Meta's Threads Raises New Questions About APIs


By: Mary Jander

With the war between Twitter owner Elon Musk and Meta Cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg escalating, it may raise key points about how cloud data and application programming interfaces (APIs) are handled.

Meta last week unveiled its Threads social media app, sparking a predictable knee-jerk reaction from Twitter’s Musk, who stooped to locker-room salvos by calling Zuckerberg: "a cuck" and then proposing a "literal dick measuring contest.”

We can't comment on how the technical platform for such a contest would be administered. But behind the name-calling, there is very real threat – namely, the potential for Threads to fuel a new class of marketing application.

It’s possible that cloud vendors and their developers are pondering new possibilities – and end users voicing concern over their private data being spread like jam across the Internet. Let’s take a closer look.

What About Those APIs?

At the heart of developer and user concerns about Threads are its yet-to-be-clarified APIs. Threads tracks a whack of user data, including health and fitness information, financial information, purchases history, search history, and something called “sensitive information,” which remains unspecified. These are the data items that developers of marketing apps will pay to incorporate in Meta's proprietary APIs that generate apps to serve you the “right” ads. It’s information that’s tracked by other sites in the Meta group, as well as by Twitter. And it’s been a source of wealth and woe for Facebook and Twitter.

Recall that in 2019 Facebook was fined $5 billion by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for violating user privacy, in part due to the data it sold to advertisers that used its APIs. Facebook also tangled with the FTC over how it limited or canceled use of its APIs based on perceived competitive threats. And it’s run afoul of European regulators for years over how it exposes user data across its multiple sites (WhatApp, Instagram, etc.) and sells that data to advertisers' developers. In the past, Facebook also has faced multiple fines in Europe over data breaches related to APIs that made user information available to marketing applications. (Due to European restrictions, Threads isn’t available in the EU right now.)

Twitter has its own API problems. Among the many ham-handed changes instituted by Musk was a new tiered fee scale for APIs, some of which were formerly free. According to reports, enterprises can expect to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per month for the site’s most sophisticated API packages.

Twitter has also had its share of regulatory interference. Last year it was charged millions by the FTC for misleading users about how their data is used by marketers, and it has been fined in Europe for the same thing.

To make matters worse, Twitter traffic has reportedly been “tanking,” according to a tweet by Cloudflare (NYSE: NET) CEO Matthew Prince. He posted a graph showing traffic moving steadily down and to the right as Elon Musk continues to befuddle and infuriate his site’s users.

Open Sharing of User Information

It’s not yet clear how Threads will handle its API issues given the difficulties of the past. But Meta has introduced a ripple in the development process that could hint at what’s to come. Cue ActivityPub, a mechanism with which Meta intends to unify user information across all of its sites as well as those of other social media providers. While this is among the many promised elements missing from Threads at the moment, it could be key to how the site will work in the future.

ActivityPub is a protocol created by the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C’s) Social Web Working Group. It is described by that group as follows:

“The ActivityPub protocol is a decentralized social networking protocol based upon the [ActivityStreams] 2.0 data format. It provides a client to server API [application programming interface] for creating, updating and deleting content, as well as a federated server to server API for delivering notifications and content.”

The idea behind ActivityPub (and Threads) is a “fediverse” – a decentralized group of web servers that share content via APIs. Threads, for instance, shares content with Instagram, and in the future would be able to do so with Mastodon and other platforms that support the protocol. Some observers have likened the ActivityPub paradigm to email because it supports the concept of an address that can be used universally across multiple sites. Your profile and followers will join you on any fediverse site you decide to join.

Exactly how this plays out in terms of the data made available to marketers and the APIs that enable that data to be used in applications isn’t clear right now. Meanwhile, Meta is on a roll, garnering over 100 million users in under a week, while Twitter appears to be heading downhill.

Futuriom Take: If Meta is indeed devoted to ActivityPub, then the company needs to be open to giving users more control over how their data is used in more sophisticated APIs sold to marketers. If that’s the case, Meta is betting on volume to stoke ad apps that may be less effective at tracking user preferences – that and savings on regulatory fines.