fail whale

Twitter lit up with complaints this weekend as some users began encountering a ‘rate limit exceeded’ error message that prevented them from refreshing their timeline to read new tweets.

It turned out to be not a bug but a feature, albeit one that Twitter owner Elon Musk said would be temporary.

“To address extreme levels of data scraping & system manipulation, we’ve applied the following temporary limits,” he tweeted. “Verified accounts are limited to reading 6000 posts/day. Unverified accounts to 600 posts/day. New unverified accounts to 300/day.”

It’s a statement that needs a bit of unpacking. One reason developers and apps are scraping data from Twitter is because the company shut down its free API earlier this year, replacing it with paid subscriptions to access its data that have (according to a report last week) had considerable teething issues.

Why might people scraping Twitter’s data in alternative (free) ways be a problem for the company? Many commentators have been pointing to reports last month that Twitter had been refusing to pay its bills for using Google’s cloud services ahead of a scheduled renewal (or, indeed, elapse) of that contract on 30 June. The day before Musk announced the rate limits.

The sense is of a problem that was firmly of Twitter’s own making, and its chosen solution – rate-limiting users who don’t pay for a Twitter Blue verified subscription – may well add to its headaches.

Why? Twitter still makes the vast majority of its revenues from advertising rather than from Twitter Blue subscriptions, one of the perks of which is seeing 50% fewer ads. So, Twitter has drastically limited the amount of time the bulk of its users can spend using its service every day, and those are the people who see the most ads.

Whisper it quietly, but perhaps being an engineering genius isn’t, in fact, a guarantee that you’re qualified to run an ad-supported social-media business. So what does all this mean for the musicians and music companies who are using Twitter?

Our flippant response is, well, rate limits might at least mean less “rampant” copyright infringement for Twitter’s lawyers to deal with. But more seriously, if these rate limits are more than a short-lived fix for Twitter’s cloud issues, they’re another nail in the coffin for the platform’s relevance.

If people hit their rate limits – and 600 tweets a day isn’t that much in this doomscrolling era – most will simply spend more time using other apps. And if fans are spending more time using other apps, that will have a knock-on effect for how musicians and music marketers spend their time and effort too.

All this is happening as a new threat looms on the horizon. Meta’s Instagram is working on a Twitter rival potentially called Threads – indeed, a version of it may have accidentally (but with impeccable timing) showed up on Android’s app store this weekend.

Twitter’s rate limits may be as temporary as its owner promised. Meta may bungle its attempt to clone another social-media platform – and heaven knows, it has a long history of that. But now is really not the time for Twitter to be alienating most of its users in a way that suddenly frees up their time for other apps.

Musicians – at least those who are still invested in Twitter’s ecosystem – will be watching what happens next with keen interest.

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