How Twitter’s Newest Paywall Affects Artists, Researchers, and You
Twitter has made some questionable (and for some users, rage-inducing) changes under its new ownership, from its paid account verification plan, to its reinstatement of user profiles that had been banned, including a certain former U.S. President who has proven to be a misogynistic, xenophobic oligarch. It was difficult to argue with the policy against any Twitter account that shares live location information because it was an attempt to deter stalking. But then, in a now completely reversed change, Twitter attempted to ban links to competing social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Mastodon, Nostr, Post, Truth Social, and Tribel.
Today, the Twitter Dev team tweeted the platform’s newest plans for monetization in a thread that announced:
Starting February 9, we will no longer support free access to the Twitter API, both v2 and v1.1. A paid basic tier will be available instead ?Twitter
This is more than just another policy change. It suggests a potentially enormous shift in the way Twitter might serve (or not serve) a broader purpose than its own revenue.
What exactly is an API?
An abbreviation of “application programming interface,” an API is a communication interface that allows separate software components to communicate with each other. That might sound like IT jargon, but it’s not much more complicated than the sequence of actions at any restaurant: we ask a member of the waitstaff for a specific item from the menu, and the waitstaff conveys our request to the kitchen staff, who prepare that menu item for us. This bridge of communication is a real-world example of what APIs do.
APIs are a part of everyday life online. Every time we log into a site using our Facebook, Google, or other platform’s credentials, we are using APIs. Every time we pay with PayPal or book our travel online, we use APIs.
Twitter describes its API platform as providing “broad access to public Twitter data that users have chosen to share with the world” and supporting APIs that “allow users to manage their own non-public Twitter information … and provide this information to developers whom they have authorized to do so.” Twitter knows its API platform has benefits. The concern over this announcement of a new paywall is that only users who can afford these benefits will be able to use them. If this sounds similar to the barriers to access to health care or zero-emission electric vehicles, that’s because it is. Twitter’s latest move toward monetization is yet another way in which unchecked capitalism erects barriers that perpetuate inequity.
Since its introduction in 2006, the Twitter API has grown by adding new levels of access for developers and academics, allowing them to scale their access to research public conversations. On Thursday, February 9, 2023, Twitter will no longer support free access to the v1.1 or v2 of its API platform, but will instead offer a paid basic tier. By contrast, both Facebook and YouTube offer free APIs (although there are fees associated with certain types of data requests).
Who will be affected by the paywall?
Bots might have a negative connotation for a lot of users who associate them with fake accounts and spam, but there are plenty of wholesome bots on Twitter that perform enjoyable functions like the TinyCareBot that sends hourly alerts to stretch or drink water, or the Ursula K. Le Guin bot that sends hourly quotations from one of the best writers in the history of fantasy and science fiction literature.
Third-party apps that use Twitter APIs are now going to have to pay a fee to continue to function as they have been. A social networking service (SNS) like Privatter, a Japanese site created for posting images and long-form text (especially NSFW content), allows users to connect their Twitter accounts when posting to Privatter, and to choose who is allowed to see their posts. Similarly, Poipiku, the illustration SNS for creators who are more interested in their artistry than in likes or comments, will not be able to function the same way without the Twitter API, unless Poipiku also creates pay tiers for their service.
Academic researchers ranging from undergraduate students to PhDs have been using Twitter APIs to collect data on a broad spectrum of topics, from government censorship to climate change, to perceptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. The initial version from 2006 was often challenging for researchers to use, and making its data more accessible to researchers was part of why Twitter launched API v2 in November 2021.
How will things change?
Some of the frustration over this announcement is that it was made only seven days before its planned implementation. For developers and researchers whose workflows have been planned farther in advance than one calendar week, this is particularly distressing. Illustrator and comics artist Jen Bartel encapsulates a valid concern for the way this new paywall will affect the whole platform:
There are a lot of games and just sites in general that very likely won’t have twitter integration going forward, which will be shitty for a multitude of reasons. But you know what kinds of bot accounts *will* find it worthwhile to pay those insane prices? Just think back to 2016
Can’t wait for conservative super pacs to expense thousands of twitter bots in order to spread vaccine misinformation and transphobia as we head into 2024 ? Because really, who else could twitter possibly be hoping to court with this new policy and absurd pricing structureTwitter
Time will tell what Twitter’s new pricing will actually be, and how it will change the platform and its integration with other sites. But to paraphrase Deirdre Beaubeirdre in Everything Everywhere All At Once, you may only see a list of boring price sheets and API endpoints, but we see a story … and it does not look good.
It. Does. Not. Look. Good.
(featured image: A24)
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