Twitter has always been a shambolic display of a company that managed to succeed, despite all efforts to the contrary. However, while the company was nearing death’s door, the U.S. presidential election in 2016 pushed it into relevance. Earlier that year, former board member Mike McCue told Vox that “Twitter is a huge phenomenon more than it is a company.” And that phenomenon is what the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, inherited two weeks ago.
But since then, Musk’s tenure has become a different phenomenon. With 50% of the company’s workforce slashed in what appeared to be a roulette of chance (and several legal challenges currently ongoing), the website is already beginning to crack and crumble at the seams. What’s more, laid-off employees are already being asked to return in what would appear to be a coy admission of overzealousness in reducing the company’s monthly tally.
The rollercoaster doesn’t end there, either. An “official” tick was added to people’s profiles and made people’s profiles look as if they were part of a first-year computer science UX assignment. When people complained, Musk killed the feature, later saying that Twitter will do “lots of dumb things” in the coming months. But as of this writing, it seems to be back. And for all we know, it’ll be removed again. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
How has it only been two weeks?
Move fast and break things… a lot of things
The first order of business when Musk came to Twitter was to orchestrate layoffs, though it wasn’t clear to what scale they would come in. Early investors were told that as much as 75% of the company’s current workforce would be wiped out, though the real number of layoffs came in at around 50% of the company. Teams targeted included Communications, Global Human Rights, Machine Learning Ethics, Transparency, and Accountability. Hilariously, The Verge attempted to reach out for a statement yesterday from the company and had to reach out to Musk directly since Twitter no longer has any communication teams employed.
The old adage of “move fast and break things” was once used by Mark Zuckerberg to describe Facebook’s growth strategy, and it has been seen as a plan of action followed by many of Silicon Valley’s largest tech companies. Facebook later moved away from that motto while competitors also slowed down, instead sticking to the former half. Twitter’s recently renewed incompetence has resulted in just the latter becoming its business strategy, with the former referencing its lack of thought before pulling the trigger.
Twitter’s recently renewed incompetence has resulted in “break things” becoming its business strategy, with “move fast” referencing its lack of thought before pulling the trigger.
“Sorry to @- everybody on the weekend but I wanted to pass along that we have the opportunity to ask folks that were left off if they will come back. I need to put together names and rationales by 4 PM PST on Sunday. I’ll do some research but if any of you have been in contact with folks who might come back and who we think will help us, please nominate before 4,” one manager wrote in the company’s Slack.
Removing crucial people from the company and then asking them to come back means that many of these layoffs were carelessly orchestrated. Managers attempted to shield the most vulnerable from the layoffs, but some feel as if those who were most vulnerable were the ones who were targeted.
Things went from bad to worse when two of the most public-facing executives still remaining in the company departed at the same time, shortly following Musk’s advertiser Space. One was Yoel Roth, the company’s former head of trust and safety. Musk had been seen frequently interacting with Roth and sharing his (always positive) tweets as if to try and prove that Twitter was doing better than ever. The other was Lea Kissner, the company’s Chief Information Security Officer, and it’s not exactly clear who has taken over security operations in the company since their departure.
Musk currently says that Twitter’s usage numbers are up right now, which may be true, but to us, that appears to be people standing and watching the fireworks. Engagement is a short-term metric with user numbers being a lagging indicator. When user numbers start to drop, it’s already too late.
‘$8’ is not an acknowledgment of criticism
Anyone who dares criticize the head honcho of Twitter and manages to catch his eye will get a response simply stating “$8.” Criticize the new verification system? $8. Point out the haphazard way the man in charge is playing with the platform like a child with a new toy? $8. Suggesting that a platform that suppresses tweets if the account owner didn’t pay $8 isn’t an example of free speech? “Your feedback is appreciated, now pay $8.”
All of these are valid criticisms, and yet, it seems, Musk doesn’t want to hear them. There are several documented problems already with the site’s new verification system, and those problems aren’t going away. When the Twitter Blue verified checkmark looks exactly like a “legitimately” verified checkmark (which represents an official brand or person), scams become a lot easier to pull off. Despite the “verification” moniker, there is no such verification to speak of.
As if he were closing the door to the stable after the horses had bolted, Verified users weren’t allowed to change their screen names on Twitter. The problem is that you could just change your screen name, then pay for Twitter Blue and retain whatever screen name you have. It has already led to some pretty funny situations, particularly in the case of Doja Cat, who directly tweeted at Elon Musk after her name was stuck as “christmas.”
Advertisers are obviously going to be unhappy with the fact that anyone can imitate their brand, and many have already left. It doesn’t exactly help when a Twitter Blue verified user’s imitation has already forced a company to have to issue an apology. Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly had to release a statement on Twitter apologizing to those who had seen a fake tweet falsely claiming that insulin was going to be available for free.
In what many hoped would hold a lot of answers to criticisms, Musk then held an open Twitter Space specifically directed at advertisers. He spoke at length about the issues the platform may face in the future, his plans for those issues, and how they actually aren’t going to be problems. Musk stated that the requirement for credit cards and phone numbers will eventually lead to trolls giving up after exhausting their resources, despite it being pretty easy to generate phone numbers and credit cards, while also being possible to buy both in bulk in the criminal underworld.
It’s not as if the company didn’t foresee some issues. Twitter already launched the new Twitter Blue with a restriction that accounts made on Nov. 9 or later can’t access it, as a stopgap measure to prevent people from registering new accounts for scamming people. The problem is that this restriction is not sustainable; it can’t prevent new users from paying for its subscription services forever if its goal is to make money. Despite this restriction, we’ve already seen several accounts engage in the impersonation of major brands and high-profile people. Restricting access to Twitter Blue to every account made before yesterday is like trying to plug a leak with a sponge. The company has since made it impossible to subscribe to Twitter Blue in general.
With the amount of money that scammers could potentially make, “$8” isn’t an answer, it’s an incentive.
‘Verified’ versus ‘verified’ and the return of the official tick
To add to the absurdity of Twitter’s own verification debacle, there are actually two different kinds of verification currently, and both of these are sent to the user’s client when viewing the account of someone. The below is from viewing my own account.
As you can see, it says that I’m not Blue verified. However…
Even on Twitter’s end, “verification” means two different things. It’s unclear what the purpose of this is, but it would allow the company to theoretically show a different icon depending on what type of verification is in place, and would also allow it to eventually stop showing tags on verified profiles altogether in the future.
Even more ridiculous is that at some point earlier today, the company then re-enabled the “Official” tick, only days after Musk had unambiguously tweeted “I killed it” in response to questions about its whereabouts. Reports are now surfacing that it’s no longer possible to subscribe to Twitter Blue, suggesting a complete re-evaluation of the service is on the horizon. Now we have the official Twitter Support account (oddly, without an “official” tick) with two of its most recent tweets summing up the clown car that Twitter currently is.
With blue verified checkmarks on their way out and being replaced by… blue verified checkmarks that can be purchased, there needed to be a way to differentiate “verified” people from “verified” people. That’s why the “Official” tick was introduced in the first place.
Don’t forget the FTC, too
If you think how the company looks from the outside is bad enough, then you’ve seen nothing yet. Twitter is no stranger to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Musk himself is no stranger to federal government agencies. Way back in 2011, Twitter entered a consent decree with the FTC that explicitly prohibited the company from misrepresenting its privacy and security practices. In May the company was fined $150 million for violation of that decree and was forced to sign a second, modified decree, too.
That second agreement is pretty important because the company agreed to the following as part of the settlement:
To implement and maintain a comprehensive privacy and information security program that requires the company, among other things, to examine and address the potential privacy and security risks of new products.
The legal leader on the company’s privacy team sent an internal memo stating that they had heard engineers will need to “self-certify” compliance with FTC requirements and other laws. Riana Pfefferkorn, who was on secondment at Twitter in 2014, argues that the company is already in violation of the second FTC modified order. This is because a team is mandated to exist to ensure FTC compliance, and currently, no such team exists at Twitter.
Who exactly is going to “examine and address the potential privacy and security risks of new products?” Is an engineer “self-certifying” considered “comprehensive?” I would hazard a guess and say that it isn’t.
Twitter is possibly on a speedrun to bankruptcy
In an emergency all-hands call organized by Musk with an hour’s notice (which, by the way, he showed up late to), he told Twitter employees that “bankruptcy isn’t out of the question.” Even more alarmingly was that Musk seemed to suggest that the company was still overstaffed. Given the massive amount of debt that Twitter has been saddled with as a result of the acquisition ($13 billion with $1.2 billion due in interest in 12 months’ time) and the $4 million being lost daily because of advertisers pulling out, the outlook is certainly bleak.
Nevertheless, all of this could have been avoided. Twitter, while a mess of a company previously, wasn’t as much of a cash burner as it is now. As it was previously a publicly traded company, the company’s earnings reports were easily accessible. In 2021 the company had revenues of $5.08 billion, with an operating loss of $493 million. That includes a one-time litigation-related charge of $766 million and other investments. Twitter was a struggling business, but somehow Elon has driven it even further downward.
Two weeks is all it takes
Two weeks. As Elon would say, “let that sink in.” Within two weeks, the company’s advertisement revenue tanked, several high-level executives left the company, and fifty percent of its workforce disappeared practically overnight. While Twitter had operating losses most of the time in recent years, it at least had advertiser revenue to fall back on to soften those losses. Now it doesn’t even have that, and an $8 subscription fee — for a subscription that doesn’t even exist at the moment — is supposed to be the silver bullet that solves all of Twitter’s problems.
It’s hard to believe that all of this has happened so suddenly, and Elon Musk’s entire approach to Twitter is being executed with the same level of success that a pigeon would have attempting to solve a Rubik’s cube. If the future of the platform relies on the petulance of an obstreperous child that can only respond “$8” to any kind of criticism, then Twitter is well and truly doomed.