So long and fare thee well, sweet @PossumEveryHour.
Twitter announced Wednesday that it will shut off access to its free application programming interface and begin charging for third parties to retrieve and analyze public Twitter data—a tragedy that surely will diminish Twitter’s value to many people.
APIs provide a common language that lets programs talk to one another. On a platform like Twitter, it lets people send code to Twitter that tells it to post to an account, or asks it to respond with data. Tens of thousands of people—probably more—have used this access to build programmable bots and other applications that connect to the platform, helping to create some of the best and most positive elements of the frequently maligned site, as well as letting people pull data for research purposes.
Replacing the free access will be a “paid basic tier” which will likely be out of financial reach for the majority of users whose bots were hobbies or labors of love. This monetization of what had always before been free seems to fit with Musk’s intent to extract every possible dollar from users to help pay down the massive debt he incurred in buying the company.
The response to Twitter killing some of the most beloved content on the platform has been almost entirely negative—ironically, a trend that will be harder to analyze in the future now that the platform is making this change. But it’s not surprising; what else can you say about a decision that results in tweets like, “This change may mean the end of the Hug Fairy on Twitter,” and “This change will mean the end of HourlyPony as we know it.”
Along with the Hug Fairy and HourlyPony, it’s likely also the end of song lyric bots, book snippet bots, poetry bots, art bots, satellite imagery bots, bots that tell you how much of the year has passed, bots that remind you to take a drink of water, those that share daily screenshots from TV shows, and the many, many other bots that demonstrate the creativity a free API allows. But it’s also a lot more serious than that.
The decision will likely impact bots that assist disabled people using the platform; it will kick bots that share earthquake updates and polling data offline; it will hamper people’s ability to research Twitter trends and accounts; and it will affect tools that make it easier to leave Twitter for new platforms. It’s an open question whether researchers with “academic research access” to the Twitter API will continue to have it; researchers seem to think not.
All of this amounts to a forced exodus of some of the most interesting parts of Twitter, and with only a week’s notice to boot. Before Elon Musk took over the platform, Twitter began an effort to label the “good” bots, which made it easier to see what accounts were automated. But even after that, there’s no easy way of knowing how many accounts and how much content this change will impact. There’s also no way to know how much money this will bring the company—if any at all.
For every bot you’ve seen on Twitter, there are probably thousands that you’ve never come across, and even more people using the API for research and analysis purposes. After this shift, perhaps there will still be other ways to access this information or to create bots on Twitter for free. But overall, this decision marks a significant and disappointing shift for the platform. Instead of opening up the site to further interoperability, Musk is locking it down.
Abusive or “bad” bots will continue to exist, of course. Though Musk has spent a lot of time excoriating the bot problem on Twitter, the many beloved and useful accounts that use the API aren’t particularly relevant to that fight. The “spam bots” and other bad actors will likely continue to go around the API—because it’s not the goal of those accounts to play nice.
What we’ll be left with after Feb. 9 is a Twitter that’s less fun, less open, less interesting, and more expensive—but with just as many problems as before.
Until then, get your possums while you can.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.