I’ve heard this phrase seven times now from people on Twitter and LinkedIn-—that Elon Musk is just making a business decision to charge money for the Twitter API because it costs Twitter money. In the moment, with your narrow capitalist blinders on, this is a very logical argument. As someone who has been arguing that Twitter should be charging for their API for over a decade, this argument isn’t as sophisticated and logical those wielding it might think. I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but there are a lot of other currents flowing around this discussion than the business one you are taking for face value. Of course, Twitter has the right to charge for their API, and alongside version 2.0 of their API , they have been, and it is something I have been praising. However, their decision to shut down their free API has very little to do with revenue, and everything about power and control.
Opening up your platform using a free public API, inviting developers to build your platform for free, and then begin shutting down and charging for the API once you have the growth that you need is a pretty proven playbook. If you are making the argument that Twitter’s API costs money to operate and they should be able to charge for it, I am sorry you are operating squarely in a realm of capitalist and market delusions. I was there in the early days of Twitter. I was at the hackathons where they asked for us to build applications and integrations. Once the platform became something tha tmattered I began advocating that they establish paid tiers of the API and establish a formal partner program—-Twitter chose not to. I have spent hundreds of hours working for free in the Twitter ecosystem, using my own computer equipment, skills, and resources to produce value for Twitter. Sure, it also generated value for me, but as I sought to establish a balance between in this free ecosystem—-Twitter chose to keep exploiting their ecosystem, until one day they felt they didn’t need us anymore in 2012.
The Twitter API cost money in 2010. It cost money in 2015. It costs money in 2023. You know what else costs money-—my time. Should I charge Twitter for all this free work? Should I charge every public API who is asking developers to build things for free and come to their hackathons and work without pay? If we take this argument at face value—-yes, we should. It is funny that I only hear this argument on the tail end of startups becoming valuable, but I don’t hear it at the beginning. I do not have enough fingers to count on the free labor I have given startups based upon community promises, only to be screwed over once there is an exit or acquisition. Swagger, ProgrammableWeb, Twitter, to just name a handful that have hurt me the most. All of these domains I put in countless hours of unpaid time, only to hear-—it is just business on the other end. It is just businessman! What’s your problem? Why you gotta be such a jerk, this is just how the markets work. Hmmmm, interesting, OK. I just find it convenient that all y’all entrepreneurs don’t seem to see this going into your cool new startups, but feel this way once value is generated. I’ve seen this little theater production play out more times than I can count.
This makes me wonder what it would be like if I decided to take all my API evangelism superpowers and unionize all of the public API developers out there and ask them to stop working for free. Do not sign up for any new APIs. Do not work for free. I don’t care how interesting an API is, your time is too valuable. This is why startups and venture capital like to target young people, because they do not yet understand their own value. What if I went to all universities, and hung out where all the young developers were and spread the gospel? All of these APIs love you now, but you just wait until all of your hard work generates value—you won’t be loved then. Your access will be slowly restricted. They will begin to make any paid access just out of your reach. This is how the game is played. I already see a lack of enthusiasm when it comes to attending hackathons, and it is already getting harder for anyone to build anything new and interesting in your public API ecosystem. I can only imagine this is due to fatigue, exploitation, and a lack of meaningful reward for all of us builders out there. It’s too bad, because I actually enjoy working for free. I like the chase. I like to build. I don’t need to get rich. Sadly, most API providers really don’t care, as long as they get theirs.
Of course, Twitter should charge for their API. If something costs you money you should charge for it. This just makes good business sense. The problem is that logic and business sense went out of the window a long, long time ago. If you are still playing by this business school playbook you will never be the one that gets ahead in this game. If you are sharing this business wisdom with me, I am sorry, we are operating in two entirely different universes. I am pro building things that offer value to humanity, over extracting value from humanity. I guarantee that Twitter’s decision to shut down free access to their API is not about revenue. It is about power and control. It is about controlling the message and the branding. It is about forgetting the past and building the future that matters to a few. It really has nothing to do with Twitter, and everything to do with how power and democracy flows in our world. But I guess this is how markets work right? You have a few who get the game and are playing at this high level. Then there is a mass of market believers who line up to defend the game with the same old business playbook that has been out of ate for over a century, if it ever was applicable. While the rest of us are left behind, squeezed out, and simply used to generate value. Keep on defending this line, until some day you wake up and see how things actually work.