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Twitter and the end of the infinite scroll
This is not (quite) how Twitter dies
So… yeah… yikes…
Twitter broke over the weekend. It was a little weird.
I logged in Saturday to search for NBA free agency updates. Almost immediately, I ran into a “rate limit exceeded” error message. I couldn’t load or read any more tweets. The search function didn’t work. The trending hashtags didn’t work. The platform was completely borked.
That wasn’t the weird part. Twitter breaks all the time now. What made this new and different was that Elon Musk declared it to be a feature, not a bug:
It took awhile to piece the story together, since Elon’s tweet-announcement also wouldn’t load. Twitter’s new CEO (lol) Linda Yaccarino made no public statement and tweeted nothing. Twitter’s press team is still a poop emoji auto-responder. But, yeah, the company line is that they’re rationing tweet-views now. (From ratio’ed tweets to rationed tweets: the Elon Musk leadership experience.)
We have no way of knowing what’s actually going on inside the company. Casey Newton is the best-sourced reporter on this beat, and he’s on vacation right now. But I want to share three quick observations:
(1) There is nothing more foundational to Twitter, and to all mobile social media, than the infinite scroll. It’s what they optimize for (engagement/time-on-site). It’s their business model. It’s so foundational to the service that I wouldn’t have thought to mention it. OF COURSE Twitter offers an infinite feed of user content. It also has a mobile app and relies on electricity. Are we just stating obvious things now?
A rate-limited Twitter is a Twitter that ceases to be sticky. A Twitter that forces users to go spend their internet-scrolling time somewhere else. And rate limiting is a particularly bad fit for Twitter because you aren’t selecting the 600 most-interesting tweets to read. The text is being served to you, good or bad, until you hit that arbitrary cap and then go somewhere else.
(2) Elon is almost definitely lying. It isn’t a GOOD lie. But it’s probably a lie that sounded good to him when he came up with it.
The main reason I think this is a lie is that Twitter leaks like a sieve. If Elon had been planning to implement a rate limit last week, someone would’ve told Casey Newton about it before he went on vacation. This is too big and too ostentatiously dumb of a policy change for it to have gone unleaked if it was planned in advance.
What seems most likely is that this has something to do with the planned transition from Google Cloud. Elon, you may recall, has been stiffing Google over its Cloud bill for months now. Twitter owed Google over $42 million. Elon was refusing to pay. He had ordered his engineering team to migrate all critical infrastructure off of Google Cloud and build their own replacements by the end of the month. Newton and Zoe Schiffer reported on June 10th that this deadline was likely to break a ton of load-bearing internal systems.
The New York Times reported last week that one of Yaccarino’s rare successes at Twitter so far was convincing Elon to pay the delinquent Google Cloud bill. So this might be unrelated. But it’s also possible that either (a) this was more aspirationally true than actually true, or (b) Elon demanded his engineers move a bunch of critical infrastructure off of Google Cloud anyway, onto new systems that they had just built and hadn’t tested yet.
If that is what happened — if, as Charlie Warzel writes, “Elon Musk really broke Twitter this time” — it seems entirely plausible that he would declare “uh, we meant to do this. Because of the AI and the bots," and then return to retweeting white nationalists and anti-vax conspiracy theorists. (oh, and also daydreaming about stripping the right to vote away from all non-parents.)
Elon is a bad person. And also an unserious person. The only good news, as Paul Musgrave writes, is that he has single-handedly undermined the mythology of the billionaire-genius myth:
The wonderful thing about this is that Elon is losing a lot of money, and he’s also getting himself crosswise with investors who will be none too happy that he also lost them a lot of money. Nobody should have $44 billion to begin with, but Elon has done more to take money from billionaires than any DSA caucus has ever imagined. Thanks, Comrade Elon! Between this and the submersible, you’ve done a lot to make clear that “rich” and “intelligent” don’t always go together. (And you’ve also made clear that we need to stop billionaires from having anything more to do with interplanetary colonization. Can you imagine the Mars Terms of Service being rewritten on the fly by this guy?)
(3)I don’t think this actually kills Twitter. The rate limits will be lifted within the week. They are simply too self-evidently counterproductive to last.
I argued back in March that Twitter would declare bankruptcy once the inevitable fines from the FTC and the EU were announced. I gave it ~6 months. I still think Twitter keeps sputtering along until the fines arrive. And I have no direct insights into how much longer that will take. Here’s how I concluded that post:
My hunch is that the fines will be the final straw. When the fines come, Elon is going to seize on them as a reputational life raft.
He’ll declare bankruptcy and blame the regulators. “I was THIS CLOSE to turning around this important, innovative company that is a threat to the mainstream media and all those crooked politicians,” he’ll say. “But then the liberal bureaucrats stepped in and fined the company out of existence! There’s nothing I can do about it. Twitter is dead now. It all would’ve worked out if not for that meddling government.”
That narrative will, objectively, be bullshit. But his VC buddies and the MAGA/Tesla fanboys and the intellectual dark web podcasters will lap it up. It will be a face-saving story with all the right villains. Elon Musk, certified business genius, didn’t burn Twitter to the ground. He almost saved Twitter, until he was foiled by the machinations of the professional managerial class.
That’s how I expect Twitter will end. The finances are bad, the product is breaking down, the userbase is decaying. That downward slide will continue at a slow, steady pace. But what will finally break it is one of these financial time bombs self-detonating. It will probably be the regulatory fines, and that will have the knock-on effect of offering him a face-saving story to tell his friends and obsessive fans.
The company will go bankrupt with a bang, not a whimper.
I’m sticking to that prediction. Twitter will keep being a carnival until Elon has a face-saving excuse to shut it down for good.
It won’t be a good carnival anymore. All the best rides will have been abandoned or shut down. Most of what is left will be obviously-rigged games, outdated attractions that only appeal to your racist uncle (*cough* Tucker Carlson *cough*), and snake oil advertisements. But this weekend’s rate limit episode won’t be the end of Twitter. Elon has enough money to keep the site operating until he can put together a story where he’s the hero instead of a bumbling oaf.
And the one silver lining is that gives us all a little more time to find suitable replacements.
The grass is greener, the skies are bluer, on the other side.