Your favorite Twitter bot might die next week
Twitter says it will end free access to its third-party API next week, replacing it with a “paid base tier” for an unspecified price on February 9. The news potentially affects many Twitter services, and one of them is bots — not the armies of spammers that new owner Elon Musk claims to be cleaning up, but a host of automated accounts that post cute animals, quotes from fictional characters and help for access through the Twitter API. While Twitter has left users in the dark about the details of its upcoming change, many bot creators have given up on the shutdown.
“My reading of those tweets from Twitter is that it will stop working,” says V Buckenham of their service Cheap Bots Done Quick. Launched in 2015, Cheap Bots Done Quick is a convenient bot creation tool for people not used to working with the Twitter API, currently powering around 54,000 Twitter bot accounts. But next week, if Twitter doesn’t challenge his announcement, Buckenham expects it to simply be broken.
Multiple individual Twitter bot accounts have tweeted that they will likely go dark if the change goes through. The list includes Alt Text Reader, which tweets easily found text descriptions of images for blind Twitter users. It includes Colorschemer, which offers strange, surreally named color pairs. You can say goodbye to SauceBot, which seeks out the original creators of unattributed art. And you’ll find other creators making similar statements retweeting the original post.
The change is not necessarily a surprise. Even before Musk, Twitter had a rocky relationship with bot creators. API changes in 2018, for example, broke some automated accounts. But Musk has shown particular hostility to bots, which he has described as a vector for spam and fraud. While Twitter has reversed some previous decisions, the company has proven it is willing to weed out dedicated supporters such as third-party Twitter app developers who were disconnected from Twitter’s API last month. And Twitter has aggressively added paid features since its acquisition, which puts the company under a heavy debt burden.
In its announcement, Twitter called its API “among the most powerful data sets in the world,” suggesting that it is primarily interested in building relationships with companies that want to view and analyze tweets on instead of posting them. Bots are a small market in comparison. “If you’re building a service on someone else’s platform and you’re doing something where there’s no clear way that they’re making money from you doing it, then you’re building on sand,” says Buckenham. “It will last a certain amount of time and then it will die.”
“If you’re building a service on someone else’s platform and … there’s no clear way that they’re making money from you doing it, then you’re building on sand.”
However, bots (the good kind) have helped define Twitter. “One of the reasons Twitter has become so successful is because it’s been a relatively open platform,” says journalist and bot creator James O’Malley, who ran the popular Trump Alert account before the former president left the platform. You can find some similar bots on Instagram or other major social networks, but Twitter has provided an extremely cheap and easy way to build them – either by using a service like Cheap Bots Done Quick or by developing relatively simple coding skills and directly accessing the API.
The result can be viewed in useful accounts such as Alt Text Reader or Earthquake Robot, which translates geological data sets into an earthquake alert resource. It’s also spurred the creation of a new artistic medium: a small-scale episodic format for high-concept experiments, pop culture obsessions, and things that just make people smile. Want to see an opossum once an hour? Or remember it’s Thursday (what a concept)? Or read a review of a fake documentary by Louis Theroux? Until this week, Twitter had you covered.
Musk may believe that the value of bots will convince creators to seek API access. O’Malley says he might pay $5 a month for a large account like Trump Alert, and some other creators may feel the same way. But in most cases, he believes it wasn’t worth the trouble. And many Twitter bots are run by volunteers or hobbyists who are just having fun in their spare time. “I wouldn’t want to spend huge amounts of my own money to keep the service running,” says Buckenham, who gets about $270 a month on Patreon for cheap, fast-acting bots. “Maybe there’s a better way to turn it into a paid thing, but then suddenly it becomes a completely different thing.”
We don’t know how much Twitter’s new core API will cost. But its premium options apparently started at $99 a month last year — and for accounts that respond to multiple users in complex ways, even the cheapest prices can add up quickly. “SauceBot processes several thousand API requests per day,” SauceBot’s Twitter account tweeted in its possible shutdown announcement. “As much as I love helping our artists and other people who are just looking to source stuff, I’m not going to spend thousands of dollars a month just to keep this bot going.”
Dedicated coders can still get around Twitter’s API to post automated tweets, and malicious spammers almost certainly will. But for everyone else, Twitter’s decision discourages gaming the service. It also encourages switching to alternatives – Cheap Bots Done Quick, for example, has a Mastodon equivalent called Cheap Bots Toot Sweet. “It just seems like a tax on innovation,” says O’Malley.
So next week, Twitter users may wake up to a feed that’s suddenly a lot less fun — and Twitter may have destroyed one of its platform’s best pieces of art.