(Disclosure right up front: SB Nation is part of Vox Media, and so is The Verge; we’re all co-workers and friends. I reported this story mostly by talking to my colleagues.)
SB Nation’s Twitter account has a little over 300,000 followers. Or, at least, it did last Friday. Then, suddenly, it was gone, disappeared from the internet for almost a week. When you go to the profile page, the account was replaced by an ominous message: “This account doesn’t exist.” Nobody at SB Nation knew how to get it back — and for a while, nobody at Twitter did, either.
Last Friday, an SB Nation employee tried to log in to the @sbnation account. They were doing so in order to follow @cutwaterspirits, the Twitter account for Cutwater, an adult beverage company that was also sponsoring some SB Nation content. (Following sponsors is pretty normal, especially when you’re going to be tweeting co-branded content.)
When they logged in, they were hit with a prompt: add a birthday to your account — which was weird because this is SB Nation, and SB Nation is not a person and doesn’t have a birthday. So the employee did what just about anyone would do in that situation: picked something at random. They added 1/1/2000 as the birthday and hit save, and that was the last time anyone saw the @sbnation Twitter account.
I was able to recreate the situation by logging into a long-dormant account of mine and then attempting to follow Cutwater. Or Jack Daniel’s. Or Budweiser or Stella Artois or most other adult-beverage companies I could think of. As soon as I clicked “Follow,” a window came up that told me to update my profile. “To follow this account, you’ll need to include your birth date on your profile, ensuring you meet minimum age requirements.”
I’d run into a Twitter feature called “age screening,” which the company created in 2012 as a way to make it easier for alcohol companies and the like to advertise on Twitter. The screening really only had one step: new followers have to prove they’re of age by adding their birth date to their profile.
Age screening really only has one step: new followers have to prove they’re of age by adding their birth date to their profile
The account I used had been created on June 13th, 2009. When I added a birth date that would have made me over 13 at that time — I picked May of 1995, so I would have been 14 — it let me add my birthday and then follow all the liquor brands I could find. But when I went back and changed my birthday to January 1st, 2000, as soon as I hit save, I was locked out of my account. “Our Terms of Service require everyone who uses Twitter to be 13 or older,” the page read, “and we have determined that you did not meet the minimum age requirement at the time this account was created.” I had apparently violated Twitter’s age guidelines 14 years ago and was getting my retribution now.
I was directed to a form that asked for my full name, my email address, and a picture of my driver’s license. I submitted all that and got a response that said my request had been received. “We typically respond within a few days, but some cases can take a little longer.” By the next morning, my account had been restored.
In the meantime, though, my account said the same thing SB Nation’s did: “This account doesn’t exist.”
This should, in theory, be a relatively straightforward problem. There’s a form to fill out and everything! Plus, unlike my old account and its 21 followers, SB Nation even has contacts at Twitter, the folks who run partnerships with companies like Vox Media. “I didn’t have a real thought on what caused it,” says Jermaine Spradley, SB Nation’s publisher. “It was just more like, this has to be something that’s fixable pretty fast.” People have been getting locked out of their accounts forever, and Twitter always seemingly had a switch to flip it back on. Twitter told the SB Nation team it was working on it and then promptly went silent for almost a week.
It was a tough week for a sports blog to have its flagship account locked, too. The Final Four took over the weekend, especially the women’s final. It was opening weekend for Major League Baseball. The NBA playoff race was heating up. The Masters was coming soon. It’s just a great time on the sports calendar and a hard one to be locked out of Sports Twitter. The publication has lots of other Twitter accounts, so it hasn’t been completely shut out of the platform, but it hurt to lose the flagship.
The way some inside the company see it, there are three things that could be going on here. One is that Twitter — more specifically, its owner, Elon Musk, who has demonstrated a bit of a vindictive streak on the platform — has something against SB Nation. That seems unlikely. The second is that there’s just… a lot going on at Twitter right now. There’s likely a huge support queue, there are thousands fewer people at the company to deal with it, and everything just moves more slowly. And the third is that there’s something bigger, more fundamental, broken, and nobody knows how to fix it.
This Thursday, Twitter reps finally reached back out. They said that they didn’t have any updates but did have some context: there’s “a bug that the team is working through in order to reinstate the account.” They didn’t say what the bug is or when it might be resolved. They also didn’t respond to my DM asking for more information.
Late Thursday night, though, @sbnation suddenly reappeared on Twitter. (This happened a little while after my DM, though I obviously can’t prove that had anything to do with it.) Twitter sent a note alerting the SB Nation team that the account was back, with another somewhat ominous message: don’t mess with the date of birth.
But the bigger question still remains. Twitter, to many, feels more brittle every day, like new problems are popping up faster than anyone can figure out how to put them out. Some high-profile users and media companies are already out on Twitter Blue, and many folks I’ve talked to see the platform as a place no longer worth the investment. There’s a growing feeling among many Twitter users that the company is in the midst of a slow (or maybe not that slow) collapse — and @sbnation may have just been one almost-casualty along the way.