Three Weeks of Elon — Twitter in Turmoil

Updated: 4 days ago

By: OSCAR FOCK / NEWS EDITOR

Elon Musk, the new Twitter CEO. (Photo: Laura Normand/The Verge)

"The bird is free!” Elon Musk tweeted on Thursday, Oct. 27. Well, it seems as if the bird lost its internal guidance system and is not quite sure where it’s going.


It has been three chaotic weeks at Twitter. That tweet came as Musk completed the $44 billion deal to acquire the social media platform, after months of uncertainty and a lawsuit.


In April, the world’s richest person announced his intention to buy Twitter and take it private. Then, in July, Musk changed his mind and tried to back out of the deal, arguing that he had been misled about the amount of spam on the platform. Twitter responded by suing Musk in an attempt to force him to follow through on the acquisition. Coincidentally, just in time before the trial, Musk decided that he maybe wanted to own Twitter, after all.


After weeks of speculation about whether or not the purchase was actually going to happen, it did. Elon Musk became the new owner of one of the largest social media sites in the world, with almost 240 million users worldwide.


He didn’t wait long to make his presence felt. Immediately following the takeover, he fired Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s Chief executive, and Ned Segal, Chief Financial Officer. Soon after, he also kicked Vijaya Gadde, the company’s top legal and policy executive, as well as general counsel Sean Edgett, out the door.


Since then, it hasn’t been easy to keep track of all the changes made, both within the company and to the platform. There are many aspects to this to consider, and so much has happened since that fateful October evening, that it is hard to make sense of everything.


But let’s try anyway.


The background

One thing is for certain: Elon Musk’s volatility is a major reason behind the maelstrom that is Twitter right now.


Joining Twitter in 2009, Musk quickly grew a large following.


“Mr. Musk was better at pithy self-expression than the average chief executive, and his nerdy impulsiveness fit in perfectly on Twitter,” writes Kevin Roose, technology columnist for the New York Times.


Yet, as he grew more popular, his usage of the app shifted. In the last few years, he has, through his tweets, managed to sink cryptocurrencies, picked fights with reporters and foreign ambassadors, and made one-liner announcements rocking international geopolitics. In the wake of Donald Trump, who was banned from the app in 2021, it is Musk that have taken on the role of official agent of international chaos.


“I tweet interesting things pretty much as they come to me, and probably with not much of a filter,” the Tesla CEO told Vox in 2018. While that is all fine and dandy if you are a nobody with 48 followers, when you’re the richest person in the world and have 115.5 million followers on Twitter, it’s another story.


In Twitter, he saw a platform that was no longer the “public town square” (as Musk has called it) it had once been, but a space taken over by over-cautious and censoring content moderators that bowed to “woke culture.” So what do you do, when you have a net worth of about $200 billion? You simply buy the whole thing and mold it to your liking.


With this in mind, let’s look at what has gone down since the takeover, starting with Twitter’s internal turmoil.


Twitter the company

Twitter has not seemed like a fun workplace since Musk took control of the ship. In less than a week, around 3,700 employees — 50% of the workforce — from various departments were whacked via email.


Then, mere hours later, hundreds of people were begged to come back, as the Musk brain trust realized that these workers may be needed to keep the company up and running.


Those that were still there, were tasked with realizing Musk’s many wishes for the platform. What followed was impossible deadlines and unbearable workloads, while under constant risk of receiving one of those unceremonious emails.


Fast forward to last week. On Wednesday night, Nov. 9, two weeks after the takeover, Musk addressed his new company for the first time. Up to that point, Musk’s Twitter account was the only source of information on what the company was up to.


But it wasn’t a particularly welcoming email. Not at all. It probably went something like this (I want to stress here that I haven’t read the email, but this is how those that have read it, describe it):

Hi Twitter employees,


Our company is falling apart and I need you to get cracking immediately to get us back on track.


And by the way, that remote work situation that you had been told was basically permanent? Gone. You will be doing 40 hours a week in the office, and If you’re not in here tomorrow, I will consider it your resignation.


Yours truly,

Elon


But that was not all Musk told his employees. He added that they need to increase subscription revenue to 50% of the company’s total revenue, a rather wild shift considering that advertising makes up 89% of the revenue today.


The turmoil doesn’t end here. As employees dragged themselves into the office Thursday morning, the head of moderation and safety, the chief information security officer, the chief privacy officer and the chief compliance officer, had all resigned. The four people in charge of protecting user data and privacy were suddenly no longer with the company.


Later that day, Musk called an all-hands meeting — with about an hour’s notice. In his state of the Twitter union, Musk announced that “bankruptcy is not out of the question.”


Journalists have tried to reach out to Twitter for a comment, to no avail. The reason? Musk fired the entire communications team earlier the same week.


Twitter the social media platform

While mayhem is unfolding inside Twitter headquarters, the social media platform is quickly becoming a mess, too. In real-time, users have for the past weeks been able to follow the plans for the future of Twitter, courtesy of Musk himself.


Some features, like the ability to add long-form texts to tweets, seem promising, while others, like reviving Vine, border on the absurd.


Yet, none of Musk’s ideas bombed quite like the new verification system. The blue badge, Musk thought, had created a system where Twitter was the sole arbitrator of who was trustworthy and who wasn’t.


Instead, Musk introduced a subscription service, where any user with a credit card could get a blue badge next to their Twitter handle. Originally, it would cost $20 every month to stay verified, but after Steven King lashed out on Twitter, Musk decided $8 was more suitable.


What happened next was totally unbelievable. Just kidding.


Complete chaos ensued. To literally no one’s surprise.


Soon after the subscription was introduced, fake accounts started popping up with blue badges next to them. One, pretending to be the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, tweeted that “insulin is free now,” sending the company’s stock plummeting 5%.


Multiple accounts impersonating Musk himself were suspended, including that of comedian Kathy Griffin. One tweet, that seemed to be coming from Musk’s car company Tesla, bragged about using child labor.


Since then, the system has been turned off and on multiple times, and Twitter has instituted multiple rules to avoid more impersonators. It is no longer possible for accounts created after Nov. 9 to purchase the badge.


Musk also tweeted that, “accounts engaging parody must include ‘parody’ in their name.” How this new “rule” will be enforced is still to be determined. Major issues with the subscription system still remain. For one, finding reliable news sources is much harder than it was just two weeks ago.


Another feature that is coming soon to Twitter Blue, as the verification system is officially called, is that tweets from verified users will be prioritized. Apparently, it is supposed to fight scams and spam. Will that be the effect, or will the results be the complete opposite? My bet is on the latter.


What’s next?

Musk’s Twitter 2.0 had its darkest hours on Thursday evening.


The day before, Musk gave, via email, everyone still working at the company, an ultimatum: Commit to living up to my standards, or leave. In the email, Musk wrote that, “In an increasingly competitive world, we will need to be extremely hard core,” adding, “This will mean working long hours at high intensity. Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”


The Twitter CEO gave his employees until Thursday at 5 p.m. Eastern time to decide. Inevitably, this led to an exodus, with hundreds of employees handing in their letters of resignation (some reports say over a thousand people chose to leave).


Among the people resigning were, according to reports, multiple teams critical to the infrastructure of the Twitter platform, as well as several members of the “Command Center,” a group that Musk and his team identified as key to keep Twitter alive.


And so, as the deadline on Thursday passed and reports of who and how many had chosen to not be a part of “Hardcore Twitter 2.0” flooded in (including a Twitter thread of hundreds of former employees announcing their departures), users wondered if this was the last day of Twitter. “Goodbye Twitter” and the hashtag “RIPTwitter” trended in the U.S., and some users created threads of their all-time favorite tweets, in case they would all be gone by the morning. While all this was happening, Musk also released a series of tweets, including one of a pirate flag. (Interpret that as you will.)


But night passed and on Friday morning, the social media platform was still standing. And in that, some clarity on the future of Twitter emerged. Since Musk’s takeover, debates have raged on what will happen and similar to other hot topics, the voices of polarization have roared the loudest. Any rational discussion was quickly put to the wayside for the all-or-nothing question: will everything crash, or Musk actually good for Twitter?


As it often is, when two extremes wage battle, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle.


It is unlikely that Twitter will go under forever in the near future. It might at some point — maybe years into the future — but then it will not be directly because of the rough start of the Elon Musk era.


Does that mean that Musk is doing everything right? No, of course not.


The ship needs to be stabilized. Musk has been rocking it for weeks — for reasons unknown, maybe just to see what comes out the other side — but we are already seeing things calm down a bit. For example, the debacle that was the new Twitter Blue, has been put on hold until at least Nov. 29, hopefully resulting in a product that isn’t actively destructive.


Still, it is not out of the question that, as Musk himself has hinted, Twitter goes bankrupt sometime in the near future. When he acquired Twitter, the company took on $13 billion in debt, a handsome sum that brought interest expense to about $1 billion. Considering Twitter generated about $630 million in cash flow last year, the math doesn’t add up.


The current state of the economy is not helping, either. When times are tough, the first thing that businesses cut is advertising. For companies like Twitter, where almost 90% of revenue comes from that very source, that is obviously a bad thing.


Letting Twitter go bankrupt, would give Musk a chance to restructure his debt to make the terms more favorable, therefore easing the financial burden on the company. Even in bankruptcy, the platform would function more or less like normal, according to experts.


The risk of an outage — short or prolonged — within the next few weeks remains. The platform is showing signs of breaking, especially outside the U.S., and problems are likely to increase as the personnel shortages continue to put pressure on the internal infrastructure of Twitter. The soccer World Cup — an event that always drives traffic on Twitter — starts in Qatar on Sunday, Nov. 20 and will be a nice litmus test for the Twitter servers.


Every day, there is something that radically changes Twitter’s outlook for the future, and Musk is far from out of the woods yet. On Thursday, he closed the Twitter headquarters until Monday, then on Friday he told engineers to come back in, asking them for their “best code.” What this means remains to be seen.


For now, no matter where it’s flying, the bird is still alive. For now.

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