On Friday evening, the National Weather Service’s tsunami warning service delivered a different kind of warning. There was no wave rushing toward shore anywhere, but if one occurred, notice might not appear on Twitter. That warning came because, as the NWS indicated, “Twitter is now limiting automated tweets and as a result, this account can no longer post all tsunami Warnings, Advisories, Watches, and Information Statements as they are issued.”
The new restrictions from Twitter affected far more than just the ability to warn about incoming waves. For example, in San Francisco, the BART system has warned that it can no longer send out automated alerts about service and issues on the line: “Twitter has shut off its free API, and that means we are going dark until we can find a solution.” In New York, the Metro Transit Authority had a very similar message.
From the weather, to earthquake notifications, to closures of national parks, just about any automated system that was tied to Twitter through that platform’s APIs found itself on the outs Friday evening. So did thousands of other services ranging from those which helped people upload images and video, to whose which helped analysts track the activity of bot farms and troll farms.
After a break of about five hours, the APIs on which many of these services depend seem to have been turned back on, but the outage once again showed that under Elon Musk Twitter has become a undendable, and unpredictable, partner.
Earlier this month, Musk dissolved Twitter, Inc and rolled the company into his “X” corporation which is reportedly designing a “do everything” application that will allow Musk to create and control the sort of online banking and funds exchange system that he dreamed off all the way back in his pre-hairplug days at Paypal. That’s fine. Maybe it will even be good.
However, as far as how Twitter plays into this, from the outset, Musk hasn’t seemed to understand that the value of Twitter is in the content, not the software platform. People come to Twitter for the information they can find there — not in the form of Musk’s latest ridiculous name change, bad pun, or goofball logo, but for the way the service has become a hub for links to news articles and critical information. That includes all those weather alerts, earthquake warnings, etc.
Musk’s efforts to restrict an monetize Twitter’s APIs might have some justification when it comes to those companies and organizations that use those interfaces to extract information. However, even there those APIs have served an invaluable purpose in locating bot farms, troll farms, and networks of disinformation. That’s all part of how Twitter was, in the past, moderated to maintain the value of the information found there. Which is, once again, almost all that counts when determining the real value of Twitter. But that all falls under the heading of moderation, and Musk has devalued moderation from the outset.
When it comes to restricting what companies can feed into Twitter through its APIs, or how applications can use those APIs to present Twitter users with better ways to write their posts, restrictions make even less sense. The value to Twitter in being the first place people turn to find out if a tornado is approaching, of if that rattling on their shelves really was an earthquake, is infinitely higher for Twitter. In fact, this is a convenience for users. It’s vital for Twitter.
Ultimately, by changing the API in ways that require developers to record, force users to go through hoops reapplying for access, and potentially apply charges to services that were free in the past, Twitter is simply going to see less use of the APIs. Less content. Less value. Some services for Twitter users have already announced their closure.
For now, the worst effects of the Friday night API massacre appear to have been mitigated, but this closing of the taps, even if temporary, has left both developers, and users, once again scrambling for a more reliable alternative.