When Elon Musk tore down Twitter’s Chesterton’s Fence


Lucas A. Meyer


November 14, 2022

A lot of the Twitter public mistakes could be avoided by using the Chesteron’s fence concept.

Chesterton’s fence says that you should not tear down a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place. It is an exercise in humility. Sucessful managers struggle with this concept, because they are used to being right. When they get to a new field and see a fence they don’t understand, their first reaction is to tear it down.

In my own head, I imagine a field that is used seasonally for sheep. The new administrator of the region sees the fence but not the sheep, and instead of asking around, tears down the fence. When the sheep farmers come back and release the sheep expecting them to be contained by the fence, they will be in for a surprise. The administrator will also be surpised when they see the angry farmers.

I don’t have any private knowledge about Twitter, I’m only using public data to see examples that apparently coult have been avoided by using Chesterton’s fence.

The easiest example was the 50% layoffs, because the decison was partially and awkwardly undone shortly afterwards. The horrible Slack messages saying that they’ll bring people back, do a knowledge transfer and fire them again show the callousness of the decision.

Another example was Elon’s “1000 poorly batched RPCs are slowing down Twitter”, and the public response by “sach @ the the hellsite”. It’s not impossible that Elon is correct, or at least partially correct. But the public back and forth is showing that his new management team is not taking time to talk to existing function owners to understand things.

Why are there sheep everywhere?

The most worrying examples might be still in the works. For example, Twitter fired a large number of content moderators. Mike Masnick from Techdirt has a wonderful article showing why these people were hired. We may start seeing sheep everywhere soon.

The most important thing about Chesterton’s fence is not that one needs to keep the fence. They just need to understand why it was put up. In my career, I have seen many useless fences, but by understanding why they were put up, I was able to find a better solution for the problem they were solving, rather than just creating new ones.