Crash and burn: How Elon Musk destroyed Twitter
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About six months ago, Elon Musk bought your favourite neighbourhood bar. Then he fired veteran bouncers and bartenders, tried to stiff the landlord and at least one vendor, and demanded that regulars pay a cover charge. He’s frequently struggled to serve his customers, yet he’s penalised them for mentioning the competition. He’s tamped down the revelry in general, really — a lot of conversation at his watering hole has been drowned out by Musk’s own never-ending stage act, which consists mainly of him yelling dad jokes at customers through a bullhorn.
Pour one out for Twitter, then. I’d been open to Musk’s purchase of the social network, but half a year in, it’s been an unmitigated disaster. Musk moved fast and broke nearly everything — the speed and totality with which he’s ruined the site has been almost impressive. By Musk’s own reckoning, the company is now worth less than half of what he paid for it. It has lost many large advertisers, most of its employees and, with them, much of its functionality.
Elon Musk’s Twitter reign has been an unmitigated disaster.Credit: Bloomberg
More than that, Twitter under Musk appears to have lost the thing that made it impossible to quit: Its centrality. The site was once the most consequential place online, not just a disseminator of breaking news and commentary, but something like an arbiter. At its cultural peak, from about 2015 to perhaps 2020, what people talked about on Twitter seemed to set the agenda for discussions elsewhere. Even last year, it still mattered: After years of mismanagement and glacial innovation, Twitter, on the eve of Musk’s reign, was still the one place to visit when anything big happened anywhere.
Whatever Twitter is now, it is no longer that venue. Cultural relevance is difficult to quantify, but you know it when you feel it. And now, when something’s going down, Twitter rarely feels like the place where everyone is gathering to watch.
I noticed this when Donald Trump was arraigned. Trump, the most powerful tweeter the world has ever known, a man whose every typo could send Twitter into paroxysms of easy dunks, appeared in court and Twitter was, as Vox’s Shirin Ghaffary put it, “a snoozefest.”
There could be many reasons for the snooze, including that people care less about Trump than they used to — or that even after Musk reinstated Trump’s suspended Twitter account, the former president has stuck to using the platform he founded, Truth Social, for his ad hoc missives.
But I’d bet much of the problem stems from changes Musk has made to Twitter’s news feed.
These days it’s often difficult to know what’s happening on Twitter. Musk’s self-serving changes to the site’s ranking algorithm have significantly reduced its usability: Where Twitter was once pleasantly varied, serving up ordinary people’s tweets pretty evenly with those of celebrities and politicians, now it seems to highlight the same few users all the time. (I love your tweets, Matt Yglesias, but I wish you weren’t always at the top of my feed!)
Other signs of Twitter’s declining relevancy: Several news organisations, including The New York Times, have said they won’t pay for Twitter Blue, Musk’s subscription service for acquiring a verified user badge on the site. NPR said it would stop posting to its official Twitter accounts because Twitter labelled it as “state-affiliated media,” then as “government-funded media.” PBS, which has also been labelled “government-funded,” said that it, too, would stop tweeting in protest of the label. (NPR is a nonprofit that receives very little funding from the government; the label, it says, undermines its credibility.)
Twitter has lots its relevancy.Credit: AP
Musk doesn’t like the news media — Twitter’s public relations email address auto-responds with a poop emoji — but I can’t see how fighting with the media can help his site. At the risk of blowing my own horn, media organisations are vital to Twitter because the news is at the core of the site’s utility.
Musk has said that Twitter’s algorithms won’t recommend unverified users in its “For You” section, and that the free verification badges — the simultaneously coveted and maligned blue checks — that many journalists have will soon be removed. The change will further reduce Twitter’s usefulness: If many journalists are removed from the site’s primary feeds, why would people continue to see it as their go-to news source?
As a longtime tweeter, I was saddened and angered by Musk’s trashing of the service. Twitter’s employees and users didn’t deserve this fate. In the hands of a less volatile, more thoughtful leader, Twitter could have been so much more than the raggedy fiefdom of a thin-skinned billionaire it has become.
But as a person who wants to live in a just world with friendly people and nice things, I’m not altogether broken up about Twitter’s decline. As I’ve argued before, Twitter has been a font of misinformation, an accelerant to polarisation and a contributor to cultural groupthink. Just before Musk’s takeover, my Times colleague Michelle Goldberg, worrying about similar problems, hoped for a quick, spectacular flameout: “If Musk makes Twitter awful enough,” she wrote, “users will flee, and it will become less relevant.”
Well, it looks like Michelle got her wish. Stick a fork in it, Elon: Twitter is done.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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