Twitter may have just had its worst weekend ever, technically speaking. In response to a series of server emergencies, Elon Musk, the Twitter owner and self-professed free-speech “absolutist,” decided to limit how many tweets people can view, and how they can view them. This was not your average fail whale. It was the social-media equivalent of Costco implementing a 10-items-or-fewer rule, or a 24-hour diner closing at 7 p.m.–a baffling, antithetical business decision for a platform that depends on engaging users (and showing them ads) as much as possible. It costs $44 billion to buy yourself a digital town square. Breaking it, however, is free.
First, Twitter set a policy requiring that web users log in to view tweets–immediately limiting the potential audience for any given post to people who have Twitter–and later, Musk announced limits to how many tweets users can consume in a day, purportedly to counter “extreme levels of data scraping & system manipulation.” Although these measures will supposedly be reversed, as others have been during Musk’s tenure, they amount to a sledgehammering of a platform that’s been quietly wasting away for months: Twitter is now literally unusable if you don’t have an account, or if you do have an account and access it a lot. It is the clearest sign yet that Musk does not have his platform under control–that he cannot deliver a consistently functional experience for what was once one of the most vibrant and important social networks on the planet.
The extreme, even illogical nature of these interventions led to some speculation: Is Twitter’s so-called rate limit a technical mistake that’s being passed off as an executive decision? Or is it the opposite: a daring gambit of 13-dimensional chess, whereby Musk is trying to plunge the company into bankruptcy and restructuring? The situation has made conspiracy theorists out of onlookers who can’t help but wonder whether Musk’s plan has been to slowly and steadily destroy the platform all along.
Such theories are compelling, but they all share a flaw, in that they presuppose both a rational actor and a plan. You may not find either here. I’ve reported on Musk for the past five years, speaking with dozens of employees in the process to try to understand his rationales. The takeaway is clear: His motivations are frequently not what they seem, and chaos is a given. His money and power command attention and his actions have far-reaching consequences, but his behavior is rarely befitting of his station.
Of course, many of his acolytes–especially those in Silicon Valley–have tended to believe that he has everything in hand. “It’s remarkable how many people who’ve never run any kind of company think they know how to run a tech company better than someone who’s run Tesla and SpaceX,” the investor Paul Graham tweeted in November, after Musk took over the social network. “In both those companies, people die if the software doesn’t work right. Do you really think he’s not up to managing a social network?” But it has been clear since the moment we got a glimpse into his phone that Musk’s purchase of Twitter was defined by impulse: It appears to have been triggered in part by getting his feelings hurt by the company’s previous CEO. The decision was rash enough that he tried three times to back out of it.
Musk’s management style at the platform has appeared equally unstrategic. After saddling the company with a mountain of debt to complete his acquisition in October, he decided to tweet baseless conspiracy theories and alienate advertisers; days before this incident, the marketing lead in charge of managing Twitter’s brand partnerships had resigned. Musk quickly unbanned Twitter’s most egregious rule breakers; fired most of the employees, including those in charge of technical duties; and bungled the rollout of Twitter’s paid-verification system. Compared with a year earlier, Twitter’s U.S. advertising revenue for the five weeks beginning April 1 was down 59 percent.
Recently, Musk’s public-facing strategy to turn his company around has been to continue tweeting thinly veiled conspiracy theories and sex jokes, cozy up to far-right politicians, hire a CEO who was initially contractually forbidden to negotiate with some of Twitter’s brand partners, and float fighting Mark Zuckerberg in a cage match. To date, Musk’s leadership has degraded the reliability of Twitter’s service, filled the platform with bigots and spam, and alienated many of its power users. But this weekend’s disasters are different. The decision to limit people’s ability to consume content on the platform is the rapid unscheduled disassembly of the never-ending, real-time feed of information that makes Twitter Twitter.
His supporters are confused and, perhaps, starting to feel the cracks of cognitive dissonance. “Surely someone who can figure out how to build spaceships can figure out how to distinguish scrapers from legit users,” Graham–the same one who supported Musk in November–tweeted on Saturday. What reasonable answer could there be for an advertising company to drastically limit the time that potentially hundreds of millions of users can spend on its website? (Maybe this one: On Saturday, outside developers appeared to discover an unfixed bug in Twitter’s web app that was flooding the network’s own servers with self-requests, to the point that the platform couldn’t function–a problem likely compounded by Twitter’s skeleton crew of engineers. When I reached out for clarification, the company auto-responded with an email containing a poop emoji.)
All the money and trolling can’t hide what’s obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention to his Twitter tenure: Elon Musk is bad at this. His incompetence should unravel his image as a visionary, one whose ambitions extend as far as colonizing Mars. This reputation as a genius, more than his billions, is Musk’s real fortune; it masks the impetuousness he demonstrates so frequently on Twitter. But Musk has spent this currency recklessly. Who in their right mind would explore space with a man who can’t keep a website running?