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15 November 2022

Elon Musk took his new toy apart trying to figure out how it worked

Twitter’s wiring is being ripped out in real time, and the prospects for putting it back together are shrinking.

Almost all of us have done it at some point as a child – at Christmas or on our birthday, we get a gift that delights but infuriates us. It could be a remote-controlled car, or an intricate battery-powered board game, but the common factor is this: we have to know how it works.

Unfortunately, the dismantling skills of a typical six-year-old are not matched by their ability to put things back together again. Quickly, we are sitting among the wreckage of what had, until recently, been our favourite toy.

Thankfully, most of us take the right lesson from this and learn how not to rip apart our possessions. It is something of a tragedy, then, that Elon Musk – possibly still, just about, the world’s richest man – has not learned that lesson.

Even for a multi-billionaire, $44 billion is a lot, but this is what Musk spent on his favourite toy, Twitter (overpaying, the analyst Daniel Ives has argued, by around $19 billion). Sadly it is also a treasured toy – and global information service – for hundreds of millions more of us, and it is fairly obvious that Musk’s attempts to see how it works are already causing it to break.

This isn’t about the new Twitter boss’s decisions about how he wants the site to function or how he wants its business model to operate, catastrophic as some of those decisions have proven to be. Musk’s determination to hand out “blue tick” verification for $8 a month has backfired and cost the company what will soon amount to hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars in lost advertising revenue, but that won’t break the site just yet. Similarly, if Musk relaxes moderation rules and reinstates banned accounts, it could make Twitter much worse – but this hasn’t happened yet.

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What has happened is that Musk has laid off not just half of Twitter’s staff, but also around three quarters of its contractors – the people who help to keep the site working and stable, and who do its content moderation. He’s also turning off functions and disabling bits of code that he has decided don’t really do anything – which is almost never a good idea, unless you’ve done a lot of preparation.

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Twitter might seem simple, but that belies a lot of complexity under the hood, to make sure it runs quickly and reliably across hundreds of nations and hundreds of languages, displays trending topics and translation options, keeps accurate logs, and targets and tracks advertising. It needs hardware across the world and lots of separate programs to keep its service running. As a result, it has lots of bits of code, which interact with each other in myriad ways. Musk has decided to start wrenching bits of it about and seeing what happens, having fired most of the people who could have told him why he shouldn’t.

The results are already visible: lots of users who relied on two-factor authorisation (a sensible security measure) to protect their accounts are now locked out. Trending topics in several non-English languages are broken. The site is refreshing unpredictably.

Twitter is the prized present, the RC car whose wiring is being ripped out in real time – and those of us still clinging on over there are watching the sparks fly as Musk wreaks havoc.

[See also: Elon Musk’s useful philosopher]

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