When Tesla owner Elon Musk finalized his acquisition of Twitter for $44 billion in October, he celebrated by carrying a porcelain sink with him into the website’s headquarters. He tweeted, “Entering Twitter HQ – let that sink in!”
But dreadful 2011-era jokes are the least of Musk’s transgressions. Since his takeover, Elon Musk has fired well over 4,000 of Twitter’s previously 7,000 employees – some in layoffs, others one-by-one as Musk purges workers who criticize his decisions.
Completely unshockingly, a myriad of problems have flowed from this. Twitter users have reported in past weeks that many key systems are now hampered or nonfunctional, like two-factor authentication, hacked account retrieval, and downloads.
While Twitter’s most essential problems pre-date Musk’s purchase of the platform, the billionaire’s acquisition of the company has accelerated them drastically. The very public incompetence of Musk, who was until recently ranked as the richest man in the world, has put front-and-center how little billionaires are actually good for.
Downturn Into Nosedive
Anyone keeping track of Elon Musk’s business decisions could draw the conclusion that the man would have problems competently running a lemonade stand, let alone one of the world’s most influential social media platforms.
Musk’s $44 billion offer overvalued Twitter by at least 38%, and his attempts to pull his poor investment out of its downward trajectory have been characteristically destructive. Within days of his takeover, he announced plans to make “official” accounts (those marked with a blue check mark) cost $20/month to maintain. After a public exchange with famous horror author Stephen King, that got knocked down to $8/month. “Twitter Blue” was subsequently rolled out, with the promise that anyone could buy the image of “officialdom” for less than the price of a Netflix subscription.
This went … poorly.
For a few days on Twitter, any person could pay $8 to impersonate a major brand or celebrity, official check-mark included. This led to a few high-profile embarrassments for big business, including a real-looking tweet from an account impersonating pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly claiming they were making insulin free. Eli Lilly’s stock dropped 6% that day, and they pulled all their advertising from Twitter. Since Musk’s takeover, Twitter has reportedly lost half of their advertisers, including giants like General Mills, Chevrolet, Chipotle, Ford, Jeep, and Merck.
At the same time, Musk has ushered a return of right-wing figures to the platform, reinstating Donald Trump’s Twitter account (which was removed following the January 6 2021 insurrection) alongside other right-wing figures that were temporarily suspended, like Kanye West, Jordan Peterson, Andrew Tate, and Marjorie Taylor-Greene. That has been accompanied with a purge of some journalists who monitor far-right activity. Besides emboldening the reactionary right, this has also further accelerated the flight of advertisers and some high-profile users from Twitter, because (at least for now) they see association with the reactionary right as a threat to credibility and profits.
Is Twitter Going To Die?
In recent days, some major celebrities and influencers have abandoned Twitter or started looking for alternatives. Actor Mark Ruffalo tweeted on December 9 that he was looking for other sites to connect with his fanbase, linking his Tumblr in the thread below.
This is the specter of a problem that could actually kill Twitter. Even before Musk’s takeover, Twitter’s most active users were in “absolute decline” in use of the platform, and interest was flagging in subjects that have previously defined the platform, like sports and entertainment. The appeal of Twitter, for many, is the ability to get quick status updates from actors, artists, sports teams, politicians, and news sources. If these “official” accounts jump ship – though no genuine Twitter alternative really exists yet – millions of smaller accounts could go with them.
Right now, this doesn’t seem like the most likely scenario. But what could drive such an exodus is an acceleration of the technical problems that are beginning to creep around the edges of Twitter.
Surface-level functions of the platform are currently working fine for most users, but Musk bringing Twitter staffing down to bare-bones level could make it very vulnerable. If glitches become too frequent, it could frustrate users and cause them to seek alternatives, even if those alternatives aren’t perfect replications of the service that Twitter provides. That would likely snowball – a minor exodus from the platform would become a much bigger one as users start to perceive their Twitter timelines as a ghost town with nothing worth reading.
The Truth About Information Infrastructure
Advertising is a big deal to free-to-use social media platforms like Twitter, as it’s one of the only ways they can make money. But even with advertising money, Twitter has posted yearly losses for eight of the last ten years.
This gets to the heart of a truth about social media sites: while they’re for-profit companies that are often publicly-traded, the services they provide are much more akin to a public utility, which is why capitalists have always struggled to make them profitable. They’re generally free to use, they provide instantaneous long-distance communication, and attempts to monetize them just hamper their ability to be used effectively. (Looking at you, ad-riddled Facebook.)
Twitter in particular has become a home not just for TIME Magazine but for local and state governments to post frequent updates that would clog up their home sites. Currently, Twitter is the best place to go to find status updates about road and school closures, regional weather emergencies, and traffic accidents. Twitter is an example of “information infrastructure” – if it were to completely fall to ruin, it could be at least temporarily disastrous for how people get critical, timely information.
Important public services like Twitter can’t be held in the hands of people like Elon Musk. If Twitter does survive, it will be because workers at the company figure out a way to manage his narcissistic whims and point him away from bad decisions – which will pull those workers away from the actual task of making the site run. Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and connected services like WhatsAapp (which has two billion users in 180 countries) should be publicly-owned and run democratically by the workers who build and maintain them. All of the energy and time workers spend under capitalism catering to the whims of narcissistic bosses like Elon Musk is time wasted.