When Elon Musk first took over Twitter, those of us in the tech media had all kinds of theories about how the acquisition might bring about the death of the 17-year-old platform.
Some posited that his inept attempts at cost-cutting would cause irreparable damage to Twitter’s infrastructure or that mass resignations would lead to catastrophic instability. But as is so often the case with Musk, predictions were in vain. Twitter did die this year, but the way it played out was both more boring and more stupid than anyone could have possibly imagined.
Musk killed Twitter by slowly making it useless for those who relied on it for real-time information, by choking off conversations from those not willing to pay, by flooding users’ timelines with spammy blue-check sycophants and renaming the company X. He killed it by re-platforming actual Nazis and far-right trolls and Alex Jones and boosting anti-semitism so loudly the site’s largest remaining advertisers and most prominent users abandoned the platform in droves. Though you can still go to www.twitter.com and see a website that vaguely resembles the thing we used to call Twitter, it’s only a dull echo of what it once was.
The beginning of the end
While you could argue the death spiral began the second Musk walked into Twitter HQ carrying a sink 14 months ago, the platform we all knew began to die three months later, when Musk abruptly decided to ban third-party client apps from its platform and put the rest of its API behind an outrageously expensive paywall.
Twitter had long been an outlier among its social media peers for having a relatively open platform. It gave researchers tools to access the full history of all public conversations on Twitter. It allowed developers to build their own apps on top of its platform, which fostered a small but robust ecosystem of third-party Twitter clients.
Third-party apps like Tweetbot and Twitterific had a relatively small (but devoted) following, but they also played a significant role in defining the culture of Twitter. In the early days of Twitter, the company didn’t have its own mobile app, so it was third-party developers that set the standard of how the service should look and feel. Third-party apps were often the first to adopt now-expected features like in-line photos and video, and the pull-to-refresh gesture. The apps are also responsible for popularizing the word “tweet” and Twitter’s bird logo.
And while many of these apps had become less prominent in recent years, they were emblematic of the way that Twitter, at its best, empowered its users to shape the platform.
Likewise, having an open and readily-available API meant that Twitter, while not the largest social platform, could play an outsize role in shaping online culture. Because its firehose of data was easily accessible to researchers, the public conversations that happened there fueled studies into everything from global elections to public health.
By closing its API to developers and the research community, Musk made it clear he was not interested in using Twitter for anything that couldn’t make him a buck in the process. Twitter’s data was simply another part of the platform to commodify. Nearly a year later, making Twitter’s API inaccessible to all but those with the deepest pockets may not seem like even the tenth-most consequential change to happen under Musk, but it showed just how willing he was to alienate influential communities on Twitter. It was also a major warning sign of what was to come.
Twitter’s current lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bullshit.
Power to the people! Blue for $8/month.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 1, 2022
The blue check fiasco
If killing Twitter’s API was a quiet warning sign, the complete destruction of Twitter “verification” was a five-alarm fire. Twitter’s verification system was always flawed, but it hinged on the basic premise that the company had some evidence the accounts it verified belonged to the actual people claiming them and that those were people or organizations of some importance. When Musk rolled out his poorly thought out paid verification scheme last year, it went horribly and predictably wrong almost immediately because he failed to uphold any kind of identity check.
Despite the chaotic initial rollout, verification’s now-meaningless status did not become fully apparent until this year. After a wave of thousands of spammers, scammers and Musk sycophants signed up for verification, Twitter began removing “legacy” verification from thousands of accounts.
The algorithmic boost provided to the new paid-for wave of blue checks, combined with the promise of a potential share of ad revenue, has drastically altered the dynamics of conversation on Twitter. Verified accounts are given priority ranking in replies and search results, regardless of the size of their following or their engagement — which has made Twitter even less relevant and useful. And the promise of potential ad revenue has incentivized the worst kind of engagement bait.
The result is that even the most carefully curated timelines have become filled with useless spam. And fraudsters are increasingly using pay-to-play verification to carry out scams targeting people trying to reach legitimate customer service channels.
X marks… the death of Twitter
If you were to look for a singular moment when Twitter died, however, it happened in July, when Musk announced that the company would now be known as X. The company changed its name, logo and everything formerly associated with the bird app.
This was more than an ill-considered rebrand. X, a letter with which Musk has long been fascinated, represented, literally, the end of Twitter. For as much as Musk has said it’s about creating an “everything app,” it’s also about fully severing any ties to the expectations and norms associated with Twitter. Want to break verification? Want to charge new users for the privilege of posting? Want to make news stories unreadable? Want to maliciously slow down links to competitors’ websites? Want to re-platform the most heinous peddlers of hate and conspiracy theories? Those actions may have been at odds with Twitter’s mission, but at X, it’s all just another Tuesday. As CEO Linda Yaccarino told CNBC “the rebrand represented really a liberation from Twitter.”
It’s unclear if Musk will ever succeed at creating anything resembling an “everything app” where users will be able to use X to run their “entire financial world.” So far, users seem to have little interest in the somewhat random assortment of new features that have been introduced, like live shopping and aggregating job listings. What Musk has succeeded at, however, is reshaping the platform in his own image.
But if there was any doubt remaining about whether the platform had a chance, Musk has almost single handedly wiped out what remained of Twitter’s ad business. After boosting an antisemitic conspiracy theory and repeatedly failing to prevent ads from appearing near pro-Nazi content, many of the company’s largest remaining advertisers have halted their spending on the platform.
Musk, naturally, responded by telling advertisers “go fuck yourself,” while speculating that the loss of ad dollars could “kill the company.”
But it’s not just advertisers who have fled an increasingly toxic platform. Many of the biggest and most-followed accounts have stopped posting in recent weeks. X’s infrastructure continues to slowly crumble, with random features constantly breaking. Meanwhile, all this has only strengthened the growing number of X competitors, and especially the Meta-owned Threads app. Threads is surging, landing at number four on Apple’s list of most-downloaded apps of the year, despite a late summer launch. X, which has seen steady declines in traffic and engagement, did not make the list.
This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/how-twitter-died-in-2023-and-why-x-may-not-be-far-behind-143033036.html?src=rss
Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter was met with speculation about how it would affect the platform’s future. Some believed that his cost-cutting efforts would harm Twitter’s infrastructure or result in mass resignations. However, Musk’s impact on Twitter turned out to be more mundane and foolish than anticipated. He made the platform less valuable for those who relied on it for real-time information, restricted conversations to those willing to pay, flooded timelines with spammy blue-check accounts, and rebranded the company as X. Musk also allowed actual Nazis, far-right trolls, and Alex Jones onto the platform, amplifying anti-Semitism and causing major advertisers and prominent users to abandon Twitter. While the website still exists, it is a mere shadow of its former self. Musk’s actions, such as banning third-party client apps and putting the API behind a paywall, demonstrated his disinterest in using Twitter for anything that didn’t generate profit. Furthermore, his mishandling of the verification system, which gave priority to paid accounts and led to spam, further deteriorated the platform. The final blow came when Musk renamed the company X, severing all ties to Twitter’s expectations and norms. Musk’s actions have not only harmed Twitter’s ad business but also led to the exodus of major accounts. Meanwhile, X’s infrastructure is crumbling, and competitors like Meta-owned Threads are gaining popularity. While Musk may not achieve his goal of creating an “everything app,” he has successfully reshaped Twitter in his own image.