On the shoulders of APIs

On the shoulders of APIs

By fostering engagement and turning participants into cocreators, APIs can play a giant-sized role in scaling digital communities.
Part of
Issue 14 August 2020


With over 13,000 members, hundreds of press mentions, and $900,000 in revenue in 2019, Nomad List is one of the largest online communities for remote workers. One might expect it to be managed by a team, but it’s run by just one person: Pieter Levels. And rather than rely on human moderators and contributors, Levels has turned to APIs for support. As he puts it, “Nomad List is built [not] on the shoulders of giants, but of APIs.”

APIs for automation

The use of APIs to connect several applications and automate repetitive interactions may seem routine, but community leads’ reliance on APIs have made them integral to interest-based communities, shaping the conversations, identities, and experiences of their members. While all of Nomad List’s data on the best places for remote work—number of coworking spaces, Wi-Fi quality, coffee shop density, safety, LGBTQ friendliness, and so on—was initially crowdsourced from the community, Levels now mostly relies on APIs to aggregate over a thousand data points per city. These are sourced monthly, weekly, daily, even hourly.

In addition to a large repository of information on remote work, a job board, and a dating service, Nomad List maintains a Slack group where members can connect via regional channels. Levels built a robot on top of the Slack Events API that processes a thousand messages per day, auto-detecting spam, deleting messages that violate community guidelines, and banning repeat offenders.

Creating a bot to welcome new members using the Telegram API was one of Marie Denis’s highest priorities when she launched Women Make, a community for women entrepreneurs. “At first I was greeting [newcomers] myself, but it eventually became unsustainable,” she says. Today, the Women Make bot uses specific keywords and API-driven triggers from the Women Make web application to auto-follow new members on Twitter, share articles written by members on the forum, and send gentle reminders discouraging self-promotion, among other actions.

These API-based behaviors have yielded more positive conversations across channels and fostered a culture that’s welcoming to new members. “Marie’s bot is really helpful. It reminds us that the goal of Women Make is first and foremost to encourage and support one another. I often see members using the bot to display our skills sheet, with all the fields in which we offer mutual help,” says Clo, a UX designer from France who has been part of the community for two years.

APIs for collaboration

“It’s tempting to automate as much as possible, but, especially when building a community, it’s important to keep the human connection,” says Marc Köhlbrugge. He founded WIP, a community for shared to-do lists that uses the Telegram API to connect its Telegram-hosted group chat with the community web application. WIP also offers members an open GraphQL API, which allows them to build third-party applications for the community. One example is Notify, a bot built by Simple Analytics founder Adriaan van Rossum to simultaneously generate to-do items on WIP and GitHub.

In this way, APIs are able to foster authenticity—genuine interaction and connection between people—at scale. In his 2010 paper “Authenticity, Community, and Modernity,” published in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, Kenneth Bessant posits that authentic communities emerge when community members become cocreators and self-interests are aligned with shared interests. (An exemplary model is the cooperative, such as Co-op Food, the UK’s sixth largest supermarket chain.) By offering an API, many successful online communities can invite their members to become cocreators. “It’s almost like we’re collaboratively building WIP with our members, rather than us building it for them,” says Köhlbrugge.

While several social media platforms have a love-hate relationship with third-party applications based on their APIs—Twitter is known to routinely suspend applications, and Facebook regularly rolls out new API restrictions and shutdowns—many chat-based software companies, such as Slack, Discord, Telegram, and Discourse, have embraced API integrations as a fundamental component of their platforms.

Recently, DEV, an online community of over 400,000 developers that champions networked learning, launched its own API with detailed documentation. DEV members have been eager to contribute solutions—creating their own DEV blog with GatsbyJS, developing a browser wrapper, integrating with GitHub Actions, and automatically publishing new articles. In some cases, the DEV team uses the community-built products, such as the post scheduler PublishTo.Dev. The open API allows members to shape the underlying mechanisms that power the community.

“We’ve really been amazed by how much having an open API has enriched what we do,” says DEV cofounder Ben Halpern. “It’s a way to ensure creativity flows in the community through its technical users.”

For Makerlog, a community of 4,000 technical founders, opening the API and providing comprehensive documentation resulted in dozens of integrations, including a mobile app, a Google Assistant action, an Alfred workflow, and a menu bar app for macOS. “Most people create integrations that are useful to them—things that solve problems they have,” says Sergio Mattei, Makerlog’s founder. “Allowing creativity and custom integrations helps build a deeper sense of community. You’re no longer the user of a product, but invested in the ecosystem as well.”

The constraints of open APIs

External APIs can also break. “A lot of my work every year is switching from a broken or discontinued API to the new working API,” says Levels. “Change is the constant.”

“We did not make APIs a central priority early on due to concerns about maintenance of the endpoints,” explains Halpern. “Committing to not breaking external APIs can really lock you in.” Though the DEV community “sort of forced our hand” with its enthusiasm for APIs, he adds, “to some extent, we’ve avoided this pitfall by being slow and steady with our API expansion.”

For communities that offer an open API, another challenge is how contributors may use—or misuse—it. “The platform gives up some control. This is a nuanced subject in terms of ensuring accessibility standards remain high and all users are supported, regardless of the way the APIs are being used or consumed,” says Halpern.

API-powered ecosystems

Despite these risks, the collaboration APIs enable is at the heart of a broader shift among online communities from closed groups to open platforms. No longer siloed, each community can become a node that interacts with other platforms, fostering a culture of openness and curiosity. As DEV and Makerlog illustrate, online communities that offer open APIs and extensive documentation can grow stronger thanks to increased collaboration, investment, and sense of belonging. And the resulting tools and services can lead to further adoption.

“Having a fully featured API allows data to flow between our platform and others, ensuring we are part of a rich ecosystem, rather than owning the whole ecosystem,” says Halpern.

This shift may be inescapable for interest-based online communities like these. “Creative developers are going to make things happen, whether you explicitly give them the APIs or not,” says Halpern. And the trend won’t only impact communities with largely technical members. As low-code services such as Zapier proliferate, the gap in growth and engagement will only widen between communities that offer open APIs and those that don’t.

APIs have already started shaping the culture of communities. And by fostering engagement, turning members into cocreators, and driving the shift to ecosystems, APIs will also prove the key to scaling them.

About the author

Anne-Laure Le Cunff studies neuroscience at King’s College London and is the founder of Ness Labs, a community for knowledge workers and creators with a focus on mindful productivity. Her work has been featured in Rolling StoneWired, and Forbes.


Artwork by

Eric Nyffeler


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