It Turns Out Elon Is Speedrunning The Enshittification Learning Curve, Not The Content Moderation One
from the a-race-to-make-the-site-worse-and-worse dept
Our most popular post last year was my post attempting to help Elon Musk “speedrun” the content moderation learning curve. People still talk to me about that post to this day. What’s been somewhat surprising to me, however, is that while nearly every other social media site eventually figures out the basics of the content moderation learning curve, Musk has a Sisyphean ability to slide back down that curve again and again and again.
But I had a realization over the weekend: it’s not the content moderation learning curve that he’s speedrunning. It’s the Enshittification learning curve.
As you’ll recall from Cory Doctorow’s excellent coinage, enshittification happens through the following process:
first, companies are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves.
The key element here is fucking over your users and customers to try to claw back as much value for themselves as possible. When viewed through that lens, the events of the past few days on Twitter make some kind of sense. Because, without that framing, Elon’s moves make zero sense at all.
It started late on Thursday, when Twitter suddenly made it so you could only see tweets if you were registered and logged in. There are other sites where this is true, but it was fundamentally against Twitter’s entire ethos for years. Indeed, Twitter’s early success was driven by that open ability to access the content, and (while people no longer remember this), Mark Zuckerberg’s paranoia about Twitter eating Facebook’s lunch in the early days caused him to pivot the entire company and effectively push more people to publicly revealing their Facebook info in response to Twitter’s openness policy (as an aside, this created one of Facebook’s first big privacy scandals, but… that’s another story).
As has become standard practice, this change was made with no notice or explanation, but a day after it began, Elon explained it in a random reply on Twitter, claiming that “several hundred organizations (maybe more) were scraping Twitter data extremely aggressively, to the point where it was affecting the real user experience.”
This made Twitter a pain to use for many people. It also broke a bunch of things, and even pulled tons of tweets out of Google search. Meanwhile, sometime last night or this morning, it appears that Twitter (again with no explanation and no announcement) rolled back this entire thing and quietly started letting non-logged in users view tweets again.
But, either way, Elon was just getting started. On Saturday, tons of people got messages noting that they were “rate limited” and had exceeded the number of tweets they were allowed to read.
Most people assumed that Twitter had just broken down (again) and was popping out that error. No one actually thought that anyone could possibly be so stupid as to limit the number of tweets that you could see. But, alas, Elon Musk runs Twitter and sees things… um… differently. Hours after tons of users were confused by this, Elon tweeted (not just a reply this time!) that it was all on purpose and most accounts would now be limited to viewing just 600 tweets per day.
If you were willing to pay $8/month, that would be 6000. New accounts could only see 300 tweets. Once again, Musk argued this was because of “data scraping.”
However, multiple people I’ve spoken to, both current and former employees, said that excuse is bullshit. Twitter can easily handle the scraping it’s receiving. It is apparently true that scraping Twitter has increased, but due to Musk’s own policies killing off its API. That move means that many who formerly relied on the API to get data have now resorted to scraping instead. But the actual impact on Twitter from that scraping is not a problem.
Separately, some people noticed that around the same time that all of this was going down, Twitter introduced a very stupid error that meant Twitter was literally DDoSing itself, though it’s not clear if that’s the cause of Musk’s panic either (it is more plausible than scraping, however).
Again, though, if you look at this through the framing of enshittification, it makes more sense. Musk is focused solely on trying to extract all the value of Twitter for himself, not for its users. That this is a ridiculously short-term view, one that drives away those users in the long term, does not seem to have yet occurred to him. But, you know, sometimes he seems a bit slow on the uptake.
Cutting off anything that screams of “freebies” fits well within the enshittification process, because people who get stuff for free need to be mined for value.
Of course, even Elon’s biggest fans seemed to complain that these limits were ridiculous, so he began slowly upping them. A few hours after the initial announcement he upped the limits from 6,000 for people who pay, 600 for most users, and 300 for new users to 8,000/800/400. And a few hours after that, it bumped up again to 10,000/1,000/500.
Amusingly, days later, I’m still seeing tons of people assuming it’s the lower numbers, because this is not how you do product announcements if you actually want people to understand what the fuck you’re doing. I’ve also seen friends insist that he removed all limits, when that does not appear to be the case.
Instead, days later, Twitter put out a ridiculously useless “Update on Twitter’s Rate Limits” that is full of corporate speak nonsense and clarifies literally nothing:
To ensure the authenticity of our user base we must take extreme measures to remove spam and bots from our platform. That’s why we temporarily limited usage so we could detect and eliminate bots and other bad actors that are harming the platform. Any advance notice on these actions would have allowed bad actors to alter their behavior to evade detection.
At a high level, we are working to prevent these accounts from 1) scraping people’s public Twitter data to build AI models and 2) manipulating people and conversation on the platform in various ways.
Currently, the restrictions affect a small percentage of people using the platform, and we will provide an update when the work is complete. As it relates to our customers, effects on advertising have been minimal.
While this work will never be done, we’re all deeply committed to making Twitter a better place for everyone.
At times, even for a brief moment, you must slow down to speed up.
We appreciate your patience.
Literally none of that makes any sense at all. First of all, a couple weeks ago we were being told (falsely) that spam and bots had been already eliminated. How many times is Elon planning to go back to that well as an excuse for his own incompetence?
Second, “any advance notice” of this particular change wouldn’t have made one bit of difference. And, on top of that, even if you don’t give “advance notice,” Twitter put out this statement literally 4 or 5 days after the changes were made, which suggest this wasn’t so much about not giving “advance notice,” it was about no one within Twitter knowing what the fuck is actually going on.
But, the “new CEO” has to pretend this all sensible and normal.
Of course, none of this helps with bots or spam. All it really does is drive down usage of Twitter. The main thing left on Twitter that had mostly kept me on the site was some sports accounts, but just trying to follow tweets about a single baseball game would make me lose access in half an hour or so.
What Elon has done with this rationing of tweets is introduce even more friction. Not just in the fact that some people get limited, but in making users have to think about whether or not it’s worth visiting the site at all, as every tweet you see (and each time you load the page, you get about 20 tweets) is worth cutting into your daily allotment.
It’s a mental transaction cost, on top of everything else. That just makes the entire site way, way, way less valuable. And that includes for advertisers (whose tweets appear to count in the tweet ration limit). And those Musk fans who moved their video programs to Twitter as well. Making your site much more difficult to view is just galaxy brain nonsense, unless you’re so focused on trying to squeeze existing users for cash that you forget what made your site valuable in the process.
Oh, and Musk and co weren’t even done.
Over the weekend, power users who rely on Tweetdeck (which always presented Twitter in a much more useful interface) realized that it wasn’t working. Again, many initially chalked this up to “Elon breaking shit” (which has happened a few times now), but then suddenly it was announced that Twitter had shut down the old Tweetdeck, forced everyone to the “new” Tweetdeck (which has been around since the pre-Elon days, but so many users hated it that it was possible to switch back to the old one). And, on top of that, the company announced that the new, much crappier Tweetdeck would only be available to TwitterBlue subscribers.
If you’re not familiar with Tweetdeck, it was a very nice multi-column view for Twitter, allowing you to follow lists, notifications, searches, and more in a single screen, rather than having to pop through a bunch of different pages to find each thing. It was especially popular with professionals and social media managers. And, now it is way worse than it was and costs money, whereas before it was free.
Again, this will drive down usage of the site, especially by Twitter’s most committed users, and those who provide tons of content to the site.
Of course, none of this makes any sense if you’re trying to build a sustainable business and attract more users. It only makes sense if you’re desperate for cash, have no idea why your own site is valuable, and feel the need to go on a rent seeking expedition to try to capture any and all value that the site provides, even if doing so kills off a significant percentage of that value.
No wonder both Mastodon and Bluesky surged in new users over the weekend. Either way, given that he paid no heed to my attempt to help him better run the content moderation learning curve, I have little doubt he’ll also ignore my recommended steps to avoiding enshittification as well.