There’s a worrying new trend in social media platforms when it comes to APIs, and it’s threatening how the modern internet works for ordinary, everyday users.
If you’re not a programmer or developer, maybe keep scrolling if there’s an article about social media APIs. Maybe you don’t know what they are. API stands for Application Programming Interface. Basically, they allow one application to access information and communicate with another application.
If you’ve ever used an unofficial third-party client, such as Apollo for Reddit or Twitterrific for Twitter, you’ve used an app that couldn’t exist without this social media platform’s API. Do you use an app like Hootsuite to publish your content to social platforms? This is only possible thanks to APIs. As a live streamer, do you use third-party services like Streamlabs to announce new subscribers live on screen? This works thanks to APIs.
However, recent moves by Twitter and Reddit to charge developers tens of thousands to millions of dollars for API access may destroy all of this.
So why should you care what’s going on with APIs right now? Well, since the dawn of social media, many platforms have provided developers with free access to their APIs. Some form of free API access has existed for as long as social media has existed. friendster had(opens in a new tab) It. My place had(opens in a new tab) It.
There has long been something of an unwritten rule that users provide these social media platforms with data about their content and usage, the platforms use this data to make money and to show that the platform has no ownership of Such third-party user data allowed indie developers and startups to freely access this data to create cool and interesting apps to benefit the platforms and their users.
Reddit’s new API pricing could bring its most popular app to a halt with a $20 million bill
Obviously, in the interests of fair use and good faith, there were some caveats. These platforms needed to ensure that malicious actors weren’t using APIs to spam the platform or illegitimately access user data. And of course, when one of these third-party apps was successful and grew bigger than most, the platform sometimes demanded a reasonable payment in order to properly deploy that app with broader access while maintaining the quality of service for everyone else.
All in all, the system worked quite well at a time when a few social media platforms were dominating the market. Students, self-funded programmers, and indie developers alike were able to participate in this tech ecosystem because they could all afford to build on top of these already popular apps.
But then Elon Musk decided earlier this year to end Twitter’s free API access. It was a worrying development, but not entirely unusual. Outside of social media, some online platforms require a paid subscription for API access. Typically, these subscriptions start in the hundreds of months, if not less. However, developers were shocked when Twitter finally revealed Musk’s payment expectations: API access would start at $42,000 per month. While attempts were made to negotiate with Twitter, the company refused to budge. Indie-based Twitter apps, many of which actually encouraged greater use of the platform and contributed to a healthier, more positive experience on the site, had to be shut down. (Months later, Twitter rolled out a $5,000-a-month plan that proved either still too expensive for most developers, or too late for those who had already shut down their apps.)
Reddit followed Twitter’s lead and announced it would also charge for API access. Based on previous company comments, developers assumed Reddit’s move was simply aimed at monetizing usages that didn’t improve the Reddit experience. For example, companies that train AI language models often use large amounts of data from social media platforms. The platform and its users see no benefit in this. In return, these companies require their own users to access the AI trained on this data. It makes sense for a platform to charge these AI companies for API access.
Unfortunately this is not the case. The creator of popular Reddit client Apollo shared the news earlier this week that Reddit’s paid API plans would impact the app and cost him $20 million a year, effectively putting Apollo out of business. This is an app that makes it easy for users to access Reddit easily, which in turn leads them to use Reddit more. It just doesn’t make sense to scrap such an app for potential short-term monetization gains.
Again, APIs make it easier for developers to access your Data. But the social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit, which already use your data to monetize via advertisers, now want to charge exorbitant fees just for access your Data.
Which platform is next? First of all, there are relatively few major social media platforms. What if you want to force everyone to only use their official apps to access your own data? What happens to the technology industry when just a student developer can no longer afford to develop apps and software?
If this trend continues, in a few years the internet will be a very different place.