Why Elon Musk’s emergency tweet rationing is not a good sign for future of ‘decaying, dysfunctional’ Twitter

Elon Musk has throttled the number of posts that Twitter users can see per day to tackle issues with the platform, causing mass desertions and spikes in signups for competitors.

After removing the ability for people without Twitter accounts to view tweets, Musk announced on Saturday that he would also “temporarily” limit non-paying accounts to viewing just 600 tweets a day – a quota that most users ran through in less than an hour, effectively cutting off their access to the platform.

The South African billionaire, who paid over the odds to take over Twitter last year, suggested the step was a move to combat third-party apps and services illicitly “scraping” Twitter’s data.

Earlier this year, Mr Musk drastically raised the price of direct access to Twitter data for tech firms and researchers, in an apparent bid to get businesses developing artificial intelligence (AI) systems to pay in order to download millions of tweets.

The daily natural language interactions of millions of social media users can be powerful sources of training data to develop models that aim to mimic the way we speak – similar to how learning a foreign language benefits from eavesdropping on native speakers conversing with one another.

But rather than pay Twitter, Mr Musk now claims companies are harvesting the data illicitly, requiring the “temporary” cap.

At first, Mr Musk set very low limits for the number of tweets users could see. For the average user who was not a new sign-up, you could only view 600 tweets a day before Twitter would stop loading any more. Subscribers to Twitter Blue, Mr Musk’s $8-a-month subscription service, would get 6,000.

In setting those limits, Mr Musk inevitably set a value on the average tweet – around 0.006 cents.

But in panicked scenes, Mr Musk began rapidly devaluing his platform, the value of which depends on the content its users create. Sensing frustration from users who quickly hit their limits, Musk first raised them to 800 for free users and 8,000 for paid ones, then 1,000 for free users and 10,000 for paid ones.

Whether Twitter’s advertisers will be happy that users might not encounter their posts if they hit their limit seems not to have been considered in the knee-jerk move.

Alternatives to Twitter, including Bluesky, set up by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, saw such significant spikes in new users following Mr Musk’s declaration that they had to temporarily stop accepting new applicants.

“The problem with Musk’s approach is he isn’t offering a premium Twitter platform,” said Noah Giansiracusa of Bentley University. “He’s offering premium access to a decaying and increasingly dysfunctional platform that’s becoming overrun by obnoxious spammy accounts and self-promotion.”

Twitter lives or dies on its ability to show users content. And this weekend’s decisions have hamstrung that. But it’s necessary, says Mr Musk, to tackle a swarm of data scrapers.

That’s Mr Musk’s explanation, and he appears to be sticking to it. (He did not respond to multiple questions asking how the rate-limiting would work, or why it was happening.)

But sceptics of the idiosyncratic Twitter boss think there may be something else going on.

Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of safety, said it “doesn’t pass the sniff test that scraping all of a sudden created such dramatic performance problems,” adding that scraping “was the open secret of Twitter data access” and “it was fine”.

That the change occurred on 1 July – when old monthly contracts end and new ones begin – seemed notable. Suspicions were fuelled by prior reports, from Twitter insiders, that the company has withheld payments for key infrastructure services like the hosting that keeps the platform online. It would make sense, the sceptics’ theory goes, for Mr Musk to limit the number of tweets users can see if one of those service providers has pulled the plug over non-payment.

However, Twitter reportedly restarted paying for hosting in late June. Twitter’s press office did not respond to questions for this story, automatically responding with a poop emoji.

Not paying bills, and limiting user access to cope with a shortfall of server space, would cause huge harm to Twitter seems not to matter to Mr Musk. “There’s no point in driving cost out of a business if it limits customers’ consumption,” said Alan Woodward, professor of cybersecurity at the University of Surrey. “That’s not viable in the long term.”

Professor Woodward is “genuinely shocked” at the move. He said he had to read Mr Musk’s tweets announcing the change multiple times because he thought it couldn’t possibly be correct.

“If things are that bad with the infrastructure, one cannot help but conclude the whole system is close to grinding to a halt, as many of us were discussing months ago when he started reducing infrastructure,” said professor Woodward. Former Twitter engineers said the platform could very easily disappear as small issues snowballed into larger ones.

The general dysfunction has given credence to another theory that has bubbled under on social media: that Mr Musk is telling the truth about the vast amount of traffic hitting his site’s computer servers, but is misguided about from where it’s coming.

Two separate analyses of Twitter’s data transfers suggest that at least part of the spikes in activity on Twitter Mr Musk attributes to web scrapers could be coming from his own platform misfiring. Earlier this weekend, he limited the ability for any user who did not have a Twitter account to view content on the platform.

Some experts suggest this change was implemented incorrectly due to a lack of long-term expertise in Twitter’s coding staff brought about by Mr Musk’s mass layoffs after he bought the company. This risk of a recurring code error nightmare has previously been reported.

“There must some issue they’ve run up against with serving the volumes requested,” said professor Woodward. “Maybe caused by the infrastructure changes he made.”



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