Posted on March 7, 2023 in Technology

Twitter: A Case Study of how Modern Websites Break Down

Gutting is Not Always the Solution

Twitter’s meltdown should serve as a warning – while it’s possible to coast off of minimal support for a little bit, it’s not actually all that easy to keep things running on a skeleton crew. And even if Twitter still had all of its staff, would it still be standing after all those changes?

For those of you who don’t use Twitter, Musk’s purchase of the company has been a pretty huge mess for the people working under him. He fired a large percentage of the staff (more than half of the company was laid off) and encouraged those not laid off to leave by insisting Twitter was going to go ‘hardcore’ and they’d have to return to their physical offices for long hours if they valued their job. Many simply sent a salute emoji in the company’s big Slack town square and jumped ship. The people left behind are a mixed bag – engineers that like Musk a lot, people trapped under Twitter’s employment due to work visas, and everybody in between. They’re not the company’s second choice team, by any means, but there are less of them. A lot less. Some might even say it’s too few for the site to function with.

Broken New Features

The blue checkmark fiasco, where Twitter’s CEO promised that being able to simply buy verification would definitely not result in fraud, is one of a number of bad rollouts. A common mantra for startups is to ‘move fast and break things’, a strategy formulated when delaying choices or rollouts to make them not-broken could be the difference between receiving investor money (and customers count as investors here) or not. The iPhone, for example, famously did not work when Steve Jobs first demoed it. It crashed a lot, and it didn’t have great reception. But by demonstrating that everyone was super into the idea, he was able to rally and put out a better, more complete version of the device for customers to buy! Importantly, the iPhone wouldn’t crush the rest of Apple if it didn’t work, so they could afford to play fast with it.

However. Twitter is not a startup, is it? Nor is it releasing a fenced-in product totally unseen before – paid content tiers are new to Twitter, but pretty common everywhere else. (Had Twitter not downsized, it might have even still had the necessary expertise onboard to roll this feature out gracefully.) When a startup moves fast and breaks things, it’s forgivable, because the team might be creating something so groundbreaking that they can’t even keep up with the scope of their idea. When a big company does it, it looks… embarrassing. A team working out of a garage may not have multiple test environments for their app or product. What kind of billion-dollar company doesn’t have test environments?

What kind of billion-dollar company couldn’t see the potential for abuse, especially on a platform dedicated to discussion, either? People were tweeting about misusing this verification shortcut as soon as the announcement was made, and they still went through with it! This new, fast, broken feature shut down a valuable communication channel between big companies and their clients until moderation was put into place. The lack of moderation was supposed to be a feature, you see – Twitter’s previous verification system meant that verified accounts were actually verified by Twitter, not by money, and if they moderated it, it would be like Twitter was doing the verifying again. Again, this is an almost understandable mistake on a smaller platform with less people chomping at the bit to abuse it, but not for multi-billion dollar Twitter. It looked like official pharmaceutical companies were finally breaking good, and like the official channel for Nintendo USA had posted a picture of Mario flipping the bird. Customer support lines on Twitter were strangled by fakes. The response from some of those big companies was understandably angry. Musk attempted to smooth this over by bringing back the individually assigned verification checkmarks, but in gray, and then finally just dropped the idea.

Breaking Old Features

Twitter disabled the service that sent out the 2-Factor Authentication texts in an attempt to prune down microservices. Later, it broke the service that allowed users to tweet directly to their page, meaning only scheduled tweets would go through, when restricting API access. In theory, both actions were unfortunate side effects of trying to streamline user experience: by shutting down what Musk felt was bloatware, Twitter would run faster upon startup. That makes sense. However, Twitter runs on miles and miles of code. And they only have a quarter or so (maybe even less) of the team they had at the start of Musk’s takeover. The resultant ‘breaking’ of microservices like 2FA, and the over-restricting of Tweet permissions, is a direct result of losing the engineers who handled those features before deciding to tinker with them.

Musk’s choice to prune Twitter’s team down to the roots means that every update, every security hole patch, every choice affecting the infrastructure of the site, is now ten times more likely to result in bugs, and those bugs are going to take much longer to fix now.

But hey – at least there’s less overhead. That’s going to be important, because advertisers are not exactly pleased.

Making Simply Existing in the Space A Total Nightmare

The CEO’s promise to ‘stop stifling free speech’ on a platform that’s honestly pretty permissive (a side-effect of being an official channel of communication for a U.S. president, a role that comes with a huge number of responsibilities) certainly earned him brownie points with people who were decidedly not going to use this new, even looser set of rules kindly. People who’d been, say, banned over the use of certain words, in certain targeted circumstances. At the rate Musk was suggesting they loosen moderation, Twitter could have easily turned into 2 Kiwi 2 Farms, where the targets are actually on the same platform the harassment campaigns are planned.

Ultimately, what changes he actually made didn’t matter, because the mere promise of maybe loosening the rules a bit brought a ton of vitriol to the surface anyway, and the remaining moderators at Twitter after Musk’s big ultimatum were not equipped to handle it. Discourse on Twitter was already a horrible, rotten place where nuance goes to die, but people just existing on the site, promoting their wares or keeping up with their favorite singers and actors, were now experiencing a worse version of the site where slurs were now part of the discourse.

Every step of this is an absolute nightmare for advertisers who don’t want an ad for Sunny-D appearing next to a tweet telling someone to off themselves. Musk’s total reign over Twitter combined with his unpredictable behavior means that he can’t even promise he’ll change, because yeah, he might – and what if he makes it even more of a nightmare?

Musk Himself is Part of The Problem

Stephen King declaring that he wasn’t going to pay 20$ to hang around on Twitter as a verified user led to Musk very publicly changing the price point to 8$ – the price that stuck for rollout. How absolutely insane of a business choice! A single celebrity says ‘this costs too much’ (and because he’s a celebrity, you know it’s not because he’s incapable of paying it, the tech-sphere says) and then the price is actually changed. Can you imagine almost any other service just… going for it, like that? This is a perfect example of behavior that would have been funny if Musk had not burned away all his goodwill on stupid stuff, like getting the California high-speed rail canceled in favor of his hyperloop, or calling an account that uses publicly available info on jets a ‘stalker’, calling that cave diver who saved those kids a very mean name with no evidence, or subjecting his staff to inhumane work hours, or that thing with the horse, or the cybertruck delay, or threatening to shut off Ukraine’s new Starlink internet even though the US Government paid for it, the list goes on.

When Musk made a flamethrower available for sale, it was funny! He talks directly to the people! Look, he’s reinventing cars from the ground up! He named his son a bunch of letters and numbers!  When Musk said “both sides are making good points”, it was scary. He has so much money that if he decided to fund an ad campaign for a candidate, that candidate could win. When he appeared behind Dave Chapelle to shout “I’m rich, bitch!” at a show, it was… bizarre. The CEO of Twitter has such an investment in looking cool that he appeared on Rick and Morty as a version of himself with tusks. To his remaining fans, he’s a maverick! To advertisers who’d normally buy Twitter adspace, he’s a nightmare. To car owners, his investment in linking his reputation to Tesla makes Teslas unattractive – a nice electric Ford doesn’t come with all the baggage, and the quality control is more consistent. He could appear anywhere, any time, and nobody can stop him from embarrassing himself and all of the people invested in his brands.

Musk himself is a huge problem for Twitter. A bad CEO can destroy a company as readily as any disaster. People within his other companies report that allegedly, orders from him get filtered a couple of times so they actually make sense when they get where they’re going. While that might be hearsay, comparing Twitter’s past few months to Musk’s more successful companies suggests it’s got some truth to it somewhere. Twitter is not filtering his requests – it wasn’t an organization built with impulsive leaders, so orders generally made sense as they left the head office. Tesla was built around Musk, so the buffers were there the whole time.

For Twitter to survive Musk, it has to essentially remove him from himself.