Twitter kills share counts, hands end of dirty stick to distributors

A couple of months ago, Twitter revealed that it was going to release new-look ‘tweet’ buttons. Nothing seismic about that, until you read the bit about it removing the number of shares from its buttons.

It described the move in typically obfuscated terms: “We are simplifying the Tweet button by removing the share counter alongside the button.”

Ah, but what if you don’t want it to be simplified? 

There is a solution. Twitter goes on to say that: “Full-archive search counts are available from Gnip.” That’s shorthand for “pay up, you swine” (Gnip is Twitter’s data business. It bought the company last year). 

How much does it cost? It won’t say. You need to contact Gnip to find out. 

One app developer did precisely that. Coverage Book’s Gary Preston came to the conclusion that he would be “forced to raise prices considerably” if he went down the Gnip route. 

“Since learning of this inevitable change we’ve been busy talking with Gnip (the only official commercial provider of Twitter data) and testing potential solutions using the various streams of data that are available for purchase. We’ve left no stone unturned. 

“Unfortunately none of the paid data streams provided by Gnip are a direct equivalent to the simple social share count that’s been in place up until now.”

So there is a solution, according to Twitter, but it isn’t a straightforward one and the prices are hidden. Awesome. 


Anyway, the decision to cleave the share count from the button isn’t entirely related to scraping the bucket for a few more dollars. No, there are also technical factors at play. 

Twitter explains: 

“The Tweet button has displayed share count over the last five years by querying a JSON endpoint hosted on various domains. These private JSON endpoints have been used by third-party developers over the years to retrieve a simple share count of any URL. These endpoints will be shut down next month when the Tweet button removes its share count feature. The Twitter REST API’s search endpoints are the best way to gather ad-hoc information about a URL shared on Twitter.”

Naughty developers, trying to get simple share counts on the cheap. 

Technicalities aside, this is a clear choice by the company, so let’s not be blinded by science. It decided to shut down the endpoints to prevent simple share counts. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’d like an exact share count. I just think Twitter should have been a lot more upfront about it, and provided a clear solution for a transparent fee. And besides, there’s not much wrong with simple counts, even if they aren’t 100% accurate. 

To be clear, I’m all for Twitter making a ton of money, it’s just that bothering the world’s beleaguered publishers and bloggers seems to be the wrong line of attack. 

Why? It’s not so much that they don’t have the funds, although I’d wager that the vast majority won’t be able to find the $300 minimum monthly fee that Gnip reportedly charges. Some say it costs considerably more.

I just think that most distributors will curse the decision, and then move on. I’d be amazed if more than 0.1% of the affected will bother to contact Gnip. 

So, all this move does is:

  1. Irritate publishers, bloggers and authors like me who use share counts as a lightweight performance metric
  2. Stick another two fingers up to developers, who are used to it by now
  3. Remove Twitter from being relevant, when it comes to social proof

The first two points are a slap in the face to those who helped put Twitter on the map. Most sites have a handful of buttons now, rather than the dozens you used to see back when social was taking off. Twitter has always been in the fortunate position to be one of the favoured few. It seemed like a symbiotic relationship, but clearly Twitter doesn’t see it that way.

The third point is such a biggie. If the world’s publishing sites remove the button then where does it leave Twitter? An irrelevancy? 

There is a common misconception with share buttons: that they’re used for sharing articles. Most of the time, they’re not used at all. 

The UK government’s digital team monitored sharing over a 10-week period, before commenting that: “It’s fair to say that introduction of sharing buttons on GOV.UK didn’t exactly set the world on fire.” It actually found that “way less than 1%” of visitors actually used them.

“During the time period we analysed, GOV.UK URLs were shared a total of 14,078 times to Facebook and Twitter using our sharing buttons – that’s 0.2% of the total of 6.8 million pageviews.”

So if they’re not used for active sharing – i.e. pressing the button to share the article – then what’s the point of having them on your page at all?

To me, the answer is obvious: it’s all about social proof. If a reader can see that this article is shared 500 times then it sends a message: ‘this article is worth sharing’. How it is subsequently shared isn’t what matters. It’s the mental trigger that counts, when it comes to share counts. I use Buffer. You may use something else. Most people won’t use the share button. The count is more important than the button itself.

Whether publishers or Twitter should pay for this is up for debate. I always felt that it was something of a quid pro quo arrangement, with both parties seeing some benefit. Twitter definitely doesn’t see it that way.

So, words fail me. It’s almost as if one of Twitter’s rivals has managed to infiltrate executive management, such is the brainlessness of this move. Charging the distribution network is surely biting the hand that feeds it (and it’s advertising business).

I should say that I’m a huge fan of Twitter. I want it to do well, to remain relevant, and to find some monetisation strategies that don’t perpetually irritate users or its distribution network. This just seems like a desperate move to me. 

What to do if you’re on the receiving end? Well, Buzzsumo has a Chrome extension that may help plug a gap, for now at least. There are also creative ways of using IFTTT with Twitter Search and Google Spreadsheets to retrieve search results to figure out approximate share counts. 

What do you think? Is this a sensible decision, or a stupid one? 

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