Today's news that Linked in has shut off API access to Branch Out, BeKnown, Visible.Me and a number of others once again illustrates the tension between openning data and controlling monetization (in a similar way to Twitter's service changes recently). LinkedIn's reason for shutting down the access is primarily that these companies may be planning premium services which draw on LinkedIn's data (and potentially be a threat to LinkedIn's own monetisation plans).
It would be easy to say that this is a mistake on LinkedIn's part (because of the chilling effect it will almost certainly have on usage of the API) or that it's a no-brainer since other companies are getting (free) access to LinkedIn's prized asset. However, there is another factor to take into account which is neatly put in BranchOut's response to LinkedIn:
"we believe user data should be owned by the user, and that people should be allowed to share their data with the new services and contexts that provide the most utility."
While this may appear a little self serving, LinkedIn profiles are curated by the owners - LinkedIn is effectively the channel for these profiles to reach an audience. Although LinkedIn's terms of service may have all manner of restrictions within them and LinkedIn adds a large amount of value this still raises the question - is LinkedIn an effective channel for distribution of my profile information if it chooses to exclude a broad range of uses of it's API?
In other words, as a LinkedIn user one of my greatest utilities is that I can point people to my profile, have them find me and connect to keep in touch. This is not disimilar to Tweets on Twitter - the fact that Twitter pushes tweets to others by many channels is one of it's major value adds. Shuting off API access actually reduces that value and might make me seek alternatives.
So how can this circle be squared?
I'd argue that rather than shutting off access, LinkedIn should instead;
- Put a price on this access above a certain volume.
- Potentially even as a %age of revenue that value added services earn.
- Set rules such as "no caching" beyond a strict time limit to ensure data cannot be entirely replicated.
- See these services as a value add that will actually drive more users to add profiles to LinkedIn because distribution is wider.
- Set clear rules of engagement and not change them over time.
Might some of the services conflict with LinkedIn's own plans? Possibly, but as long as the price is right, this may even be a net gain.
Facebook seems to be ahead of both LinkedIn and Twitter in this respect - it's 30/70% revenue split with Zynga and other games already ensures that there is always cashback for innovation that draws on it's platform.
BranchOut's statement that the loss of API Access is not a big deal ring a little hollow, however LinkedIn's actions certainly mean that people may begin to seek other places to host their professional profiles that allow more distribution.