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Twitter’s API changes could spell harassment for fan accounts

Not to mention the loss of many beloved bots

A photo of a phone on a desk with a close-up on Elon Musk’s Twitter account Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Elon Musk’s announced changes to the free Twitter API have put thousands of accounts under threat, including automated accounts dispensing weather updates, tracking news headline changes, and generating descriptive text for images. On Feb. 9, Twitter’s API will no longer be available for free, with a “paid basic tier” available instead, according to the Twitter developer account. If it goes through, this change will have a big impact — probably bigger than many Twitter users realize.

The announcement has caused a panic among people who rely on tools that use the API in order to stay safe on Twitter. (Twitter currently only charges for premium tiers of API access, according to The Verge.) This includes utilities for mass-blocking, like the popular Twitter Block Chain Chrome extension, which aims to reduce dogpiling and harassment by allowing a user to block all followers of another user — such as every user who liked a transphobic tweet from J.K. Rowling, or, on a smaller scale, everyone who follows a user you dislike.

Naomi Wu, a China-based DIY YouTuber who faces frequent online harassment, expressed fear that the Twitter API changes would lead to an inability to mass block.

Many fan accounts also expressed fear that blocking tools would no longer work. Harassment from and between fan accounts on Twitter can be debilitating, given the scope, level of coordination, and density of attacks. Whether it’s fans of rival factions feuding with each other or fans launching coordinated campaigns at outsiders, breaking tools that utilize Twitter’s API will have a negative effect on the ability for fans to feel comfortable using the platform.

In addition to anxieties about the loss of useful tools to preserve user safety on Twitter, the loss of free access to Twitter’s API will deal heavy damage to the population of bots on Twitter. Of course, Musk has a documented fixation with spam bots, and presumably his API changes are aimed at combating the specter of harmful automated accounts that seems to haunt him so severely. In December, he went on a spree of bot-abolishment, specifically targeting the @ElonJet account, which tracked the location of his private plane; changes to the API last month already permanently shuttered third-party Twitter apps, including the popular Tweetbot app.

But a vocal proportion of the people upset with the proposed change to the API, which would require all accounts to pay to access the Twitter API above a certain number of requests, are members of “Fan Twitter.” For them, interaction with media-themed accounts run through the API is a daily source of pleasure.

Daily Vocaloid. Folklore Bot. Every Breaking Bad Frame In Order, FFXIV Quotes Bot, and thousands more fan-run and fan-appreciated automated accounts are under threat. And their followers’ anxieties persisted even as Musk made a vague statement, on Sunday, that he would be “responding to feedback” by releasing a free write-only version of the Twitter API for accounts providing “good” content to use. How “good” will be judged is still opaque.

Fans are in the anticipatory stage of grief, already sad about the day when their favorite characters will no longer pop up on their timeline on the hour, every hour.

Many of these bots are powered by V Buckenham’s Cheap Bots, Done Quick software, which has an incredibly easy-to-use interface that allows anyone to fill a bot’s library with content and set it to post regularly as well as respond to mentions. I’ve used CBDQ to create numerous bots for my fandoms, and have found it a pleasant and fulfilling experience (my favorite one was a bot that mimicked the horoscope app Co–Star’s push notifications, but changed all the captions to be quotes from my favorite show). Buckenham stated in a recent interview that they wouldn’t want to spend their own money keeping the service up if the API starts to cost money.

However, some accounts that seem to be automated are, in fact, not actually bots — like Hourly Deancas, a Destiel-themed account that posts Dean/Cas clips from Supernatural on an hourly basis, is actually manually run (though scheduled ahead of time) by the account’s owner. The Rei Ayanami Daily account likewise clarified, “I do not have to worry about the Twitter API change because I am not a bot. I always manual posted because I have brain problems.”

Bot accounts are a vital part of Twitter’s ecosystem. Within fandom circles, however, they play a particularly important role. Whether manual or automated, bot accounts that post lyrics, screencaps, quotes, and clips are a manifestation of one of the hallmarks of fandom: the repeated encounter. Fans derive pleasure from experiencing the object of their fandom over and over and over again. Rewatching, yes, but also participatory acts like writing fanfiction and drawing fan art are ways to extend the encounter with the beloved canon — or as fandom scholar Daniel Cavicchi puts it in a 2014 scholarly article, ways to remain within “the performance frame.” Each hourly bot post is like a dispenser of a jolt of free fandom joy, reminding fans of their “comfort characters,” and sparking discussion and enthusiasm in micro-bursts of content.

Twitter has always been a complicated environment for fandom. Its vastness and popularity have undeniably caused fan activity to become more publicly visible than it had been when constrained to the closed (or relatively more closed) digital fandom spaces of years past. The proximity of celebrity has encouraged parasocial relationships between creators and fans, sometimes resulting in noxious blowups like the Hannibal Twitter Wars between showrunner Bryan Fuller and various factions of fans. Fans have utilized Twitter to get shows renewed, to have fiery debates about concert etiquette, and of course to run campaigns to boost the viewing or listening numbers of their faves.

Since Elon Musk’s takeover has begun to have a palpable impact on the platform’s usability, fans have sought alternatives to Twitter. Some have gone to Mastodon, where servers like federatedfandom.net offer small-scale short-form fandom social media; others have gone back to Tumblr, and still others have taken the terrifying leap to TikTok.

But for fans who still use Twitter as their main fandom platform and have no plans to leave, these bot accounts are an essential part of the user experience, and losing them will mean losing what has up until now been a consistent and reliable source of joy. Unlike fickle creators and overdramatic friend groups, bots are always there for you, no matter what, delivering quotes and images in abundance and without complaint.

The bots themselves have begun to break character to say their preemptive goodbyes, resulting in heartfelt goodbyes from their followers.

Users still don’t know what Musk’s interpretation of “good” content looks like, or which apps and accounts might be able to continue to access Twitter’s API for free. Such an arbitrary delineation might leave out more complex, API-calling bots who respond directly to user queries; it also might still do away with the third-party mass-blocking and -reporting utilities that users depend on to maintain a safe experience on the platform.

With other new Elon-promised features due to roll out soon, like the bonkers 26,000-plus character limit, Twitter may well become unrecognizable. But if there’s one thing fandom can do, it’s adapt to new situations, doing whatever it takes to keep enjoying their favorite things.

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