On Wednesday, Twitter announced that starting on February 9th, it would no longer be supporting free Application Program Interface (API) access, which allows third-party developers and users to access the app’s data. This decision will have the most impact on bots and researchers, and the owners of popular bot accounts are already sounding the alarm that they'll have to shut down.
Currently, Twitter offers a free API package that allows users to send up to 250 requests per month and 100 tweets per request. The paid "premium" packages range from 500 to 10,000 requests and $149 to $2,499 per month, respectively. Twitter has not yet announced how much the new “paid basic tier” will be. But many bot accounts—not spammers, but popular entertainment-focused accounts that make automated tweets—are already saying their farewells to their followers.
“Unfortunately, as much as I love being able to help out our artists and other people just looking for the source of things, I will not be spending thousands of dollars a month just to continue this bot,” the moderator behind the bot account @saucenaopls, an account that regularly posts anime and manga with nearly 400,000 followers, tweeted.
"Hey, if this bot goes away on february 9th, this is why. not going to pay hundreds of bucks a month for this, sorry," tweeted the owner of comedy bot account @JAVdottxt, which has over 80,000 followers.
A bot that posts excerpts from the beloved children’s book series Frog and Toad tweeted, “I'm not abandoning this account! I will continue to manually put quotes & photos as much as I can, but obviously it will be less frequent than having a scheduled quote/image every 3 hours, I know this account brings a lot of people happiness, so I will do what I can.”
There are also many useful bots that may be shuttered as a result of this new development, such as a bot that posts information about maintenance and server outages for Nintendo's networks. “We regret to inform you that due to upcoming Twitter API changes, we may no longer post to this account in the near future,” the account, @NinStatusBot, tweeted.
The decision is the latest chaos-sowing move from Twitter since billionaire Elon Musk bought the site and took it private last year. Twitter has been searching for sources of revenue since advertisers fled due to Musk's erratic actions, such as the creation of a paid verification scheme.
Musk promised to deal with bots on Twitter after he took over the site, but purging it of legitimately popular accounts that add value to the site in order to capture even more revenue is probably not what he meant.
Parker Higgins, an artist and activist who currently runs six bot accounts with 100 thousand followers collectively, told Motherboard that he will no longer be keeping up with the bots as a result of the monetization of the API. Higgins, who started running bots as early as 2015, said his bots would be at the lowest tier of API access, but told us that he refuses to give any money to Twitter owner Elon Musk, even if the package only costs a dollar.
Higgins expressed that he is sad to leave his bots behind and that the removal of free API access closes yet another aspect of what made Twitter a unique online space. “One of the things that made Twitter a robust and exciting place was their API access,” Higgins said, adding that the site has a robust bot ecosystem. “I considered bots as adding value to the platform.”
Higgins’s first account was a bot dedicated to tweeting images of watercolor paintings of fruits that came from the USDA’s National Agricultural Library, which tweets every three hours and currently has over 20,000 followers. “I got a lot of feedback that it was a nice bit of art breaking up a depressing timeline,” he said. “It was a valuable thing I could do for people that made me feel good.”
Like Higgins’s fruit painting account, a lot of Twitter bots are harmless and fun, and very popular, showcasing anime art, quotes from poets and writers like Frank O’Hara and Virginia Woolf. “It’s really sad because I love literature bots, and I made the Virginia Woolf one because I wanted more young people to be interested in her,” creator of the Virginia Woolf bot, Paola Strabelli, told Motherboard. “Unfortunately I’ll have to abandon the account. I don’t really have money to spare, and I also don’t want to encourage this ridiculous ‘update’. Twitter is becoming less and less for the general public.”
Aside from bots, researchers who work on studying social media and rely on Twitter’s open API for data collection are also affected by Twitter’s new policy. Libby Hemphill, the Director at the Resource Center for Minority Data (RCMD) and an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, told Motherboard that researchers have used Twitter’s API to track everything from the spread of misinformation to estimating economic changes and movements.
“[Paying for the API will] mean that the researchers who have financial resources to access the API as a paid product are going to be able to do research that those without money to pay for the API won't be able to do,” Hemphill said. “I think that some of the ways that researchers and the scientific community can combat this is to try to do some sort of sensitive data sharing agreements where we are more willing to collaborate with one another in ways that let us share data without running afoul of user expectations or terms of service that are enforceable. And instead of everybody having to do and pay for their own data, we should be working together.”
Hemphill helped build an open access archive called the Social Media Archive where researchers can share their data from Twitter and Reddit that provides them with another way to obtain data for their studies, especially following Twitter’s restrictions.
“I think it's actually a little surprising that they haven't monetized more of [their API products] before now,” Hemphill said. “I mean especially after Elon Musk took over, it was pretty clear that they needed to find a way to make money, and user data is a pretty good way to make money generally. So it's not surprising that they're trying to monetize the API.”
“I think that the pace at which Twitter changes policy is really challenging for anybody who relies on it, whether it's a user or a developer or a researcher and the chaos is just really hard to manage,” she added.