Ever since the saga of Elon Musk’s obsession with Twitter escalated from shitposting / stock manipulation to a genuine purchase offer, the fate of “the bird hellsite” has been in serious flux.
The drama surrounding the purchase offer was extensive, with Musk attempting to back out of the deal almost immediately, citing vague concerns about bots and other alleged misrepresentations prior to the sale — all things covered under the due diligence he specifically waived so as to speed up the process. Within about 24 hours of Musk’s phone text messages being entered into the Delaware Chancery Court record, the world’s richest reply-guy relented and withdrew his objections to consummating the deal.
Asteroids have made softer first impressions, as Musk quickly announced that “comedy is now legal on Twitter” before quickly having any and all Elon Musk parody accounts suspended, but only after requiring parody accounts to self-label and seeing that fail to do anything but incite more mockery.
This did not bode well for his decision to sell blue checkmarks — previously the designation of officially verified accounts — to anyone who purchased Twitter Blue. The price tag started at $20/month, but after Stephen King essentially told Musk to fuck off, it was dropped to $8.
Aside from the blue checkmark — coveted by a certain subset of Twitter weirdos — Twitter Blue subscribers would also see fewer ads. No, that is not a mistake: fewer ads. Not zero ads, but fewer. That said, this may not be that big of a concern, for reasons we will cover next!
Literally everyone predicted that giving paid users checkmarks that look exactly like the verification mark would cause untold confusion, and provide an easy avenue for impersonation.
Everyone was proven correct within minutes, and the results cost Twitter millions in advertising revenue from incensed corporations. For example: Eli Lilly had to issue an apology for a fake tweet that stated insulin was now free. The pharmaceutical giant did not, however, apologize for charging Americans hundreds of dollars per month for a drug that is exceedingly cheap to produce. (I’m sure they were just in a hurry; a simple oversight.)
Twitter Blue’s existence was extremely brief. The subscription interface has been removed, but existing subscribers still have their checkmark, along with a note that “this account is verified because it subscribes to Twitter blue,” in contrast to other accounts which are “verified because they are a notable figure, celebrity or government official.” While they were kind enough to give us the ability to (correctly) mock anyone who actually paid for Twitter, all of this requires looking closely at the user’s profile — which I suppose is fine, because the hallmark of social media is a generally discerning userbase known for vetting things prior to sharing them with everyone they know.
In between launching, revising and then un-launching a new product — all within a couple of days — Musk also took a hatchet to Twitter’s payroll. After firing the board, Musk axed a significant number of employees, seemingly at random, and then had to try and entice many of them to come back — claiming they had been fired in error. Another tumultuous week lead to a terse ultimatum delivered via email: be prepared to work “extremely hardcore” or accept severance and leave, with employees given 48 hours to decide.
The result of this ingenious decision was that a large percentage of Twitter’s remaining staff opted to take the severance offer. I’m not saying the decision backfired, but Musk did quite literally make a post asking:
Anyone who actually writes software, please report to the 10th floor at 2pm today. Before doing so, please email a bullet point summary of what your code commands have achieved in the past ~6 months, along with up to 10 screenshots of the most salient lines of code”.Elon Musk via Twitter
Anyone who has written code in the last 20 years would know how absurd this request is, so I’m not going to harp on it too much. It would be like asking anyone who actually makes cars to come to his office with pictures of their favourite tools. It is the product of a mind that churned out some C code in the 90s and assumes one can understand a technology stack like Twitter with, like, a couple of pictures. Pictures of text, no less. Imagine being given the choice of sleeping in the office and working for a temperamental dictator or taking severance and ensuring one never deals with them again…
Among those departing are, reportedly: the entire marketing, advertising, legal compliance and payroll teams. Entire engineering groups have also apparently left, or had their ranks thinned to skeleton crew levels. Within the span of a little over 2 weeks, the company has seemingly shed the vast majority of its institutional knowledge and internal structure.
Similar to Musk’s decision to “turn off unnecessary micro-services,” the ill-effects of this decision won’t necessarily manifest right away. Sure, multi-factor authentication went unavailable within 2 hours of that announcement, but they brought it back up. The real concern will be the failures that occur down the line, with no one around who knows the quirks and peculiarities of a vast set of interdependent services spread across cloud and on-premises resources. There are a lot of weird problems that can — and on a long enough timeline, will — happen when working at the scale of an application like Twitter. The solutions can be costly even with experienced, knowledgeable staff, they can be unresolvable when you have neither. (Here is a good thread on a number of problems of this nature which could feasibly arise.)
All of this, while extremely funny, is also very unfortunate. Regardless of one’s opinion on the utility of social media, or its effects on society at large, the fact remains that Twitter is a very useful platform — albeit extremely imperfect at the best of times — and is an incredibly sophisticated piece of technology. I don’t think it will be shuttered, but the guts are going to be ripped out; components will stop working and will either be replaced with substandard emergency fixes or will simply remain unavailable. The moderation will be even worse than before, simply due to a lack of staffing — not that I expect conduct policies to do anything but degrade.
As a user of the site since 2009, it’s a little sad to see the platform some have correctly dubbed the heir to 2000s forum culture go by the wayside. No matter what happens next, the old Twitter is gone. The new reality is that the forum has been bought by one of its most obnoxious members, a guy with a lot of money who desperately wants to be a top poster — something that just is not in the man’s bones. We’re going to have to endure the ego trip of the world’s richest man “fixing” a company he thought was filled with lefty “SJW” types, when in reality it was just a tech firm trying to make money. (It turns out that advertisers of real worth don’t want to engage with platforms that tolerate / cultivate deplorable behaviour and do nothing to curb it.)
As others have predicted, he will simply reverse-engineer everything Twitter was already doing and will then declare victory when he hands the company off to someone who will, ultimately, serve the role of being the guy who gets blamed for Twitter failing to become profitable. (An essentially impossible task given the self-sabotage detailed above and the debt-servicing requirements of the loans related to the buyout.)
One might argue that the situation is pretty close to as bad as it gets, other than a permanent shutdown. Considering Musk is soliciting the public’s opinion, via Twitter poll, on allowing Donald Trump to return to the platform, I think the situation will continue to get dumber and correspondingly funnier for a while longer. You might think we’ve hit rock bottom, but I can hear scratching from below the floor.
Will Twitter still exist in a year? I think so. Will it be anything like it used to be? Highly unlikely. Will I still be using it? I honestly don’t know.
Instagram: @ricketyoldshack (I barely use this)
Email: email@example.com (in case you’re reading this in 1997)
You know, just in case…