Elon Musk’s Twitter meltdown is a train wreck we can’t look away from

Two weeks after Twitter found itself under new ownership, Elon Musk’s new gray check and an “official” label. finally popped up under screen names on some high-profile accounts. And thus began a bright and shining new era of verified accounts, equality for all on social media, and an end, finally, to copycats everywhere.

Yeah, for sure.

This is Musk, after all, and nothing is simple with the impetuous billionaire. The gray checkmarks were supposed to be part of Musk’s grand plan to make verification — an official sign that you really are who you say you are — accessible to everyone. But the gray squares lasted just a few hours, vanishing as suddenly as they had appeared.

In an hour-long live audio chat on Twitter the same day, Musk called the labels an “aesthetic nightmare”. Two days later, the labels resurfaced Twitter pages and on those of a few major brands and publishers.

At the same time the gray checks came out, another part of Musk’s plan went into effect: an offer to let people paying $8 a month for a Blue Twitter subscription get a blue check indicating they are verified. Not surprisingly, scammers immediately jumped at the opportunity to create fake, but “verified” accounts. Twitter later Friday suspended accounts after some of those accounts, posing as Eli Lilly, among others, wreaked havoc with fake posts.

At the end of that vacation week, Musk, who paid $44 billion for the social media network, reportedly told employees (the 3,700 who left after laying off half the workforce the previous week) that the bankruptcy it was a possibility. That message was also delivered as he attempted to woo advertisers scared of the uproar.

So, it wasn’t a big initial stretch for Musk or Twitter.

The confusing, whiplash-inducing mess is, however, a massive spectacle that’s either wildly entertaining or extremely depressing, depending on your attachment to Twitter.

We are potentially seeing the rapid implosion of one of the most influential social media platforms in the world, one that has helped start the revolutions (for the better) and moved the fate of the presidential elections (worse). Even if past platforms like Friend or Google Plus quietly vanished, Twitter, in typical Musk fashion, could come out with the roar of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launch.

“It’s hard to see Twitter survive this unless Musk steps back and puts one person in charge,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at research firm Creative Strategies. “While I can understand Musk’s need for change, going in and throwing everything away is something that rarely leads to success.”

The suddenness of what happens on Twitter, from firing half the staff to false starts on gray checkmarks, creates a level of unpredictability that is terrible for business but irresistible to anyone fascinated by watching a meltdown in real time. The “what happens next” factor would make any reality show producer jealous.

Musk, who has been tweeting his conflicting ideas on Twitter, cabled in a tweet that there are more false starts and unpredictability ahead. “Twitter will be doing a lot of dumb stuff over the next few months,” she wrote, hinting at faster shifts. “We will keep what works and change what doesn’t.”

This can’t be reassuring to those advertisers it desperately needs to stick around. Twitter has been losing money for two consecutive years and is dependent on advertising sales, which account for virtually all of its revenue.

I wish I could relax, eat popcorn and watch the chaos unfold. I’ve weaned myself off Twitter significantly over the last few years, largely tweet CNET stories from my staff and sending out a handful of retweets. But the political turmoil, the pandemic, and how easily I slip back into the swipe of doom dampen my enthusiasm for even opening the app. I’m as detached as I’ve ever been from Twitter, a place I’ve basically lived with almost constant tweets for the past 13 years.

I suspect I’m not alone and may be joined by more than the 237 million people on Twitter who may want to defect to rival services such as Mastodon (although my colleague Stephen Shankland thinks Mastodon is too complicated). Musk has not yet clearly stated his position on toxic content moderation, aside from firing most of the monitoring team. It doesn’t help that longtime Twitter executive Yael Roth, who has been reassuring advertisers and users since the Musk takeover, decided to leave Twitter on Thursday. An increase in hate speech could trigger an exodus of tired, frustrated, or just plain annoyed users.

Likewise, if Musk continues to prioritize tweets for Twitter Blue subscribers and aggressively push that $8 monthly fee, more people may be washing their hands of Twitter.

“Following the adjustments to Twitter’s verification features, the constant back-and-forth on product launches and policies gives the impression that Twitter is descending into anarchy,” said Rachel Foster Jones, analyst at research firm GlobalData . “Concerns about representation and misinformation can irreparably tarnish the integrity of the platform.”

Twitter’s PR team, which has been drastically reduced due to the layoffs, did not respond to a request for comment.

As a journalist covering technology and digital media for more than two decades, I cannot ignore Twitter as a company and as a story. But keeping up with every new tweet or report is a full-time job. (Luckily for you, CNET has this handy Musk-Twitter Timeline detecting the latest developments.)

I also know what’s at stake with Twitter’s potential loss, given its value as a public forum. Losing the platform that helped birth the Arab Spring and the #MeToo movement would be devastating for society.

But right now Twitter is rapidly turning into a chasm that keeps getting bigger and none of us can take our eyes off it.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: