Charging for Twitter’s API changes the nature of Twitter data from “igniter of value” to “end product”

Twitter has announced, on February 2nd, that it is ending free access to its application programming interface (API).

Twitter API is the mechanism that allows developers and researchers to build programmes that use Twitter as a source of data. Twitter data have flaws (as I discussed here and here, for instance). However, there is no denying that it is a valuable source of real-time as well as historical data. For instance, it is the base of USGS’s earthquake tracking account; it allows researchers to study the spread of information; and it allowed me to study the limitations of sentiment analysis’ tools (among other ongoing projects). 

Even though Musk mentioned a fee of $100 per month, the company has not yet confirmed how much it will be charging for access, or even whether there will be any exceptions (for instance, for first responders).

Regardless of whether the move aims to end malicious use of Twitter data by “bot scammers and opinion manipulators” as stated by Musk or is just another desperate attempt to raise funds (like the $8 for the blue tick), the consequence will be that many start-ups, activists, educators and researchers will either have to start paying for access to Twitter data or drop their projects if they can’t find a source of funding. 

By charging for access to the API, Twitter is treating its dataset as an end product, which is worth $100 dollars a month (or whatever other amount that they end up charging) to the company. A contrasting view is to treat its dataset as the raw material for new inventions, while treating the developers and researchers that use the datasets as partners – or free brainpower – to find new uses and new forms of value for the data.

Indeed, as Taina Bucher argued in the paper “Objects of Intense Feeling: The Case of the Twitter API”:

By providing an API, the company is able to harness the capacity of the field, of letting third-party developers come up with ideas that they would not have been able to. Commonly, APIs are described as gateways to the data trove of web companies. From the perspective of platform owners however, APIs constitute gateways to a yet to be actualized pool of imagination. In this sense, the work performed by the APIs is of rhetorical nature, asking developers to engage in practices of reimagination and anticipation.” (page 22).

I am (clearly) not a multimillionaire, but I do like to think about the long-term. And, in this case, I can’t help thinking: Wouldn’t it be better for Twitter, in the long-term, to “license” continued access to its datasets for commercial ventures, rather than curtail access to all for creative and research purposes? Who knows, they might even do the revolutionary thing, and start paying part of that revenue to the many users that create that huge asset – i.e., their database – for free!

2 thoughts on “Charging for Twitter’s API changes the nature of Twitter data from “igniter of value” to “end product”

  1. I guess Twitter is in a rather precarious situation right now. I’ve read some pieces about the company having to auction off office supplies and furniture after laying off swaths of employees.


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