From the always fabulous Association of Internet Researchers conference I've made it to the research colloquium "Compromised Data", organised by Greg Elmer and Ganaele Langlois in Toronto. We're starting with a presentation from Taina Bucher, on the enactive power of APIs. Beyond merely helping to collect data, APIs have a number of other functions. We must not get too seduced by the opportunities for data access and visualisation which they provide, but take APIs seriously as a mechanism for making meaning from data that privileges certain approaches over others.
This means a kind of "digital humanities" in reverse is required to understand these tools and their implications - a software studies perspective on APIs, from an expanded notion of software as a neighbourhood of relations that enables software to be studied in the same way as other cultural objects.
APIs enable third parties to access the data and functionality of social media sites in a standardised manner. At present, they are mainly simply used, rather than scrutinised as the protocological objects they are; protocols must be understood as a style of managing and governing the relations they contain. APIs thus have politics; they can be seen as having powerful consequences for the social activities within the worlds imagined by them.
APIs are more than a means to an end, then; they crystallise forms of human labour, communication and values in different ways, and this provides us with a perspective on their platforms politics.
Taina has worked with third-party developers who engage with the Twitter API to explore their relationship to the APIs just around the time that Twitter's provision of API functionality moved to a far more restrictive approach, from a previously much more open model; developers felt very negatively about this change, which they saw as driven by "the money people" within the platform.
Twitter had been popular with developers because of its open API, and this had also helped to make the system better - an "open it up and see what happens" approach had been the default approach. This openness had defined Twitter itself, as a platform, as well as the ecosystem of initiatives surrounding it. This was an environment of passion more so than commercial activity, at the start - but this has changed over time; and Twitter's more restrictive approach in recent times has also served to kill off a number of business models in the third-party services surrounding it.
This shows that APIs are far from neutral tools: there are lots of politics surrounding them, and many different relationships being negotiated. APIs are semantically meaningful quasi-objects, in Michael Serres's terms, mediating relationships between subjects; they bring about certain forms of social organisation. APIs have a transduction power by being able to reshape the Twitter service itself as well as defining possible forms of labour by third-party developers.
How the positioning of the players are established in the first place depends on how the subjects are subsumed to, conform to, the logic of the quasi-object. In doing so, APIs also organise and model the future; APIs are deliberately left undetermined and open for interpretation, constructed around the ethos of participation, aiming to harness the capacity of the available field of developers and to support a potential to produce - yet they also push these efforts into desirable directions.