API History Repeats Itself as Recalibrated Twitter Dev Strategy Forces Shutdown of Favstar

Favstar, a service that helps users "find great tweets and interesting people to follow", has announced that it will be shutting down next month because of changes Twitter is making to its APIs.

Launched nine years ago in 2009, Favstar quickly became a hit and at one point was seeing over 50m visits a month. But Favstar's creator, Tim Haines, was left with little choice but to shut his service down due to modifications Twitter is making to its Account Activity API and the deprecation of its User Streams API.

These updates will leave Favstar without the ability to access Tweets, Likes and Retweets -- the content that the service relies on.

As Haines explained in a message on Favstar's Pro Membership page, "Twitter wrote that they’ll be replacing this with another method of data access, but have not been forthcoming with the details or pricing. Favstar can’t continue to operate in this environment of uncertainty." The pricing that has been publically announced by Twitter is limited to developers who need access to less than 250 accounts. 

A Long and Ongoing History of Developer Tension

Favstar is just the latest victim of Twitter's API changes. In its early days, developers flocked to Twitter, which largely welcomed them with open arms. At one point, Twitter's API traffic was ten times as high as its website traffic.

But as Twitter grew, went public and found itself under pressure to make money, its stance vis-à-vis developers changed. Instead of embracing its Platform role, the company sought more control over how end users interacted with its service. After all, despite a popular platform and large developer ecosystem, with Twitter not in control of many of the end-user experiences, monetization was far more challenging.

In many cases, APIs that had effectively been open and/or free either had to go or be made available only to those who could pay large sums of money for access.

Hope returned in 2015, when Jack Dorsey took the helm of the company he had co-founded years earlier. At the Twitter Flight 2015 mobile developer conference he told developers, "Somewhere along the line, our relationship with developers got complicated, confusing, unpredictable. It culminated with what Anil Dash called the Matrix of Doom."

He then offered an olive Branch. "We want to apologize, reboot, have a great relationship with developers, open honest, and fulfilling," he stated.

But doing that has proven tricky. In 2016, a service called Emojitracker announced that it was planning to shutter after being informed that its access to Twitter's Streaming API would be cut off. Emojitracker was able to reach an agreement with Twitter that saved it, but it was a reminder that Twitter's relationship with developers was still complicated.Tweetbot also seems to be on the receiving end of more lenient treatment by Twitter.

A Harsh Reality for Developers

Two years later, Favstar's impending death demonstrates that Twitter's tense relationship with developers continues. 

Of course, Twitter isn't the only company that has deprecated an API, or changed its terms, leaving developers out in the cold. Companies ranging from ESPN to Netflix have done the same, and Facebook made what are perhaps some of the most drastic and rapid API deprecations and changes ever seen in the wake of a scandal involving data that was accessed through its platform by Aleksandr Kogan and later released to Cambridge Analytica.

At the end of the day, the still-growing number of API change victims is a reminder of the harsh reality developers face: their apps can effectively be forced out of existence by an API provider at any time. Even though API providers might say they have the best of intentions vis-à-vis developers, there's no indication that the situation is going to change any time soon.

Be sure to read the next API Management article: Twitter Unveils New Developer Requirements