Acknowledging That Why I Do APIs Is Very Different Than Why Others Are Doing APIs
27 Mar 2018
When I started doing API Evangelist in 2010 I was still very, very, very naive about why people were doing APIs. While I do not always expect everyone doing APIs to be ethical and sensible with the reasons behind doing APIs, I have been regularly surprised at how many different views there are out there regarding why we should be doing APIs in the first place. The lesson for me is to never assume that someone is doing APIs for the same reasons I am doing APIs, because rarely that will ever be the case–hopefully minimizing the chances I’ll get continue to be surprised down the road.
After watching Salesforce, then Amazon, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, and Google Maps doing APIs, I saw the potential for APIs to open up access to resources like never before. I also saw the potential for not just opening up these new opportunities to developers, but OAuth was beginning to give end-users a voice in how their data and content could be put to use. I saw the opportunity for a new type of partnership between platforms, developers, and end-users emerging that could change how we do business online, how government works, and much, much more. Sadly my white male privilege, and powers of denial prevented me from seeing the many other ways in which APIs were being seen as an opportunity.
I find that the reasons people publish regarding why they are doing APIs rarely size up with the real reasons why they are actually doing APIs. Sometimes you can read between the lines by evaluating their overall business model, or lack of one. Other times you can find some telling signs present in the design of their API, as the paths, parameters, and technical details tend to tell a more accidentally honest view of what is happening behind the curtain. However, when it comes to the theater of “open APIs”, everything quickly becomes a funhouse of mirrors when it comes to trying to understand why someone is doing APIs, with the only constant being that nothing last forever–all APIs will eventually change, and go away, no matter what the reasons are behind them.
The reasons I recommend doing APIs centers around opening up access to valuable data, content, and algorithms in a secure and observable way, that protects the privacy of everyone involved. I’m an advocate for API literacy amongst everyone involved in the API conversation, even the non-technical end-user who is most likely being impacted by their existence. I’m team API because they can bring observability into some very black box algorithms, and closed door platforms, that are increasingly governing our lives. My belief in APIs is not purely based on their technical merit, but in that some proven processes involving them have been established, which introduce some healthy balance into how we deliver web, mobile, and device-based applications. It isn’t the technology, it is how us humans are using the technology.
Like other web-based technology, APIs have been weaponized, and identified as a valuable tool for exploitation. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have demonstrated how they can help a platform grow and evolve, but when this growth is in the service of an advertising-focused business, they can be used to influence, nudge, and harass people in some very damaging ways. With all the exploitation, bad behavior, and looking the other way that occurs around API operations, I find it very difficult to consider representing the sector, but I do find it important that I continue making sense of what is happening. I just need to make sure that I remember that the reasons I’m doing APIs will almost always be different than why others are doing API, and I should never assume folks have the healthiest, and most meaningful intent behind operating their API platforms, and why they are reaching out to me.