The Media Today

Twitter throttles tweets as Meta launches a competitor

July 6, 2023
In this photo illustration, a Metaverse logo seen displayed on a smartphone with Facebook logos in the background. (Photo by Avishek Das / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Last Friday, Twitter suddenly started blocking anyone not logged in to a Twitter account from seeing public tweets, reversing a feature that the platform had allowed since it launched, in 2007. As The Verge reported, Twitter didn’t announce any policy change, and so it was initially unclear whether the block was intentional or just the latest in a series of technical glitches to have bedeviled the platform since Elon Musk acquired it last year. Musk eventually tweeted that the change was a “temporary emergency measure” necessitated by what he described as the rampant “scraping,” or copying, of tweets by third parties in an act that he called “data pillaging.” At time of writing, the restriction appeared to have been lifted, according to the Search Engine Roundtable. The group chats breathed a sigh of relief.

This wasn’t the end of the Twitter drama, however. On Saturday, Musk announced that logged-in users would also face restrictions when viewing tweets, in the form of a “rate limit” that would be determined based on their account status. Musk said that unverified users—in other words, anyone who hasn’t paid eight dollars a month for a subscription to the Twitter Blue service, or been awarded verified status by virtue of being an advertiser or celebrity—would be able to see a maximum of six hundred posts per day; verified accounts would be capped at six thousand. Musk later added that, in the near future, the rate limits would increase to eight hundred and eight thousand tweets per day for unverified and verified users, respectively, with new unverified accounts capped at four hundred. 

As The Verge noted, Musk blamed the scraping of Twitter, in part, on companies that are trying to harvest data to train artificial-intelligence engines, but he didn’t mention that the incident might have been driven, at least in part, by his own decisions. Twitter recently imposed fees for access to its software API, which allows third-party services to pull tweets to display in their apps. And, since taking over the company, Musk has laid off more than three-quarters of its staff, many of whom were involved in maintaining its technical infrastructure. Last November, an unnamed Twitter engineer told the MIT Technology Review that after watching the layoffs at the company, he was convinced that, in the future, “things will be broken more often [and] things will be broken for longer periods of time.” In March, a change by a single engineer led to an outage; two months later, the much-hyped live launch of Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign via the Twitter Spaces feature was crippled by glitches. There have been other such examples.

Earlier this week, as Musk tweeted through the latest round of technical problems, Twitter had still not made any official company statement about them. Press requests sent to the company received an automated poop emoji in reply, as has become standard practice. After several days of outcry from users, Twitter finally posted an official statement to its blog. The statement said that the rate limits were imposed so that the company could “detect and eliminate bots and other bad actors” that were causing unspecified forms of harm to the service, and that the company didn’t provide advance notice of the restrictions because this would have allowed the bad actors “to alter their behavior to evade detection.” The blog post went on to say that the restrictions had only affected a small percentage of users, and that the impact on advertising on the platform had so far been “minimal.” 

Marketing industry observers, however, told Reuters that the rate limits could indeed harm Twitter’s relationship with advertisers, which was already fragile. This would make life harder for Linda Yaccarino, a former advertising executive at NBC who took over from Musk as Twitter’s CEO last month and has said that restoring the company’s reputation with advertisers is one of her main goals. Twitter appears to need help in this area: last month, the New York Times reported, citing an internal presentation, that Twitter’s US ad revenue declined by almost 60 percent in April compared with the year prior. A forecast in the same document estimated that ad revenue would be down by a similar amount in June. Some of Twitter’s biggest advertisers—including Apple, Amazon, and Disney—have been spending less on the platform than they did last year, three former and current Twitter employees told the Times. The staffers added that large specialized ads on Twitter’s trends page, which can cost up to half a million dollars for twenty-four hours and are almost always bought by large brands, are often going unfilled. 

Musk has accused advertisers of putting “extreme pressure” on Twitter and trying to drive it into bankruptcy. But many observers have laid the blame squarely with Musk himself. “If there’s ever been a more self-destructive owner of a multibillion-dollar enterprise who resents the very customers who determine the success of that enterprise,” Lou Paskalis, the CEO of the marketing strategy firm AJL Advisory, told the Times this week, “I am unaware of it.” Whatever the reason for the rate limits, or explanations for the technical glitches, Twitter has the feel of a car whose parts are barely holding together. Is this the beginning of the end for the platform (or the middle of the end, if you prefer)? It’s probably too soon to say for sure. There’s no question that the company’s rivals smell blood in the water. But which—if any—of their Twitter competitors takes flight also remains to be seen.

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Yesterday, a day earlier than advertised, Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, launched its offering in this space: an app called Threads, which started life as an experimental spin-off from Instagram, with the code name Project 92. “Mark Zuckerberg has long wanted to dislodge Twitter and provide the central place for public conversation online,” Mike Isaac wrote in the Times, but “Twitter has remained stubbornly irreplaceable.” Until now, at least. According to a post on Threads from Zuckerberg, the new app had two million sign-ups in less than two hours.

I was among those to sign up. In the short time that I’ve been using Threads, I’ve already noticed a few things. One is that Meta clearly preloaded the app with hundreds or possibly thousands of celebrity users, “influencers,” and brands. Whether users appreciate that or find it annoying remains to be seen. I also noticed how much Threads is missing when compared with Twitter. There are no hashtags or direct messages, and the stream is composed of everyone using the service, meaning there is no way of seeing just the people you are following. (Though this feature may follow soon. Meta has also said that it plans to federate or interlink its service with other apps.)

As the Wall Street Journal notes, Meta has a long track record of trying—and, in many cases, failing—to duplicate features that have become popular on other apps, from Pinterest and Snapchat to TikTok. There is certainly no guarantee that Meta’s new app will be a success, even with the company’s massive platform and resources. Meghana Dhar, a former executive at both Instagram and Snap, told the Journal that Meta has proven adept at picking up new business models or features. “Haters are going to say that they lack innovation,” she said, “but I actually think this is smart.” Others aren’t so sure, however. Steve Teixeira, a former executive at Meta and Twitter who now works for the open-source company Mozilla, told the Journal that he thinks a new microblogging leader will emerge, but that “it is far from a foregone conclusion that the winner will be Meta.”

Meta appears to be hoping that it can get a jump on other Twitter competitors by piggybacking Threads onto Instagram, since users of Threads can choose to auto-populate their stream with Instagram accounts they already follow. But the competition is crowded. Other potential Twitter killers include Mastodon, an open-source social network that has been around for several years but only surged in popularity after Musk took over Twitter, as I wrote for CJR at the time. According to some Mastodon admins, Meta has reached out to those who run some of the largest communities on Mastodon in a bid to get them on board with some kind of federation or data-sharing arrangement, but some users and admins on Mastodon argue that the “fediverse” (as some call the world of open-source apps) should say no, or even block the app altogether. Then there’s BlueSky, a competitor launched by Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founder and former CEO; T2, which was also founded by former Twitter employees; and Spill, another project of Twitter alumni, which, the Journal reports, aims in part to provide a community for people of color.

In the end—regardless of how well Threads or Mastodon or BlueSky or any of these other competitors perform in terms of gaining users—it seems unlikely that they will be able to replace Twitter completely. So the question remains: If Twitter dies, or becomes so crippled or toxic as to be unusable, where will people go to find the content that they used to get on Twitter? Its users might splinter across a range of new apps, but many of them saw value in Twitter as a centralized home for discourse and debate: something like the town square of Musk’s imagination. If the age of centralized social media comes to an end, what will replace it? Federated services? Email? Blogs? Perhaps the period of people deciding to broadcast their innermost thoughts to the entire internet will just come to an end. We might even look back on it as an aberration.

Other notable stories:

  • On Tuesday, a Trump-appointed federal judge in Louisiana issued an extraordinary ruling that barred large parts of the Biden administration from talking with social media companies about the removal or moderation of various types of content, citing concerns about the First Amendment. Yesterday, the administration, which insists that social platforms engage with officials on a voluntary basis, appealed the ruling—but it has already started to have an effect, with State Department officials canceling a routine meeting with staffers at Facebook to discuss election and hacking threats. Legal experts have raised eyebrows at the ruling: writing for Just Security, Leah Litman and Laurence H. Tribe characterized its reasoning as “outlandish” and the case from which it stemmed as being rooted in a “conspiracy theory” about the censorship of conservative speech.
  • On Monday, GQ published an article, by Jason Bailey, that was strongly critical of David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, referring to him as “perhaps the most hated man in Hollywood” and comparing him unflatteringly to characters from Succession and Pretty Woman. After Zaslav’s team complained about the article, GQ made a series of changes that softened its tone; Bailey then told GQ to remove his byline from the edited article, at which point GQ took it down altogether. (GQ has since said that the article was not properly edited prior to publication.) GQ’s owner is a major shareholder in WBD, and Variety reports that Will Welch, GQ’s top editor, is producing a movie for the company, though there is no suggestion that these ties affected GQ’s treatment of Bailey’s article.
  • Last week, after G/O Media told staffers at its sites that it would begin testing content generated by AI, the union that represents many G/O staffers hit back, arguing that the publication of “computer-generated garbage” would undermine trust in their work and threaten their livelihoods. Yesterday, G/O Media plowed ahead with such a test, publishing an AI-generated article about Star Warswhich was riddled with errors—to its tech site Gizmodo. The union hit back again, calling the decision “unethical and unacceptable,” while James Whitbrook, an editor at Gizmodo, said that staffers had no input into the article. (He added, as a “personal comment,” that it was “fucking dogshit.”)
  • Writing for Rolling Stone, James Ball, a British journalist who once worked with the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (before blowing the whistle on his operation), reveals that police in London asked him and other British journalists to cooperate with the US Justice Department’s prosecution of Assange, a case that press-watchers have widely decried as a threat to journalistic freedoms. While the requests were “voluntary,” Ball writes that they have had a chilling effect on his work, with one London police officer even making the false insinuation that Ball works under an assumed name.
  • And Semafor’s Kadia Goba reports on what happened after C-SPAN’s riveting footage of the race for House Speaker earlier this year led to widespread calls for independent cameras to be given more access in Congress. Outside of events like the Speaker vote, the government has traditionally operated the cameras that capture the action on the House floor. This hasn’t changed, Goba reports, but the government-controlled cameras are at least now offering a wider variety of shots for C-SPAN and others to broadcast.

ICYMI: Graydon Carter never used to look at websites. Now he’s running a digital magazine and e-commerce venture.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.