From emergency alerts to Taylor Swift lyrics: Twitter risks alienating developers

David Paul Morris

Dan Morse isn’t sure what to do with his popular Twitter account, @would_it_dong, a Twitter bot with more than 179,000 followers that measures the distance of home runs and tracks if they would count as homers in other major league ballparks.

Morse is one of the many developers who are in limbo after Twitter said last week that it would start charging people like him to automate accounts on the platform. And while the idea of bots now often conjures up notions of nefarious state-based disinformation campaigns, plenty of bots like Morse’s are labors of love that don’t generate any income.

Morse said people have reached out to him suggesting he try to raise some money for the account, but he has little desire to go that route.

“I’d really rather this bot not cost anyone any money,” Morse said.

The initial announcement about Twitter’s change to its API, short for application programming interface, came Thursday when Twitter’s developer account tweeted that access would no longer be free. The same account also announced that pricing for a tiered payment system will be released this Thursday.


A viral screenshot of an older pricing structure quickly drew a mix of shock, outrage and resignation from developers.

Some took their concerns directly to Elon Musk, Twitter’s owner and CEO, who said the current API was being abused by “bot scammers & opinion manipulators.” Two days later, Musk, in response to concerns from an account that tracks the comings and goings of a cat, said he would amend the new rules.

“Responding to feedback, Twitter will enable a light, write-only API for bots providing good content that is free,” Musk tweeted Saturday. While this does provide some relief, the vague nature of “good content” still leaves many in the dark.

Many automated accounts rely on Twitter’s API to function, providing a way for a developer to write a program that automatically interacts with the platform. Twitter launched its API in 2006, inviting people to come up with ways to create bots that users might like.

Now, developers have built a wide array of accounts that publish everything from emergency notifications to Taylor Swift lyrics. Many of the developers and groups behind those accounts have said charging for API access could mean they are unable to keep their bots going.

“If this change goes through, we will no longer be able to serve emergency notifications via Twitter,” tweeted the Cumberland Goodwill EMS, which provides services to an area of over 63,000 in central Pennsylvania.

Bill Snitzer, a Los Angeles-based developer behind the EQBOT service that provides earthquake information for the Los Angeles and San Francisco area as well as global earthquakes above 5.0 magnitude, said each of the five bots within his service has its own Twitter page and following. Snitzer was able to monetize his services, making a small amount through an Amazon affiliate link. However, he said the API pricing was “kind of a slap in the face.”

“This is dissemination of important information that could potentially go away,” said Snitzer, who built the bots over 10 years ago. “I’m kind of being forced to pay the money, and I don’t like that. It’s sort of an uncomfortable, kind of ethical quandary.”

For researchers, free API ensures access to vital data. Sol Messing, an associate professor at the New York University Center for Social Media and Politics, said his work is heavily dependent on the Twitter API to gather information on the ways social media platforms are used. Messing said he anticipates that Twitter’s API pricing will heavily affect his projects, slowing down research and complicating coordination with other research groups.

“You really need third-party analysis on social media platforms to guard against potential harm to society,” Messing said.

On Monday morning, the nonpartisan Coalition for Independent Technology Research released a letter calling on Twitter to “ensure that APIs for studying public content on the platform remain easily accessible.”

Both Morse and Snitzer floated the idea of shifting their services from Twitter to Mastodon, a decentralized social network site, though both have yet to make the move.

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