There is a troubling new trend among social media platforms when it comes to APIs and it threatens how the modern internet works for ordinary everyday users.
If you’re not a programmer or developer, maybe scroll down whenever there’s an article about social media APIs. Perhaps you are not familiar with 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 that social media platform’s API. Do you use an app like Hootsuite to post your content on social platforms? This is only possible thanks to the API. Are you a livestreamer using 3rd party services like Streamlabs to announce new subscribers live on screen? It works thanks to APIs.
However, recent moves by Twitter and Reddit to charge developers tens of thousands to millions of dollars for API access can destroy that.
So why should you care about what’s going on with APIs right now? Well, since the very early days of social media, many platforms have provided developers with free access to their APIs. Some form of free API access has been around for as long as social media has existed. Friend I had(opens in a new tab) It. My space I had(opens in a new tab) It.
There has long been a sort of unwritten rule that users provide these social media platforms with data via their content and usage, the platforms use that data to monetize and to prove that the platform did not have ownership over that user data, Third-party independent developers and startups have been able to access that data freely to create cool and interesting apps that benefit both the platforms and its users.
Reddit’s new API price could kill its most popular app with a $20 million bill
Now, obviously in the interest of fair use and good faith, there were some caveats. These platforms needed to ensure that bad actors did not use the APIs to spam the platform or improperly access user data. And of course, if one of these third-party apps became successful and grew bigger than most, sometimes the platform required a fair payment to properly serve that app with wider access while still maintaining quality of service for all the others.
All in all, in an age where few social media platforms dominate the market, the system has worked quite well. Students, self-funded programmers, and independent developers were all able to take part in this tech ecosystem because everyone could afford to build on these already popular apps.
But then, earlier this year, Elon Musk decided to end free access to the Twitter API. It was a worrying development, but not entirely out of the ordinary. Outside of social media, some online platforms require a paid subscription for API access. Typically, these subscriptions start in the three-digit per month range, if not lower. The developers were shocked, however, when Twitter finally shared Musk’s payment expectations: API access would start at $42,000 a month. While attempts have been made to negotiate with Twitter, the company has refused to budge. Indie-created Twitter apps, many of which actually encouraged more use of the platform and helped provide a healthier, more positive experience on the site, were forced to shut down. (Months later, Twitter would roll out a $5,000 a month plan that still proved too expensive for most developers or too late for those who’ve already shut down their apps.)
Following Twitter’s lead, Reddit announced that it would also start charging for access to the API. Based on previous comments from the company, the devs thought the Reddit move was just to monetize uses that didn’t add to the Reddit experience. For example, companies that train AI language models often use datasets from social media platforms. The platform and its users see no benefit in this. In turn, those companies charge their users for access to AI trained from that data. It makes sense for a platform to charge those AI companies to access the APIs.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The creator of popular Reddit client Apollo shared the news earlier this week that Reddit’s paid API plans impact the app and will cost it $20 million a year, effectively putting Apollo out of action. This is an app that helps users to access Reddit in a simplified way which in turn leads them to use Reddit Moreover. Killing an app like this for potential short-term monetization gains doesn’t make sense.
Again, APIs help developers log in your data. However, social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit, which already use your data to monetize through advertisers, now want to charge exorbitant fees just for accessing your data.
What will be the next platform? There are relatively few major social media platforms to begin with. What happens when everyone wants to box you into using only their official apps to access your data? What happens to the tech industry when just a student developer can no longer afford to build apps and software?
If this trend continues, the internet will look like a very different place in a few years.
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