Net API Notes for 2022/05/25 - Issue 198

At the top, I want to thank folks for their patience. While I've been at this awhile, putting together a newsletter is anything but a science. Some weeks the words flow like wind wolves across the prairie. Other weeks, like the last several, I see an intriguing whitepaper that simply takes longer to comprehend and summarize. Thank you for continuing to read - whenever that happens to end up being!

Now, below the scroll, let's talk about Facebook, platforms, and API Governance.

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Picture of Tweet from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation clarifying that bear spray does not work like bug spray. The caption is "when the interface is consistent, but the behavior is not cohesive".



API platforms: if you work in software, you're either building one, using one, or railing against one. Many developers may be able to list the technical components of a platform, but a bucket of features alone isn't enough to commandeer billboard space at the airport. Those platform features need to be accompanied by power: the power over clients, integrations, and the broader API ecosystem.

Fernando N. van der Vlist, Anne Helmond, Marcus Burkhardt, and Tatjana Seitz published a seminal whitepaper that explains how this works. It traces the evolution of Facebook’s APIs, from a simple means of data access into a complex layered and interconnected governance arrangement. In the process, the authors demonstrate how APIs facilitate and govern the material conditions app development and the social and economic processes they sustain. In doing so, platforms like Facebook influence the evolution of their larger ecosystems.

The whitepaper introduced me to the term technicity. Technicity, as it is used here, is the collective dynamics caused by Facebook's technical decisions - what is included in the APIs, how those things are communicated, and who (ultimately) gets access. The technicity of Facebook’s API governance, subsequently, represents a major source of the platform’s "infrastructural power."

Hopefully, long-time readers of this newsletter have gleaned that APIs are more than technical objects. Managed as products on modern platforms, they have become complex, layered, and interconnected technical agreements, prone to constant change. The whitepaper authors found that APIs evolve through the interactivity between a platform and its communities of use, app development, and monetization by businesses, as well as through pressures originating from a platform’s competitive and regulatory environments. APIs enable and control the possible relationships and interactions between these different users and stakeholders and thus serve as a core technical dimension of "platform governance".

When it comes to Facebook, what does this platform governance consist of?

"These distinct interfaces reflect what Facebook’s APIs are or are not intended for and how those intended uses have changed and evolved. Furthermore, we may distinguish how those things are governed. Facebook Platform has a variety of access controls that serve as additional layers of API governance. These include distinct access levels, rate limits, App Review, verification processes for business and individual developers, and application permissions for distinct app types (e.g., consumer apps, business apps). Furthermore, we may discern who is governed. Facebook offers distinct programming interfaces for its user groups, including the developers of apps, games, and advertising and marketing technology. The distinct user and app types, the App Review process, and permissions provide additional controls over specific (individual) users and uses."

On the surface, it would appear that by providing an API to external users, as Facebook has, there is a loss of power; 3rd parties are (within the terms of service) take what's available and "own" the customer relationships (and possibly profits) with Facebook's data. However, as the paper argues, these APIs actually enable Facebook to maintain more infrastructural control over those apps and services than previously thought. The result of Facebook's API governance, thus, enlarges their platform’s operational scale and scope ("Look all these things built by the community we didn't have time or imagination for!"). At the same time, this effort also consolidates Facebook's position of power within the ecosystem.

"We observe that platforms like Facebook do not only shape their own evolution (e.g., Helmond et al., 2019), but also shape (or 'orchestrate') the evolution of their ecosystem through API design, governance, and strategy. It is because APIs are governance arrangements, more than mere programming interfaces, that platforms can set, shape, and alter the material conditions of development on their different 'sides,' such as for app development by individuals, marketers, or advertisers. These conditions directly influence, often in subtle ways, what can and cannot be built, sustained, or thrive in the ecosystem."

While reading the paper, it occurred to me how an externalized GraphQL interface would cede much of the platform power described. These kinds of APIs would still necessitate governance decision-making over who gets access. However, the ability to "shape" what is built by the wider industry through designed representations would be absent.

Ultimately, it is a thoroughly fascinating bit of research that quotes from and supports the message of one of the most important books I've found for software architects and technical leaders: Amrit Tiwana's Platform Ecosystems: Aligning Architecture, Governance, and Strategy.



I recently had the good fortune to chat with Kristof Van Tomme and Marc Burgauer for an episode of the API Resilience podcast. In part one, now released, we discussed complexity, alignment, and the softer side of software. If that sounds interesting, please give it a listen when you have a chance. I've added it to my list of appearances.

Speaking of Kristof and Marc, they're putting on a series of free online conversations regarding APIs and complexity. I'll even be speaking at the first session June 15th. If you are interested in considering the entire API forest, not just an API tree, give the even details a look. And if you're in the hunt for a different API meetup or conference event, then lists several more items.

And now, this newsletter's Patrons deserve a spot of praise. Their support keeps these email issues free of ads, paywalls, or information selling. Thank you!

Till next time,

Matthew @libel_vox and

While I work at Concentrix Catalyst, the playful ducks in a world otherwise comprised of spiteful geese, the opinions presented above are mine.

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