Selfish APIs

Photo by Uncle Bartelby
Photo by Uncle Bartelby

Adina Levin wrote earlier this month (Twitter, Facebook, and the unselfish API about the differences between Twitter and Facebook not in terms of how they treat their users but in terms of how they treat external developers.

In short:

Twitter’s API is unselfish. Using the straightforward REST API, developers can and do write clients, search tools, mapping tools, recommendation tools, analytics, personal organizing – a wide range of extensions. Twitter doesn’t do anything to constrain developers other than a rate limit.


Facebook’s API is build to serve Facebook more than developers.

She goes on to discuss the shift towards Facebook Connect, away from the emphasis on the application platform, but notes that even then:

The problem is that when sites use Facebook Connect, they have minimal connection to their user base. An an application or community site wants to create the policies whereby the site communicates to the community, and the community talks to each other. With Facebook Connect, those rules belong to FaceBook. . . . With FB Connect, all your member database are belong to them.

One could argue, of course, that it isn’t a fair comparison. Twitter’s platform is more narrow than Facebook’s, with a much simpler privacy model (protected or not, versus groups, networks, friends, and per-application settings), and much less potential for exposure (photos, videos, and detailed personal info being in Facebook’s direct control versus external services like TwitPic). Facebook would argue, I imagine, that they’re trying to create a high standard for privacy for their users, rather than allow every third party app to set it’s own rules, and that this requires them to maintain more control.

Still, I can’t help but feel that the “Open API” approach – impose as few controls as necessary – is ultimately more web-native and will succeed, while the “Controlled API” approach – only release the functionality absolutely necessary and control use with strict Terms of Service (ever read the FB Connect terms?) – calls to mind the old days of walled gardens like Compuserve, Prodigy, and AOL, before they joined the real web.