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TechScape: 25 (more) tweets on Twitter’s future

TechScape: 25 (more) tweets on Twitter’s future

The world’s richest person is clearing house and causing chaos at one of the world’s top social media platforms. From verification to free speech, here’s inside Elon Musk’s first days of power

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An illustration of Twitter’s “bird” logo with an image of owner Elon Musk on the screen of a black mobile phone.

1. I was a bit hasty back in April. Elon Musk did not, in fact, buy Twitter that month. But now he has. The six-month delay, which likely cost incredible sums in legal bills and caused upheaval in Twitter HQ, is over. Musk saved $0 on the purchase price.

2. The deal is the largest take-private since 2022 (when Dell bought EMC in a $67bn deal), the third largest in history (after Texas-based Energy Future’s acquisition in 2007) and overwhelmingly the biggest one led, funded and controlled by a private individual.

3. It has been six days since Musk walked into Twitter HQ carrying a basin (so he could tweet “let that sink in”). There has been more change than is typical for the first week after a multibillion acquisition – and, substantially, more still proposed.

4. Musk’s first act was to fire a slate of executives and bring in a brain trust of his pals to sketch out the future. Among the execs canned were the CEO, CFO and (tellingly) Vijaya Gadde, the legal chief and moderation pro seen as responsible for suspending Donald Trump.

5. Initial reports said the execs would receive handsome “golden parachutes”. But Musk isn’t usual: the sackings were allegedly a surprise, and “for cause”, an attempt to avoid payouts by claiming ill performance – an accusation that Musk denies.

6. His second act, equally symbolic, was to order a change to the front page of the site. You won’t notice it unless you’re logged out: the new default is the “Explore” tab, rather than the sign-up page. In other words, the focus is on growing passive use, not account creation.

7. The real point of that change was Musk imprinting his authority. No review, no focus groups, no multi-week debates between executives. He orders the change; it gets done. That, staffers are to understand, is now the way of things.

8. Looking to the future, this side of the Musk takeover gives me cause for hope. Twitter – platform and company – has stagnated for a decade, with leadership that doesn’t use the site, doesn’t understand people who do, doesn’t have a vision and doesn’t have a clue.

9. A leader with a firm idea of what Twitter is, who can free the company from short-termist revenue-seeking behaviour and focus on bringing out its best aspects, could rejuvenate the service and help it to survive and thrive in the niche it has carved out for itself.

10. But … early indications suggest Musk may not be that leader. Far from injecting focus, his first few days on the job have been characterised by chaos and confusion. Look at three changes: code reviews, potential verification fees and a moderation council.

11. On Friday, Twitter coders were told to print their last 30 days of work, and bring it to Musk and hand-picked Tesla engineers for review. Before that could happen, they were told to shred what they had just printed. Then, and continuing into Monday, many of them were fired.

12. Musk has reportedly targeted 25% of staff for layoffs and, although he has denied reports that he is specifically trying to cut jobs before a 1 November wave of bonuses, he’s doing it quickly: rank-and-file employees have already been laid off.

13. Slimming a bloated company might be the right thing to do, but racing through five days of reviews to fire those who’ve written the fewest lines of code in the last month is like canning every football player who hasn’t scored a goal this season. It’s an ill omen.

14. Musk has taken a similar approach with another pet project: verification. Again, the status quo is shoddy, with “blue ticks” handed out capriciously, midway between status symbol and proof of identity, giving access to an elevated tier of privileges. And again, he offers chaos.

15. Despite making an acquisition offer with the promise to “authenticate all humans”, Musk has ordered a product team to introduce a fee for verification: users would have to sign up to Twitter Blue, the company’s subscription service, within 90 days, or lose their tick.

16. If the product team doesn’t ship this by 7 November, they’re fired. Putting aside the ethics of making protection from impersonation a $240 annual cost (the cost of Blue would rise from $5 to $20 a month as part of the plan), it’s hard to see this resulting in quality software.

17. Twitter Blue isn’t available in most of the world. It is unclear what happens to verified users who don’t have the option to sign up to the service. It seems fair to say this is the sort of question that should be answered before setting a seven-day deadline for action.

18. Then there’s moderation. Restoring “free speech” to Twitter was always at the top of Musk’s to-do list – as a committed user, he has flirted with suspension before, posting borderline Covid misinformation in the early days of the pandemic.

19. He’s also increasingly influenced by the US right, sharing jovial tweets with fringe personalities such as Mike Cernovich, arguing that Trump should be “restored to Twitter”, and posting (then deleting) conspiracy theories about the attempted assassination of Paul Pelosi.

20. Which is to say that his vision of a less censorious social network pushes in a clear direction. But as the rubber hits the road, it’s clear that Musk is starting to realise the reasons why every major social network has a substantial moderation team.

21. Before he even completed the acquisition, Musk tweeted an open letter to advertisers, promising that the site would remain “warm and welcoming to all”. Moderation, Musk was learning, isn’t just a liberal conspiracy to shut out rightwing voices – it’s also a commercial imperative.

22. Then, Musk announced the creation of a “moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints” to convene and discuss “major content decisions [and] account reinstatements”. On the surface, the proposal is similar to Facebook’s Oversight Board: a social media “supreme court”.

23. But Musk hasn’t committed to the independence of the council, nor to allowing it the right to overrule his decisions, nor to the funding package that Facebook provided its own board. It looks as if the real goal of Musk’s mooted council is simply deniability.

24. “It’s like, every day you wake up and you’re punched in the stomach,” iandroid.eu Zuckerberg said in August. “I used to run a lot, but the problem with running is you can think a lot.” The Meta CEO’s position is unique: absolute power, and absolute blame, at a major social network.

25. Or, it was unique. Musk has just spent $44bn on the Zuckerberg-punched-in-the-stomach experience, except he gets to do it at a company which barely turns a profit, with a product starved of investment and a near-explicit desire to please the US right. I sincerely wish him good luck.

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