Opinion - (Twitter's) APIs Should be Free

February 6, 2023

I had mixed emotions when I read that Elon's Twitter is shutting down free access to its API.

On one hand, as a business minded person, I understand the value of the twitter stream and how syphoning it off brings little value to a Twitter shareholder. All of that research analyzing what people are saying is valuable to the company selling their own analyzing solutions, but not so much to Twitter. Or consider all of those social media software companies posting content through the Twitter API and charging their user's a SaaS monthly fee. How does that benefit Twitter?

You could argue that free access to the twitter feed does benefit Twitter as it keeps it relevant and attached to a greater ecosystem, albeit, an ecosystem with Twitter at the centre of it.

I do see that there needs to be a trade-off in terms of cost for value and thus understand how a modest cost for that value could be fair. Much like my and your data is "valuable" to AI companies ingesting it and putting us into buckets for later monetization to advertising, consumer-brand, and political organizations; that currently free data should be paid for somehow.

But, killing an API has severe negative repercussions that is unheard of today.

If Salesforce ushered us into the age of "Software eating the world" back in the early 00's, today we have been in the age of "APIs rule the plumbing of the Internet". Look around, every major modern (and not so modern) software company has a public API. National, State/Provincial, and even municipal governments even have open API and data-sets.

If you are a software company, there are many benefits to having a public, well documented, free API for your software. In an age where anything can be built, the only constraint is your time and resources. APIs allow your customers and partners to extend the functionality of your software and add value that you do not have time/resources for. That eventually makes your solution more useful, expands your audience and may even show you where to focus new product feature efforts. It is a Win/Win/Win with no negative effects (except some resources maintaining your API ecosystem).

Twitter, under Jack, seemed to understand its significance in the modern culture and the technology ecosystem and the importance of its API. In May 2021 they acquired Amir Shevat's startup, Reshuffle, to focus on a "V2" of the Twitter API, which launched in November 2021. But within 12 months of that launch, that team was fired in the middle of the night and their plans for a newer API thrown out and forgotten.

Paying for an API sets a dangerous precedence.

Software companies that charge their partners for access to their APIs are left growing slower than those with free public APIs. Business is all about growth of your addressable market and that main limitation is the company's own resources. Basically, it pays to have friends (ie. partners pushing your brand and solution with their own solution integrated through your API).

Social media companies need to think carefully about charging for their APIs. Their entire reason for being successful depends on the number of eye-balls on their feeds and APIs expand that audience greatly as it allows third-parties to help them expand their own reach. Why build an island around yourself and cut off those bridges? Frankly, that smells of desperation.