Following the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, thousands of volunteer software developers are using Twitter’s vital tool to comb the platform for calls for help – including those trapped in collapsed buildings – and people to connect with rescue organizations.
they may lose access as early as Monday if they don’t pay Twitter a monthly fee of at least $100 — something that many volunteers and nonprofits on smaller budgets are barred from.
“It’s not just for rescue efforts that we’re unfortunately coming to an end, but also for logistical planning as people take to Twitter to broadcast their needs,” said Sedat Kapanoglu, founder of Eksi Sozluk, the t -the most popular social platform in Turkey, which was advising some of the volunteers in their efforts.
The tool, called the API, or Application Developer Interface, is needed by nonprofits, researchers and others to analyze Twitter data because the sheer volume of information makes it impossible for someone to sift through it by hand.
Kapanoglu says hundreds of “good Samaritans” are handing out their own premium paid API access keys (Twitter already offered a paid version with more features) to use in the rescue efforts. But he says this is neither “sustainable nor the right way” to do it. It might even be against Twitter’s rules.
Monday is the deadline set by Twitter to close free access to its API, an additional challenge for thousands of developers in Turkey and beyond who are working around the clock to take advantage of Twitter’s unique open ecosystem for disaster relief.
“For Turkish coders working with the Twitter API for disaster monitoring purposes, this is extremely worrying – and I imagine it’s the same concern for others around the world who are using Twitter data to monitor on emergencies and politically contested events,” said Akin Unver, a professor of international relations at Ozyegin University in Istanbul.
The new fees are just the latest complication for programmers, academics and others trying to use the API — and they say it’s been basically impossible to communicate with anyone at the company since Elon Musk took over.
The API paywall is Musk’s latest attempt to squeeze revenue out of Twitter, which is on the hook for about $1 billion in annual interest payments since the billionaire’s acquisition, which was completed in October.
It’s not just disaster relief groups. Academic and non-governmental researchers have used Twitter for decades to study the spread of misinformation and hate speech or to research public health or people’s online behavior.
Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at George Washington University, used the Twitter API to track conversations on Twitter to see what types of tweets led to attacks from trolls—and what made them go away. – in one study.
“With so little information from Twitter about the practicalities of this new policy, the details of it, we don’t know where to go. We have no way of planning. And for many of us who are in the field, running programs, running projects that have real-world consequences, that’s pretty scary,” she said.
Twitter was not alone but unique among social media companies in making its API open and free. TikTok, for example, is working on it now but hasn’t released its API yet. Facebook’s is more limited because the company is very protective of the data it collects.
Tromble said social platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and others are taking steps to increase access and transparency for researchers – mainly because of new European regulations. Twitter, on the other hand, is moving in the opposite direction.
“They’ve gone from first class to dead last,” she said.
Maintaining an API costs money. As a private company, Twitter is free to cut its tools. But researchers and developers say it wouldn’t take much for Musk to win exceptions for academic and nonprofit research.
“No other technology has changed society as quickly and profoundly as social media. Having access to the thoughts and feelings of other people around the world, that’s a fundamental change in society,” said Kristina Lerman, a computer science professor at the University of Southern California who studies misinformation. “And you can’t understand it without access to data, access to look.”
Takeshi Kawamoto, a Japanese software developer who runs a Popular earthquake alert bot with more than 3 million followers, he created the account back in 2007 as a hobby.
There are an incredible number of such bots on Twitter — useful, friendly or quirky accounts created by people or groups with a particular interest. There are weather bots, tools that combine long Twitter threads into one easy-to-read file, bots that send quotes from books or famous people, bots that remind you to stand up and stretch randomly throughout the day, bots which adds a bit of nonsense and weirdness to your Twitter scrolling.
The earthquake bot Kawamoto created didn’t take off until the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that hit Japan in 2011, when people turned to it for information about earthquakes and aftershocks.
Kawamoto was ready to shut down the bot when Twitter first announced it was going to charge for API access. $1,200 per year could not be paid out of an account that has been determined to be unprofitable. Last week, Twitter announced that it would make a small exception to offer free “write-only” API access to accounts that send fewer than 1,500 tweets per month.
This could help, but Kawamoto says that the 1,500 limit will present a problem after a large earthquake with many aftershocks. He wants to ask Musk to allow accounts to post more than 1,500 tweets on a pay-as-you-go basis.
So far, San Francisco-based Twitter has offered no other exceptions, though Musk may see one of the many tweets from developers working on earthquake relief pleading for a solution.
It’s too late for Mark Sample and his small army of Twitter bots, like one that would randomly send careful quotes from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” It’s too late. A Moby Dick bot, as well as one that sent out a clip of computer art from 1994 and one called a “strange satellite” have left Twitter. Some have moved to Mastodon, the social platform that some Twitter users were discouraged from migrating to.
Sample bots were part of “weird Twitter”, a quirky Twitter subculture that peaked in the mid-2010s and featured quirky, playful bots that inserted bursts of randomness into people’s feeds.
“I’m kind of going through a process of mourning, kind of grieving,” said Sample, a professor of digital studies at Davidson College in North Carolina. With the API “Twitter was doing something that none of the other social media platforms had done, which was kind of like this open playground. I mean, there were ways that people could take advantage of it and distort things and use it in bad ways. But it was also the perfect playground for hobbyists and creatives. None of the other social media platforms had that.”
For Example, the API announcement was not the breakpoint. It happened last fall when Musk began mass firing Twitter workers and going after journalists who questioned or criticized him, he said. Building apps for a platform when someone suddenly shuts it down is not a good use of our time and creative energy, he said.
“I mean, he had a good run,” he said. “It’s been like 15 years or whatever. So it’s a pretty good run. And maybe it’s time for something else.”