A Year Ago, Musk Asked, ‘Is Twitter Dying?Pqx He May Have His Answer.

Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk provides an update on the development of the Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket at the company’s launch facility in Texas.

SAN FRANCISCO – A year ago this month, Elon Musk turned to his favorite social media site with a question. “Is Twitter dying?” he asked.

On the anniversary of his takeover bid, he may have his answer.

Twitter has been dramatically transformed under Musk and few – even among some in the billionaire’s corner – say the changes have been for the better. In recent weeks, government agencies, news organizations and powerful social media influencers have questioned the usefulness of the platform, with some major players publicly abandoning their accounts or telling users they can’t rely on it for urgent information.

Advertisers have fled in droves over Musk’s policy changes and erratic behavior on the site, causing advertising revenue to recently drop by as much as 75 percent, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive internal information. Rounds of layoffs have left Twitter operating with a skeleton staff of 1,500 – an 80 percent reduction – and so riddled with bugs and glitches that the site goes down for hours at a time. Meanwhile, the company’s valuation has cratered, Musk has said, to less than half the $44 billion he paid six months ago.

“I’d say the pain level of Twitter has been extremely high,” Musk said in an interview this week with the BBC, assessing his first six months in charge. “It’s been really quite a stressful situation.” But he added that advertisers were returning and that he anticipates a roughly “break even” financial picture, adding: “Overall, I think the trend is very good.”

Even some Musk fans see things quite differently. Musk has garnered a reputation as a business genius with a Midas touch, but his erratic decision-making at Twitter has taken some of the sheen off his supposed brilliance.

“I am disappointed that he seems to have made as many mistakes as he’s made with Twitter. I don’t think the product’s gotten materially better,” said one person in Musk’s orbit who initially cheered the takeover, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment of his tenure.

“He overpaid. He got a lot of bad press,” the person added. “It’s surprising.”

Musk and Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Even Musk’s purchase of the site was steeped in drama. It began a little over a year ago, when it was revealed that Musk, then the world’s richest person, had purchased a more than 9 percent stake in Twitter, making him its largest individual shareholder. Days later, he launched a hostile takeover bid.

Musk wrote that Twitter’s failure to adhere to free speech – likely a reference to its banning problematic accounts – “fundamentally undermines democracy” given the site’s role in fostering public debate. He accused Twitter’s leaders of tolerating armies of phony accounts, known as bots, and pledged to “defeat the spam bots or die trying!” Under his leadership, he said, Twitter would seek to “authenticate all real humans.”

Roughly six months in, Musk has kept some of those promises. He has restored many previously banned accounts, including that of former president Donald Trump. And his subscription model aims to tackle bot accounts, building off attempts his staff has made to target geographic centers of spam. Next week, he says Twitter will switch largely to a paid subscription model for verifying the authenticity of accounts.

But some of those decisions are noticeably shifting the conversation on the site and carrying unintended consequences such as outages.

Former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution previously said that Musk had gutted many of the company’s core functions, like risk assessment on new product launches and deleting some user data in line with federal requirements. Twitter internally is chaotic, they said, with little coherent strategy other than the imperative to respond to Musk’s latest whim.

“The magic is gone and the carnival barker’s in charge,” one of the former employees said. It “feels like it’s gone from the center of all public conversation to some regrettable networking event where everyone’s got business cards but no one’s got a job.”

Recently, some users have noticed bizarre glitches. Some found their timelines were populated with users they did not follow and more recently, some noticed an inability to reply to tweets.

Earlier this week, users of Twitter Circle – a feature that limits content shared on Twitter to a smaller groups – found their content was instead being shared across the site, including explicit content. Days later, Twitter users widely reported a new problem: They could no longer reply to tweets in their timelines using a web browser.

Part of the chaos stems from Musk’s decision to shift from a chronological feed to a new “For You” feed that relies on an algorithm to surface content. It fundamentally changes the way the site functions, inundating users with a flood of tweets from people they don’t follow – or necessarily want to see. It relies on signals users send when they interact with other content on the site. Even the old chronological “Following” feed is populated with recommendations for tweets from outside users, a Washington Post analysis found.

A previous Post analysis found Twitter was amplifying hate speech in its “For You” timeline, thanks in part to Musk’s decision to restore thousands of previously suspended accounts.

Under Musk, Twitter expanded its overall emphasis on recommendations and added a twist. Code released in late March includes a “multiplier” for tweets from users who pay to subscribe to Twitter Blue, attaining the blue check mark that was previously limited to verified users.

Those users’ tweets would be set to a default value of two, apparently pushing them into the feeds of users who don’t follow them at a likelihood twice as high as that of people who don’t pay. It’s not clear what value, if any, is in use today.

Musk’s changes to the verification model – as well his decisions driving away some news organizations – are making the site less reliable as a destination for information, some experts and users say.

This week, both NPR and PBS said they would stop tweeting from their main accounts after Twitter labeled them “government-funded media.” Twitter first labeled NPR as “state-affiliated,” a label generally reserved for government-run propaganda outlets like Russia’s RT and the Chinese Communist Party’s People Daily, before changing the label when NPR pushed back.

“We are not putting our journalism on platforms that have demonstrated an interest in undermining our credibility and the public’s understanding of our editorial independence,” NPR said in a statement.

PBS spokesman Jason Phelps said it stopped tweeting when it learned of the government-funded label and has “no plans to resume at this time.”

Musk took aim at NPR’s stance in a tweet, pointing out that NPR’s website calls federal funding “essential” to public radio’s service.

“What have you got against the truth @NPR?” he wrote.

A different change is threatening Twitter’s usefulness to the National Weather Service, which has long used automatic tweets to communicate urgent news about extreme weather to the public. Twitter users have had access to systems that allow them to push automated posts by connecting to external sources of information so that the Weather Service and meteorologists can send out quick posts when tornadoes or floods hit.

As weather conditions change, the agency relies on these automated posts to keep people up to date, sometimes sending dozens a day.

Twitter said last month it would limit automated tweets to 1,500 a month, and charge $100 per month for anyone who wanted to send up to 50,000. After the change takes effect, the Weather Service said, its automated tweets about severe weather “may not be posted.” Officials said Twitter told them no exceptions would be made to the new limits.

Twitter’s tweaks are already causing smaller issues for weather watchers: James Spann, chief meteorologist for ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Ala., said Twitter integration with Slack is broken, a problem for him because he uses the chat tool to communicate with weather spotters on the ground. They would use the auto tweets to push storm warnings to the spotters.

“That’s really aggravating,” he said. “One day, we had a tornado event here and we had no warnings on the Slack channel.”

Twitter unveiled another change this month that riled up some power users. After the newsletter site Substack unveiled a feature that appeared to resemble a Twitter clone, Twitter started limiting engagement on tweets that included Substack links. Twitter’s apparent hostility toward Substack prompted the journalist Matt Taibbi – who Musk selected to write portions of the “Twitter Files” – to announce he was remaining at Substack and shifting to its Twitter clone.

Twitter is also aggressively trying to monetize, to the frustration of some users. Twitter recently announced that it would limit access to its application programming interface (API), software tools that allow outside researchers and developers to collect and analyze data, and charge a fee in most cases.

One researcher said Twitter told them enterprise access will now cost an exorbitant price that will limit the ability of researchers to study the spread of online conversations, misinformation and harms.

“As a research institute, I don’t have $42,000 a month to pay them for less data than we get now,” said Caitlin Watkins, the executive director of the Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University, which studies media and technology in society and makes tools to analyze social media. That could force them to shut down tools built for journalists and researchers to access data, as well as hurt their efforts to research topics like the spread of misinformation.

“I don’t think anyone is overselling it or being dramatic,” she said. “Saying it will fundamentally change what we do doesn’t feel strong enough. This is completely reworking everything that we have done.”

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) speaks about Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and her vision of free speech online during a news conference on Capitol Hill on April 28, 2022.

Musk’s aggressive efforts to monetize Twitter are, in part, helping him pay for the site. The Twitter purchase, financed with a combination of loans and equity commitments – including from Musk’s own wealth – has saddled the company with roughly $1 billion in yearly interest payments. In addition, 61 of Twitter’s top advertisers pre-Musk have cut their advertising by 80 percent or more this year through March, according to data from Pathmatics, which conducts brand analyses.

The company now charges for multiple aspects of using the site, including $8 monthly for blue check marks. It has trimmed expenses by reducing its payroll, closing offices and auctioning off equipment.

Musk said Tuesday that despite Twitter’s prior severe cash burn problems, the company is trending toward breaking even financially.

“Many have predicted Twitter will cease to function,” Musk said. “They were wrong.”

Musk said late last year he would step down as Twitter CEO. On Tuesday, he said he had done so, promoting his dog, Floki.

Even so, some worry that Musk – who admitted to sleeping on a library couch at Twitter – has once again overextended himself. During the Tuesday interview, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX referenced plans to pursue generative artificial intelligence, following a news report that Twitter was accumulating powerful computer equipment for the purpose, entering the same field responsible for large language models such as ChatGPT.

Musk incorporated a new A.I.-focused start-up, X.AI, in Nevada last month, documents filed with the state showed – a development first reported by The Wall Street Journal. The filing authorizes 100 million shares and lists Musk as director.

Meanwhile, Twitter is a shadow of its former self, without anything to replace it, one of the former workers said.

“There’s no true alternative,” the person said. “Twitter was one of a kind.”