during Twitter’s “vox populi” Roman cosplay era, there had never been a poll on this one. Elon Musk had never appeared deep in a conversation with Kevin Sorbo and a Spartan avatar burner account to say, “Yes, third-party apps should go away.” Instead, Twitter took several days to communicate with its users or commercial partners and finally admit that the move was intentional release an official “your mistake” style tweet explaining gnomically that “Twitter is enforcing its longstanding API rules.”

All the while I kept reopening this dead app on my phone, browsing pure muscle memory

All the while I kept reopening this dead app on my phone, browsing pure muscle memory to the same error popup about the last post my timeline saw: a frozen Lord of the Rings GIF of King Théoden mocking: “You have no power here.” This app had been one of my main ways to access Twitter for over a decade, so I was used to feeling powerless. But this repeated ghost-swiping felt like a new low.

“You’re certainly not alone,” Paul Haddad reassured me, and I believed him because he co-developed Tweetbot. “I know a lot of people who have had to remove it to avoid that.”

This rictus state of pure interface had no other true output. Yes, if I poked around a bit, I could use Tweetbot’s error logs just enough to scroll through the part of the timeline it loaded into memory just before the end. But the only reward out there was being able to use Tweetbot’s refined tweet reading experience to review posts endlessly starting January 12. The pleasant haptic shock I got when I preferred a mutual January 12 announcement that they were “built like a worm” was a lie; it was never registered. Without any ability to re-authenticate with Twitter, Tweetbot’s interface was all it had left.

This entire context, from Tweetbot’s error message to the short-term memory of cached content, was designed to be ephemeral, just something you’d see if your signal drops or Twitter itself goes down.

“We’ve certainly had glitches in the past, all through the Fail Whale era,” Haddad said. “We definitely didn’t think it would end like this.”

Nobody does a product design sprint about how their app should behave if it unexpectedly no longer exists.

Nobody does a product design sprint about how their app should behave if it unexpectedly no longer exists

Haddad’s three-person company, Tapbots, handled all this with as gracefulness as one would expect from someone handling an outright assault on their livelihood. About ten days after the app was pulled the plug, the team issued a solid elegy for their creation, without shying away from saying that they “invested over 10 years building Tweetbot for Twitter and it was discontinued in a heartbeat.” Tapbots’ tribute echoed the sentiments of its heartbroken superusers, who would have gladly paid a few bucks a year for access to its artisanal iconography and expertly rounded corners. (“One of the very best apps I’ve ever usedpraised Apple ultrablogger John Gruber. Like many other Twitter members disappointed by the company’s mercurial policymaking and ego-driven roadmap, Tapbots surveyed the wreckage and chose to migrate. With a stark but dignified paragraph- At the end, Tapbots announced a new focus for the company: Ivory, a young Mastodon customer that built on everything it learned from creating Tweetbot and much of its code.

As a longtime Mastodon account holder who nevertheless still feels like a rookie on the platform, I’m glad to see Tapbots take his talents to the Fediverse’s loosely conflated scatter of social islands. The experience of joining Mastodon really depends on which server you start on – the specific people you associate with Twitter are already scattered, if they’re here at all. A tool like Fedi Finder or Defowl will provide a neat payload that you can use to track individuals in bulk where they landed, but they can also be spread across two dozen servers. Part of Twitter’s double helix of horror and intrigue was that everyone was swimming in the same pool – you and your weird friends and Russian disinfo forces and Shaq. On Mastodon, each server has its own culture and you can only join one server per account, so it’s a bit like everyone is playing in a slightly different room. When I first installed Ivory, I felt some hope that a little familiarity could go a long way.

Now that I’ve been using Ivory for several months I can say that while Mastodon isn’t much like Twitter, Ivory at least feels like Tweetbot, and that’s been enough to give the whole experience a reassuring sheen that in turn has helped me to embrace Mastodon. I asked Haddad if this was intentional. “That has been one of our goals,” he told me, “to make it as easy and transparent as possible. Obviously Twitter and Mastodon are two different things, but to be honest I love Twitter.” He paused to correct himself. “Well I Liked it Twitter.”

“Obviously Twitter and Mastodon are two different things, but to be honest, I love Twitter… Well, I Liked it Twitter.”

This wasn’t just a comment about regime change. Haddad capitalized on how Twitter used to do feelingespecially in its earlier pre-algorithmic feeding days. “A simple social network where people post and interact with each other. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it then, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it now, and if we can provide that experience I’m more than happy to do it,” he said. Focusing on a classic Twitter flavor does require some sacrifices at this early stage – for example, Ivory doesn’t let you mess around too much with Mastodon’s decentralized nuances; you can’t use it to explore servers you’re not a member of or browse the social charts of interesting people in other communities. The most prominent view Ivory offers is a simple timeline of the accounts you’ve specifically followed. You can also browse the local server you’re a member of or branch out to a broader and more chaotic Federated feed, all with the same smooth scrolling action as Tweetbot because (as Haddad confirmed) it’s literally the same scroll handling function Ivory, at least in this baby form, puts you at ease by shrinking Mastodon’s multidimensional possibility space into simple 2D feeds that fit into an established frame to fit.

Tapbots makes what I’d call “quirky software,” which is a tricky phrase to throw around because it can be complementary or obsolete depending on the context. But the idea is that simply dumping every possible feature of a Twitter or Mastodon at a user’s feet like a bucket of Legos doesn’t really help them use it successfully. “One thing I don’t like doing, and it’s hard to get rid of, is having a million settings in the app,” Haddad said, confidently accepting my quirky software label. “We do our very best to keep the number of settings down to minimize it to only the things that really matter, and then let things work as automatically as possible.”

This kind of taste-driven dance direction can help visualize the ideal shape of a platform as it evolves

Tweetbot rose to prominence for having opinions on the best way to respond to tweets (with a friendly but deliberate swipe) or boost them (tap once to display likes and retweets, again a subtle nudge to reconsider). These learned behaviors aren’t necessarily obvious at first, even if they eventually become second nature enough to introduce the kind of coercion that inspired this piece – and Tweetbot’s orientation towards multitouch virtuosos has probably left some growth on the table. Tapbots have also made some solid changes to the Twitter experience. For example, you had to swipe on a tweet to see its stats, exactly the kind of decision you’d never see in an official Twitter app optimized for an endless flywheel of engagement. Deployed skillfully, this kind of taste-driven dance lead can help bring into focus the ideal shape of a platform as it evolves, and Mastodon’s still-rippling primordial soup will benefit.

When I talked to Haddad, I didn’t feel like I was talking to someone who was still grieving. He and Tapbots have accepted the casual destruction of ten years of work and salvaged the best parts for a new chapter for the company.

“Now that we’re out of it, it’s kind of interesting not having to worry about the Twitter stuff anymore,” Haddad said. “I’m just chilling and see what the latest bullshit is.”

I asked Haddad if he still had Tweetbot on are phone, and if so, what tweet it was stuck on after the extinction.

“Let me see,” he said, swiping a little and frowning at his screen. “Maybe I erased it,” he ventured cautiously. He swiped some more. “No, I didn’t delete it… Oh.”

“The very last tweet, believe it or not… Elon Musk.” He sent me a screenshot.

The last tweet visible on Tweetbot on Paul Haddad’s phone.

“Instagram makes people depressed and Twitter makes people angry,” Musk said musedminutes before Haddad’s own message about Tweetbot being silent for the last time. Twitter’s main rake stepper ended his tweet by asking, “Which is better?”

For Tapbots, it’s obviously Mastodon, where it can build its product its way again – reminding Elon Musk: You have no power here.