Why news of Twitter's death was greatly exaggerated
While disgruntled employees have nasty things to say upon their exit, neither they nor powerful interests could bring down the social media platform.
Summary: The mainstream media embraced the narrative Twitter was at its end based on reports from disgruntled employees indignant over Elon Musk’s new ownership. Twitter, however, is still online despite those reports, which should have been viewed skeptically.
Move over Mark Twain: News of Twitter’s death was as greatly exaggerated as your own now proverbial demise (perhaps even more so because the iconic American writer actually did, in fact, end up dying at some point).
Twitter’s demise was imminent, based on news reports last week, after a mass employee revolt and exodus under Elon Musk’s new ownership. One highly cited article in The Verge, titled ‘Hundreds of employees say no to being part of Elon Musk’s “extremely hardcore” Twitter,’ reported departing employees “expect the platform to start breaking soon” based on the multiple critical teams who have departed. Meanwhile, Musk himself reportedly feared employees would sabotage the system on their way out the door and limited badge access for employees at Twitter’s office.
Mainstream media went full throttle as opposed to looking at reports in tech journals more skeptically. Here’s one particularly anxiety-driven headline in the Washington Post: “How to download your tweets in case Twitter shuts down permanently.” The article’s hand-wringing cites as definitive evidence not just internal sources saying the number of backend engineers has been reduced to zero, but the trending hashtags on Twitter itself of #RIPTwitter, #TwitterDown and #Goodbye.
Leading up to these stories were others based on leaks from Twitter employees about working conditions under Musk. Among the top indignations was Musk imposing new restrictions on the frequency of working from home and refusing to include catered lunches at the workplace — estimated to cost $400 per worker — as a perk for employment. The suffering was too much to bear.
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But a number of days have passed since the reports on Twitter’s demise and the platform nonetheless appears as functional and high profile as ever. If anything, Twitter has likely found an increase in engagement thanks to attention following Musk’s acquisition. Musk’s decision to allow back on the platform Donald Trump, banned after his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, built up that attention even further, even though Trump has yet to tweet since his account was reinstated.
I’m unsure what the people who were bracing for Twitter’s end were actually expecting. Would the website for a massive tech company suddenly go dark? Would tweets from individuals users not go through, or go through with content other than what the user wrote? It’s almost like people envision Twitter is dependent on software engineers who monitor draft tweets on the back end, then usher them through in the milliseconds after the user hits the publish button.
Perhaps the vision was such an extreme exodus of users Twitter would seem like a ghost town and unworthy of any notoriety, but that would be quite a shift overnight for a premier social media website with widespread use.
I came across one recent article in MIT Technology Review quoting a computer engineer who more sensibly foresaw Twitter’s demise as more as an erosion over a longer period of time. Rather than a cataclysmic shutdown all at once, Ben Krueger predicts small things going awry like issues with retweets, or system outages due to unpredictable and overwhelming traffic.
Whether it’s manual RTs appearing for a moment before retweets slowly morph into their standard form, ghostly follower counts that race ahead of the number of people actually following you, or replies that simply refuse to load, small bugs are appearing at Twitter’s periphery. Even Twitter’s rules, which Musk linked to on November 7, went offline temporarily under the load of millions of eyeballs. In short, it’s becoming unreliable.
But problems like these wouldn’t be new: Twitter has always has problems along these lines. If any missing employees are necessary to address those issues, I can imagine a high-profile company like Twitter can find replacements no matter the role.
I will concede Musk isn’t out of the woods yet. The pause of advertising revenue from major clients amid questions about his new direction for Twitter, some of which was brought about by his botched launch of the $8 a month blue checkmark verification system, appears to be a serious revenue loss for Twitter. Musk is also looking at scrutiny from the U.S. government by seeming to flout the terms of a 2011 agreement the company reached with the Federal Trade Commission, which has led seven Senate Democrats to sign a public letter calling for review.
The perception Twitter was at its imminent demise, however, wasn’t based on these developments but media reports relying on disgruntled employees either kicked out or making their exits due to unhappiness with Musk. That kind of journalism is not uncommon when a highly visible figure is unpopular. When that happens, reporters are eager to find stories to advance that narrative in any way they can. But if these stories focus more on the indignities of the workers themselves, they can end up obfuscating news developments rather than clarifying them.
A similar story emerged last year about Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, which cited not just discontent among employees but interns, when she had the ire of the progressive left for voting against a $15 minimum wage increase and blocking filibuster reform. Business Insider reported a “demoralized” staff was living in fear of making a mistake amid having to respond to complaints about the senator. “It kind of ruined my aspirations in politics,” one staffer was quoted as saying. News flash: These staffers weren’t elected as senator, Sinema was.
When I was working for an LGBT newspaper, a variation of this story would repeatedly come up with complaints from employees at major advocacy groups. some of whom would go so far as to accuse leadership of outright racism. I can tell you based on my follow-ups the preponderance of those complaints were unfounded.
Don’t get me wrong: Media outlets should freely quote disgruntled staffers and use them as the basis of stories of give context to articles. At the end of that day, the media is highly incentivized to produce these stories because they have a captive audience eager to read them. Furthermore, when these stories are based on employees making valuable claims about improprieties in the workforce, they can be the highest form of journalism. But when we have stories focused on personal indignities of employees themselves, they should largely be taken with a grain of salt.
We didn’t see that with the story of Twitter’s expected demise. Instead, the whole of Twitterverse and major media figures were either chortling, hyperventilating or otherwise just overly credulous in chasing the narrative of Twitter’s demise.
Another reason why the perception of Twitter’s imminent demise had so much fuel is because so many powerful interests wanted that outcome. These interests want corporate-controlled messaging from mainstream media outlets, or simply taking U.S. government figures at their word, as acceptable forms of broadcasting. They have no stomach for a communications system based on user input from the ground up that can effectively challenge existing systems and narratives, unless these platforms agree to guidelines for “content moderation” or “misinformation” from these powerful interests.
The disdain for the open fora of social media really jumped out at me an event in D.C. on Friday hosted by Semafor, a global news platform recently launched by veteran journalists. The moment came when White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, a guest of the event, answered a question on the prospect of Twitter coming to an end.
Her response left no questions the Biden administration sees social media as the opposition:
“We're all watching closely, especially in the world that we're in. I can't really speak too much to it because it's kind of developing in front of our eyes and so I don't want to make any comments specifically on what's happening, but the president has talked about these platforms more broadly, and how they're being used in a way to spew hate, how they're being used in a way to spew violence and it is an incredibly dangerous time. It goes back to him talking about democracy, talking about where we are as a country. And it goes into the reason why he even ran for president. If you think about 2017, if you what happened in Charlottesville, we saw the the hate, even violence and how horrific that was, and he talked about the soul in the nation. All that is connected to where we are.”
Did she actually go to topic of Charlottesville? I don’t see any major role Twitter played in contributing to the white supremacist march or the violence that followed, let alone how she could boil down all of social media down as a catalyst for that incident. As for her remarks social media platforms are “being used in a way to spew hate” and “being used in a way to spew violence,” that’s a common refrain for critics who don’t like social media (and principles of free speech, for that matter).
As I’ve written before, the free-speech system knows what to do with people who engage in hate speech. Just ask the rapper formerly known as Kanye West.
So if you’re at the Thanksgiving dinner table over the upcoming holiday and looking for some part of your life for which you can offer gratitude, one option you have is being able to tweet to your heart’s content. Neither disgruntled employees nor the powerful interests could take that away from you.
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