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We Are All Using APIs

When I talk to ordinary people about what I do as the API Evangelist, they tend to think APIs don’t have much of anything to do with their world. APIs exist in a realm of startups, technology, and make believe that doesn’t have much to do with their ordinary lives. When trying to make the connection with folks on airplanes, in the hotel lobby, and at the coffee shop, I always resort to the most common API-driven thing in all of our lives–the smart phone. Pulling out my iPhone is the quickest way I can go from zero to API understanding, with almost anyone.

When people ask what an API is, or how it has anything to do with them, I always pull out my iPhone, and say that all of the applications on the home page of your mobile phone use APIs to communicate. When you post something to your Facebook wall, you are using the Facebook API. When you publish an image to Instagram, you are using the Instagram API. When you check the balance on your bank account, you are using your banks API. APIs are everywhere. We are all using APIs. We are all impacted by good APIs, and bad APIs. Most of the time we just don’t know it, and are completely unaware of what is going on behind the curtain that is our smart phones.

I started paying attention to APIs in 2010 when I saw the impact mobile phones were beginning to have in our lives, and the role APIs were playing behind this new technological curtain. In 2017, I’m watching APIs expand to our homes via our thermostats, and other appliances. I’m seeing APIs in our cars. Applied to security cameras, sensors, signage, and other common objects throughout public spaces. APIs aren’t something everyone should be doing, however I feel they are something that everyone should be aware of. I usually compare it to the financial and banking system. Not everyone should understand how credit and banking systems work, but they should dam sure understanding who has access to their bank account, how much money they have, and other functional aspects of the financial system.

When it comes to API awareness I don’t expect you to be able to write code, or understand how OAuth works. However, you should know whether or not an online service you are using has an API or not, and you should understand whether or not OAuth is in use. Have you used OAuth? I’m pretty sure you have as part of your Facebook or Google logins, when you have authenticated with 3rd party applications, giving them access to your Facebook or Google data. You probably just didn’t know what you were using was OAuth, and that it was providing API access, as you clicked next, next, through the process. I’m not expecting you to understand the technical details, I am just injecting a little more awareness around the API-driven things you are already doing.

We are all using APIs. We are all being impacted by APIs existing, or not existing. We are being impacted by unsecured APIs (ie. Equifax). We are all being influenced, manipulated, and manipulated by bots who are using Twitter, Facebook, and other APIs to bombard us with information. On a daily basis we are being targeted with advertising that is personalizing, and surveilling us using APIs. We should all be aware that these things are happening, and have some ownership in understanding what is going on. I don’t expect you to become an API expert, or learn to hack, I’m just asking that you assume a little bit more accountability when it comes to understanding what goes on behind the digital curtain for the production of our online world.

I recently had the pleasure of engaging with my friend Bryan Mathers (@bryanmathers) of Visual Thinkery, and as I was telling this story, he doodled the image you see here. Giving me a digital representation of how I use my mobile phone to help people understand APIs. It gives me a visual anchor for telling this story over and over here on my blog. My readers who have heard it before can tune it out. These stories are for my new readers, and for me to link to when helping share this story with folks who are curious about APIs, and what I do. I feel it is important to help evangelize APIs, not because everybody should be doing them, it is because everyone should be aware that others are doing APIs. I’m stoked to have visual elements that I can use in this ongoing storytelling, that help connect my readers and listeners with APIs, using objects that are relevant and meaningful to their world. Thanks Bryan!!

Photo Credit: Bryan Mathers (@bryanmathers), of Visual Thinkery.