APIs are the printing presses of social media. Like Gutenberg's machines, APIs are uninteresting in and of themselves, but absolutely essential for the transmission of important ideas between people. We learn about APIs by paying attention to what exists on either side of them: Who is the sender? Who is the receiver? What is being communicated? As we answer these questions, we endow the API with meaning. Over time, some APIs become more than just generic transport mechanisms; some become destinations in their own right. For example, the Flickr API is one such case, where its proximity to interesting data streams seems to have emboldened its management to claim interestingness as their own invention . My original goal for introducing the API as one of the five elements of Media Futures was to emphasize its function as the natural transport mechanism through which human data streams turn into money.
... establish the API as a key component of media futures, specifically as the hinge between the algorithm that processes raw human meta data and the moment of alchemy that occurs when you discover something you didn't even know you were looking for, courtesy of some people that you didn't even know that you knew. Media Futures 2005: API
It is difficult to talk directly about APIs since their value is based on their role as vessels for the movement of data between people. Perhaps in order to describe an API, therefore, one needs to use language similar to that used in describing global currencies or financial instruments- price, liquidity and volatility. We want to know the value of the data moving across boundaries, how robust the stream is, and how frequently it changes in any significant way. And so as I license access to an API, what I am really doing is entering into a contract to take delivery of information in the future. I call the server, with the expectation of receiving a certain type of information in a certain format. My hunch is that this information, so delivered, is going to attract the attention of others more so than I might have with my own internal data. The quick investment math I do, therefore, as a Web Services trader, is to gauge whether the cost (mostly technical and opportunity, sometimes financial) of accessing a particular stream is less than the incremental value it will add to my social media application on a go-forward basis. The instruments that I am trading are, of course, people. And the way that I am able to distinguish one meta data belly from another is based on the richness and authenticity of the human data stream. Just as there are different grades of Gold, or Corn, or Bonds for that matter, there are different qualities of "natural" human API streams.
We need to go back a bit, 50 years in fact, to trace back the history of social media computing (aka cybernetics) to a genuine concern for the natural expressivity of human beings. In his 1954 book, the Human Use of Human Beings, Norbert Weiner prefigures the radical support of user in control that we see today in the work of Steve Gillmor at AttentionTrust and Mitchell Baker at Mozilla.
It is my thesis that the operation of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel. Both of them have sensory receptors as one stage in their cycle of operation: that is, in both of them there exists a special apparatus for collecting information from the outer world at low energy levels, and for making it available in the operation of the individual or of the machine. In both cases, these external messages are not taken neat, but through the internal transforming powers of the apparatus, whether it be alive or dead. The information is then turned into a new form available for the further stages of performance. ...our view of society differs from the ideal of society which is held by many Fascists, Strong Men in Business, and Government. Similar men of ambition for power are not entirely unknown in scientific and educational institutions. Such people prefer an organization in which all orders come from above, and none return. The human beings under them have been reduced to the level of effectors for a supposedly higher nervous organism. I wish to devote this book to a protest against this inhuman use of human beings; for in my mind, any use of a human being in which less is attributed to him than his full status is a degradation and a waste. Norbert Weiner, 1954, The Human Use of Human Beings
Herein lies the key to creating meaningful APIs: attributing full status to the Internet user. What does this status mean exactly for media companies in November 2006? Mitchell Baker captures this particularly well when she writes that:
Each individual is not just an exporter of raw data that others process to gain value out of and sell back to her, her place on the value chain is much higher. She should be able to weave the data into a fabric that represents her value, and she should benefit from that value.
The act of weaving that Baker refers to is a classical gesture. It invokes the same Greek Sieve that I referred to a few months back in the discussion of Algorithm. The gestures of social media, however, want to be consumed electronically so that they can spread without the usual gravity that keeps local physical gestures in their place. The evolution from physical gestures to electronic gestures as it relates to the future history of APIs is the subject of the next and final essay on API, before we move on to Alchemy.