Since he took ownership of Twitter three disastrous weeks ago, Elon Musk has been telling on himself in two ways. The first message was seen in Wednesday’s demand that all employees click a button committing them to being “extremely hardcore” or lose their jobs, and it’s this: I don’t know what I’m doing.
The second – I’m going to pretend everything is great – was seen in a chart Musk posted over the weekend of Twitter’s Daily Active Users. As some of the most active users pointed out, Musk had used a classic tactic to make a tiny amount of growth look bigger: the chart’s y axis did not start at zero. If you do that, Twitter usage looks basically flat all year.
Credit: Elon Musk, Twitter screenshot
But what else does the correct chart mean? It means those power users were telling on themselves too, and the message was this: We’re not going anywhere.
Despite weeks of talk about migrating to Mastodon, here they were, still arguing with the new owner of Twitter on Twitter. Mastodon now has a million users; Twitter still has 250 million. One of the hottest new Twitter accounts of the week, “best of dying Twitter,” has gained nearly 40,000 followers in a handful of days. Despite Musk’s flailing incompetence and his money-losing mouth, despite widespread fears of outages, despite a mood that has been swinging between “end of high school” and “end of the world” for weeks, Twitter remains a functioning — and hilarious — service.
Which means it’s time to ask the question: is this feared apocalypse, like pretty much all feared apocalypses, overhyped?
The trash fire burns bright
Twitter has long been described as a “trash fire” and a “hellsite.” The “This is Fine” meme, featuring a cartoon dog in a blazing room, didn’t originate on Twitter, but it burst into public perception on the service in 2016. The “Helmo” meme – Elmo in flames – has been blazing bright for roughly the same time. Twitter under Musk is on fire, but Twitter has always been on fire, in a remarkably resilient way.
If you’re looking for a metaphor, think of Centralia – the Pennsylvania mining town where a vast underground coal seam fire, possibly ignited by burning trash, has been raging nonstop since 1962 – or the “gates of hell,” a similarly long-running gas fire and tourist attraction in Turkmenistan. Even Musk, for all his billions, could not douse these conflagrations if he tried.
Let’s take the most alarming suggestion of Twitter collapse so far. On Monday, users reported that two-factor authentication was down (on mobile Twitter, at least; the web version worked fine). If you’d set up 2FA, they advised, don’t log out because you won’t be able to log in again. By all accounts, however, the problem was with the microservice that sends you a login code over text, not the 2FA service itself. That, users reported, was fixed within hours.
Even with half of the employees gone, even with the thin-skinned Musk firing (some, but not all) engineers who take him to task on Twitter, enough essential workers remained in place to avert another disaster.
Musk’s micromanaging hubris was surely to blame for the 2FA outage, even though the feature has been riddled with problems since 2017. He had after all just threatened to turn off the many “microservices” connected to Twitter, without fully understanding what they do. He’s currently obsessed with the notion that Twitter’s code is bloated, and is receiving an education in real-time.
As any engineer will tell you – and many have chimed in on this viral tweet, below – bloated code is often there for a reason, because if you take it away stuff starts to break.
Twitter is hardly a delicate piece of hand-blown glass. It’s more like a Japanese vase with its cracks fixed and proudly displayed in gold. Some of us are old enough to remember the “fail whale” that would routinely appear when the service was “over capacity” in the early 2010s. No doubt we’ll get more fail whales before Musk is done learning not to press buttons marked “do not press,” or learning not to fire the crucial employees who constitute Twitter’s institutional memory.
But so what? We’ve seen the whales before and we’ll see them again. Here’s some advice from a fail-whale veteran: Go do something else on the internet for half an hour. Your snarky tweet will be just as amusing when you come back.
“Move fast and break things” was the mantra of another social media leader full of hubris: Mark Zuckerberg circa 2010. Facebook went down a lot that year. By 2012, a somewhat-chastened Zuckerberg had officially changed that slogan to “move fast with stable infra[structure].” Facebook’s march to dominating the planet continued unimpeded.
There have been plenty of teachable moments for Zuck along the way. There was the disaster of Cambridge Analytica; the multiple acts of violence inflamed by a lack of content moderation; the day in 2021 when Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger all went down because their servers had become too centralized. Zuck’s most recent lesson was his wrong turn into the metaverse, the leading cause of Meta’s 11,000 layoffs quietly buried in the deluge of midterm election news.
But is Facebook going anywhere? Is Zuck’s wrongheaded investment blunting its growth? It is not. At last count, the service was closing in on 3 billion monthly active users and 2 billion daily active users. Zuck couldn’t kill it if he tried.
To give Musk credit, he seems to be learning slightly faster from his disasters than Zuck did. Musk doesn’t apologize for his most outrageously wrong tweets – some fact-checked by the “Community Notes” (formerly Birdwatch) feature he has touted – but he does delete them. His launch of the service that lets anyone buy a verification badge for $8 a month led to a couple of days of chaos, just as multiple experts inside the company and out predicted, before it was quietly shelved. (It will relaunch November 29, Musk claims.)
And in the face of an FTC consent decree that could cost him billions, Musk sent an internal email meekly insisting that the company will comply with the “letter and spirit” of the decree — contradicting his personal attorney’s earlier claim that Musk wasn’t afraid to take on the Feds.
Similarly, Musk is on a “fuck around and find out” trajectory when it comes to content moderation. He has a simplistic understanding of “free speech” that ran into the harsh wall of reality when users started impersonating him en masse. He fired a lot of content moderators, both employees and contractors, but has nothing to say about a new GDPR-style European Union law that will likely force him to hire more.
As this excellent article points out, Musk is on the content moderation learning curve. It’s a furrow ploughed by many before him. His slow moves in the direction of sanity are almost pre-ordained, albeit frustratingly unnecessary. Like many a new CEO, he will spend months undoing the janky fixes of his predecessor – before a full understanding of the problems at hand forces the janky fixes back in place.
Meanwhile, as his “extremely hardcore” message shows, Musk is still making the fundamental error of thinking he has bought a technology company that just requires better engineering, instead of a media company that needs to be run by someone who understands media. His small circle of yes men, and the larger group of Elon fans whose tweets he reads, will reinforce his every notion. But he will learn, often in hilariously embarrassing fashion.
Take the fact that Twitter appends a little piece of code to each tweet letting you know which service it was posted from. “Literally no one even knows why we did that,” Musk insisted in a tweet. Chris Messina, the guy who invented the hashtag, and Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, immediately set him straight, as did thousands of other users. For one thing, it’s useful in identifying the bots and spammers Musk claims he wants to remove. Musk did not clap back. As of Wednesday, the code remains intact.
A common conspiracy theory says that Musk bought Twitter in order to kill it, or diminish its ability to act as a force for good in the world. Perhaps he wanted to sow chaos prior to the midterms, or his backers (the banks, the GOP supporting Larry Ellison, a Saudi investor who already held a sizable chunk of Twitter stock) want Twitter to be more authoritarian-friendly.
But to believe that, you’d have to explain why Musk hasn’t been sowing more chaos when he had the chance. He wanted to roll out the verify-yourself-for-$8 feature in his first week, but was convinced that it was best to do so after the midterm elections. Yes, he told independents to vote GOP, but that strategy was akin to a newspaper’s new owner insisting on an editorial page endorsement: Annoying and largely ineffective. (Independent voters largely favored Democrats.)
Yes, Musk has a habit of running his companies in a state of chaos and cruelty. But the most chaotic and cruel thing he could have done would be to immediately reinstate Donald Trump’s Twitter account prior to the midterm elections. Instead, Musk immediately punted that decision – just as Zuck has done on Facebook – to an independent committee.
And if Trump, now officially a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, does return prior to 2024, he’ll face a user base that is wiser and stronger than before. Trump’s dominance of the service – his tweets were largely unignorable for 5 years, even if you didn’t follow him – didn’t kill it. Users fought back, and learned a valuable lesson about how not to accidentally amplify abhorrent messages.
Musk hates that Twitter relies on advertising for 90 percent of its revenue, and yet he is still trying to persuade advertisers to stick with the service. He learned the lesson that his largest accounts don’t like the verify-yourself feature, which is why it’s currently in limbo. The math of a subscription service doesn’t make a lot of sense. The only alternative is to fund Twitter out of his own pocket, hence Musk’s recent fire sale of his rapidly devaluing Tesla stock.
Putting a paywall on Twitter is probably the only thing that will drive those Daily Active User numbers down, and Musk has already nailed his colors to the DAU mast. His ego drove the Twitter acquisition, his ego is what led him to believe he knew more than the engineers who built Twitter, but his ego will also prevent him from instituting any change that makes him look dumb in the long run.
Musk is desperate to be known as the guy who made us a multi-planet species, not the guy who killed Twitter.
Meanwhile, the power users making loud noises about leaving Twitter need the service just as much as Musk does. Running away from Nazis seeking verification, many say, is not an option. Mastodon, others have reported, may look like a kinder gentler version of early Twitter.
But Mastodon also requires Balkanization – users have to pick a server, each with its own rules. There’s a somewhat sinister “good vibes only” problem, some have complained, that has been said to shut down any mention of systemic racism with a “content warning.”
Will another alternative to Twitter rise, if Musk makes too many wrong moves? One that overcomes the Mastodon problem, and the inertia problem, making it supremely easy for Twitter users to switch and keep their follower accounts largely intact?
That’s entirely possible. Necessity is the mother of invention. So far, however, it hasn’t been necessary. The trash fire of Twitter, sustained by rage at its owners, will likely keep burning bright for many years yet.