So, What Did Everybody Think of Elon Musk’s First Quarter Running Twitter?Reading Time: 7 minutes
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Elon Musk has owned Twitter for one quarter of one year, having closed on his purchase of the platform at the end of October. A quarter is a short but measurable time. Were Twitter still a public company, about now is when it would be telling the world how it did over the last three months of 2022. Twitter doesn’t have to do that anymore, because one privilege of being rich enough to take a company private for $44 billion is no longer having to file quarterly reports with the good people of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who do not like you. Because Musk made Twitter private, the peanut gallery no longer gets a window into Twitter’s financial performance.
From what we can surmise from public information, though, the answer is: it’s not that good. As a public company, Twitter sometimes made a bit of money and often lost a bit of money. It had been losing money in the months before Musk took over, citing growing costs. Since going private, Twitter’s expenses have definitely gone down. That happens when a company lays off half its workers, watches more resign, and then simply doesn’t pay severance to many of them. Musk has also closed and downsized data centers, auctioned some stuff, and, you know, maybe stopped paying rent. It seems unlikely that money coming in has improved in similar measure. Twitter the public company made 90 percent of its money from advertisements, and the big stories about Twitter and advertisers in Musk’s opening months were not about how marketers were over the moon to spend more and more on Twitter. Instead, they were about advertisers fleeing the platform over Musk’s behavior and needing to be cajoled back. Twitter started charging $8 per month for a subscription plan that previously only had about 100,000 subscribers at a lower price point. It was probably not an immediate game-changer for a company that relies on having hundreds of millions of users, although a lot of conservatives bought the thing in its first days. As a separate concern, Musk loaded up Twitter with buyout debt that just cost it $300 million, and there will be a lot more where that came from in the course of Musk’s ownership.
Where that all leaves things for Twitter, the business, is uncertain. Musk, who endured the agony of laying other people off and nudging them to resign, says he ‘wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone’ but that now Twitter is ‘trending to breakeven if we keep at it.’ There’s no reason to take Musk as a trustworthy narrator of Twitter’s fortunes now that any false statements he might make about its business would not be a clear-cut violation of federal securities law. But expenses have to be down, and the platform still at least works, even if layoffs and cutbacks have made the user experience on it less pleasant.
That user experience is just the thing, though. Twitter’s financial health is just a concern for Musk, his co-investors, and his lenders. Nobody else has to care if the platform ever makes money again. But Twitter had longstanding problems earning profits, and then Musk overpaid for it and dropped a bunch of debt in its lap. There’s no quick financial fix there. There is maybe a long-term fix, but it doesn’t just involve getting Twitter’s costs under control. It has to involve making Twitter a better place for most people to spend time, so that they’ll be around to look at more ads and perhaps even pay the company for more stuff. The main marker of Musk’s first quarter was the opposite: For most of us, Twitter got worse.
Though it created the most obvious immediate problems, I don’t think Musk’s redpilling will be the thing that destroys Twitter’s advertising business. Musk apparently loves being friends with right-wing Twitter users and trolls, and he has unbanned some of them while unbanning and rebanning others. But there have always been horrible people on Twitter, and blue-chip companies have advertised on the platform anyway. Musk may lack self-control, but he probably has enough to not be so egregious over such a long time that major consumer brands decide they won’t advertise on Twitter. If people are there to be reached, companies will want to reach them, and will tolerate a high degree of jackassery from the guy who owns the website.
What would tank the business would be if fewer people wanted to spend time on Twitter, or if those of us who are hopelessly addicted could at least find the occasional fix somewhere else. The way those things would happen would be if Twitter became so significantly worse that a critical mass of people lost interest in it. Nobody except Musk and his team know what Twitter’s user patterns look like since he took over, but everyone who uses Twitter regularly can tell that the platform has been a different place. I’d wager that for most people who are not enthusiastic Musk fans or right-wing posters, the changes have been bad.
An algorithmic tab labeled ‘For You’ has supplanted the classic Twitter timeline as the default display scroll on Twitter’s phone apps. This has sucked. One of Twitter’s historic strengths is its customizability: People see the tweets they want to see by following accounts and updating their feed to see the most recent posts. That fades with the ‘For You’ tab, which shows bushels of stale tweets by people you follow and irrelevant tweets by people you don’t. It’s a miserable Facebookization (or if you’re feeling generous, TikTokization) of the Twitter experience, and I have not met a single real person who asked for it or enjoys it. The algorithm powering this feed is not good, and even if it were good, it would never be as good as simply choosing accounts to follow. (Just on Monday, Twitter provided the option to make the classic timeline the default on someone’s phone. At least it’s an option now.)
There has always been spam on Twitter. I’ve found it more visible since Musk arrived. For a few weeks, it arrived every morning by way of a direct message in which a robot asked me and dozens of others if we’d like to make great money by working from home for Amazon. That blessedly stopped. Lately, the spam of the moment has been porn solicitations in the replies to regular tweets. Sometimes, things a user would want to appear just don’t. Someone might click to see the ‘quotes’ of a tweet and notice that none populate. A button urging someone to ‘see who replied to this tweet’ might appear multiple times on the same screen, with neither actually showing any replies. The desktop version of Twitter at one point logged a bunch of users out and wouldn’t let them log back in. The ad experience, for a few days around the new year, was memorably horrendous, with the same ad showing up at the top of a feed on every other scroll to refresh. (I was locked in a dayslong battle with a Real Housewife of Salt Lake City who was utterly demanding that I listen to her sing a song about Wendy’s. Or something.)
Then there are the dystopian elements of the new Twitter. It requires some dissonance to spend so much time on a platform that bans journalists for doing journalism and seems to craft content moderation policies according to what is personally annoying to the owner. It gets more uncomfortable given Musk’s constant crowing about the importance of a right-tinted version of ‘free speech.’ I doubt that Twitter’s newfound fiefdom trait will be the thing that sinks it, but it’s not an attractive quality.
Meanwhile, any hope of a game-changing Twitter product to make the site more usable has never felt more distant. A new move to roll back free access to Twitter’s application programming interface will mean the end of a lot of bot accounts that have made Twitter more charming over the years (though Musk says exceptions will be made for certain ‘good’ bots), and will also make it more challenging and expensive for third parties to develop Twitter client apps that innovate where the company refuses to innovate itself. I would be more than happy to pay Twitter $8 per month (or more, really) for a super-powered version of TweetDeck, the chaotic, multicolumned interface for tweet scheduling and information mainlining that has become a favorite of those who use Twitter for work. But one does not exist, and the environment has gotten less hospitable for an outsider to develop one.
Musk has gotten a few things right, at least so far. Many of us thought that making blue verification checkmarks available for purchase would lead to an impersonation free-for-all and severely degrade Twitter’s ability to purvey good information. That panned out for a day or two, but then it chilled out. It turned out it was mostly easy to discern which blue checkmarks were bought and which came down from the heavens (or from Twitter’s old management) on media workers and public figures. Also, while Twitter has gotten worse, it has not outright collapsed as Musk has slashed and burned his organization. That suggests that Twitter could find a way to survive as a smaller company. It doesn’t change, however, that Twitter is now a lesser place for most people to spend time. Avoiding a crater doesn’t mean improving.
From here, two possibilities stand out. One is that once Musk deems Twitter’s costs sufficiently under control, he’ll put his muscle behind developing features to make Twitter better. In time, a better Twitter attracts more real humans to use it, and they consume more ads, and Musk avoids financial calamity. This may not be enough for Musk to be a big winner in his acquisition, because the fact will remain that he paid much more than he should have for a company that will eternally be a huge pain to run. But in this version of events, Twitter would become a better platform, and Musk would still get to be God on it. Everyone would be fine.
The other possibility is that Twitter’s current trajectory lasts for a long time, without great new features and with Musk focused on cost-cutting. He spends half his time placating advertisers and the other half playing footsie with a fawning audience that tweets at him. He hangs on to Twitter for a long while, and the site keeps working but settles into a new normal as a degraded product without much new investment. Where, after all, will all the bluecheck liberals who don’t like Musk actually go? I explored posting on something called Mastodon on one of the several recent nights when it looked like Twitter was about to fall apart at any moment. Mastodon was a more confusing, hectic time than Twitter has ever been. I’ve been more encouraged by something called Post, but it lacks the spontaneity (and, of course, the people) that Twitter has. I am surely not reactivating my Facebook account. Instagram is bad in the same algorithmic way Twitter is currently bad. I don’t know if I feel like throwing energy into TikTok right now, either.
There is no Twitter substitute, not just because other platforms have their own problems, but because Twitter’s facilitation of short-form, real-time text updates among hand-selected groups of people is irreplaceable. Many of us will never leave, and Musk knows that, while the more pro-Elon portion of Twitter’s user base would follow him to the ends of the earth. That might all add up to a lack of incentive for Musk to meaningfully make Twitter better. In this version, Musk would keep pushing the boulder that is Twitter’s profitability up a hill while getting very little sleep and annoying his Tesla investors. Most of us would keep posting on a platform that makes us angry and doesn’t get better. Nobody winds up better off. Perhaps that was the most fitting place for Twitter to wind up all along.
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