In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, thousands of volunteer software developers have used a crucial Twitter tool to search the platform for calls for help – including from people trapped in collapsed buildings – and connecting people with rescue organizations.
She may lose access starting Monday, unless they pay Twitter a monthly fee of at least $100 — prohibitively expensive for many budget-strapped volunteers and nonprofits.
“That’s not just for rescue efforts which we’re sadly coming to an end, but also for logistical planning as people take to Twitter to broadcast their needs,” said Sedat Kapanoglu, the founder of Eksi Sozluk, Turkey’s most popular social platform . who advised some volunteers in their efforts.
Nonprofits, researchers and others need the tool known as the API or Application Developer Interface to analyze Twitter data because the sheer volume of information makes it impossible for a human to go through it by hand.
Kapanoglu says hundreds of “Good Samaritans” handed out their own premium paid API access keys (Twitter already offered a paid version with more features) for use in the rescue efforts. But he says this isn’t “sustainable or the right way” to do it. It could even be against Twitter’s rules.
On Monday, Twitter’s deadline for closing free access to its API adds another challenge to the thousands of developers in Turkey and abroad who are working around the clock to leverage Twitter’s unique, open ecosystem for disaster relief.
“For Turkish programmers working with Twitter API for disaster monitoring, this is of particular concern – and I imagine it is equally concerning for others around the world who are using Twitter data to track 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 communicating with anyone at the company has become essentially impossible since Elon Musk took over.
The API paywall is Musk’s latest effort to squeeze revenue out of Twitter, which is on the hook for about $1 billion in annual interest payments from the billionaire’s acquisition, completed in October.
It is not only disaster organizations that are concerned. Academic and nongovernmental researchers have been using Twitter for years to study the spread of misinformation and hate speech or to research public health or how people behave online.
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 triggered attacks from trolls — and what drove them away — in one study .
“With so little information from Twitter about the practicalities of this new policy, the details of it, we just don’t know where to go. We have no way to do the scheduling. And for a lot of us who are in the field, running programs, doing projects that have real-world implications, that’s pretty scary,” she said.
Twitter was not alone, but was unique among social media companies in making its API open and free. TikTok, for example, is working on it now, but has not released the API so far. Facebook’s is more limited because the company is very protective of the data it collects.
Tromble said social platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and others are taking steps to increase researchers’ access and transparency, largely due to new European regulations. Twitter, on the other hand, is moving in the opposite direction.
“They’ve gone from first in class to absolute last,” she said.
It costs money to maintain an API. As a private company, Twitter is free for its tools. But researchers and developers say it wouldn’t cost much for Musk to make exceptions for academic research and nonprofits.
“No other technology has changed society as quickly and profoundly as social media. Having access to the thoughts and emotions of other people around the world is 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 observe.”
Takeshi Kawamoto, a Japanese software developer who owns a popular earthquake warning bot with over 3 million followers, created the account in 2007 as a hobby.
There are an incredible number of such bots on Twitter: helpful, friendly, or quirky accounts set up by people or groups with a specific interest. There are weather bots, tools that combine long Twitter threads into one easy-to-read file, bots that send quotes from famous books or people, bots that remind you to get up and stretch at random times throughout the day, bots that bit of nonsense and weirdness into your Twitter scrolling.
The earthquake bot created by Kawamoto only got off the ground during the devastating 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that hit Japan, when people looked 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. Paying $1,200 a year for an account that is definitely not making a profit would not be possible. Last week, Twitter announced it would make a small exception to provide free “write-only” API access to accounts sending fewer than 1,500 tweets per month.
This could help, but Kawamoto says the 1,500 limit will pose a problem after a major earthquake with many aftershocks. He would like 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 hasn’t offered any other exceptions, though it’s possible Musk sees one of several tweets from developers working on earthquake relief and advocating for a solution.
It’s too late for Mark Sample and his small army of Twitter bots, like one that would send carefully curated quotes from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” at random intervals. The Moby Dick bot, as well as a bot broadcasting computer clip art from 1994 and one dubbed “weird satellite” have all left Twitter. Some have moved to Mastodon, the social platform some discouraged Twitter users migrated to.
Sample’s bots were part of “weird Twitter,” a quirky subculture of Twitter that peaked in the mid-2010s and included weird, fun, nonsensical bots that sent bursts of randomness into people’s feeds.
“I’m going through a grieving process, kind of grieving,” says Sample, a professor of digital studies at Davidson College in North Carolina. With the API, “Twitter did something that none of the other social media platforms did, which is a bit like having this open playground. I mean, there were ways people could take advantage of it and distort things and use them in malicious ways. But it was also a great playground for hobbyists and creatives that none of the other social media platforms had.”
For Sample, the breakpoint wasn’t the API announcement. It came last fall when Musk began firing Twitter employees en masse and went after journalists who questioned or criticized him, he said. Building apps for a platform when someone just shut it all down on a whim, he said, is “not a good use of our time and creative energy.”
“I mean, it had a good run,” he said. “It’s been about 15 years or whatever. So it’s been quite a nice run. And maybe it’s time for something else.”