While Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram will always have a place in my history of APIs, I feel like we are entering a post Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram API world. All three platforms are going through serious evolutions, which includes tightening down the controls on API access, and shuttering of many APIs. These platforms are tightening things down for a variety of reasons, which are more about their business goals, than it is about the community. I’m not saying these APIs will go away entirely, but the era where where these API platforms ruled is coming to a close.
The other day I articulated that these platform only needed us for a while, and now that they’ve grown to a certain size do not need us anymore. While this is true, I know there is more to the story of why we are moving on in the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram story. We can’t understand the transformation that is occurring without considering that these platform’s business models are playing out, and they (we) are reaping what they’ve sown with their free and open platform business models. It isn’t so much that they are looking to screw over their developers, they are just making another decision, in a long line of decisions to keep generating revenue from their user generated realities, and advertising fueled perception.
I don’t fault Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for fully opening their APIs, then closing them off over time. I fault us consumers for falling for it. I do fault Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram a little for not managing their APIs better along the way, but when your business model is out of alignment with proper API management, it is only natural that you look the other way when bad things are happening, or you are just distracted with other priorities. This is ultimately why you should avoid platforms who don’t have an API, or a clear business model for their platform. There is a reason aren’t having this conversation about Amazon S3 after a decade. With a proper business model, and API management strategy you deal with all the riff raff early on, and along the way–it is how this API game works when you don’t operate a user-exploitative business.
Ultimately, living in a post Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram API world won’t mean much. The world goes on. There will be some damage to the overall API brand, and people will point to these platforms as why you shouldn’t do APIs. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram will still be able to squeeze lots of advertising based revenue out of their platforms. Eventually it will make them vulnerable, and they will begin to lose market share being such a closed off ecosystem, but there will always be plenty of people willing to spend money on their advertising solutions, and believe they are reaching an audience. Developers will find other data source, and APIs to use in the development of web, mobile, and device applications.
The challenge will be making sure that we can spot the API platforms early on who will be using a similar playbook to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Will we push back on API provides who don’t have clear business models? Will we see the potential damage of purely eyeball based, advertising fueled platform growth? Will we make sound decisions in the APIs we adopt, or will we continue to just jump on whatever bandwagon that comes along, and willfully become sharecroppers on someone else’s farm. Will we learn from this moment, and what has happened in the last decade of growth for some of the most significant API platforms across the landscape today?
To help paint a proper picture of this problem, let me frame another similar situation that is not the big bad Twitter and Facebook, that everyone loves bashing on. Medium. I remember everyone telling me in 2014 that I should move API Evangelist to Medium – I kicked the tires, but they didn’t have an API. A no go for me. Eventually they launched a read only API, and I began syndicating a handful of my stories there. I enjoyed some network effect. I would have scaled upon my engagement if there was write access to APIs, as well as other platform related data like my followers. I never moved my blog to Blogger, Tumblr, Posterous, or Medium, for all the same reasons. I don’t want to be trapped on any platform, and I saw the signs early on with Medium, and managed to avoid any frustration as they go through their current evolution.
I don’t use the Facebook API for much–it just isn’t my audience. I do use Twitter for a lot. I depend on Twitter for a lot of traffic and exposure. I would say the same for LinkedIn and Github. LinkedIn has been closing off their APIs for some time, but honestly it was never something that was ever very open. I worry about Github, especially after the Microsoft acquisition. However, I went into my Github relationship expecting it to be temporary, and because all my data is in a machine readable and portable format, I’m not worried about every having to migrate–I can’t do this with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn. I’m saddened to think about a post Twitter API world, where every API call is monetized, and there is no innovation in the community. It is coming though. It will be slow. We won’t notice much of it. But, it is happening.
I know that Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram all think they are making the best decision for their business, and investors. I know they also think that they’ve done the best job they could have under the circumstances over the last decade. You did, within the vision of the world you had established. You didn’t for your communities. If Facebook and Twitter had been more strict and organized about API application reviews from early days, and had structured access tiers of free, as well as paid access early on, a lot fewer people would be complaining as you made those processes, and access tiers more strict. It is just that you didn’t manage anything for so long, and once the bad things happening began effecting the platform bottom line, and worrying investors, then you began managing your API.
I know that Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram all think they will be fine. They will. However, over time they will become the next NBC, AOL, or other relic of the past. They will lose their soul, if they ever had one. And everyone on the Internet will be somewhere else, giving away their digital bits for free. This same platform model will play out over and over again in different incarnations, and the real test will be if we ever care? Will we keep investing in these platforms, building out their integrations, attracting new users, and keeping them engaged. Or, will we work to strike a balance, and raise the bar which platforms we sign up for, and ultimately depend on as part of our daily lives. I’m done getting pissed off about what Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram do, I”m more focused on evaluating and ranking all the digital platforms I depend on, and turn up or down the volume, based upon the signals they send me about what the future will hold.