If Elon Musk is right about Twitter being crucial to the future of civilisation, then things are looking bleak for us all. Outages are on the rise, advertising revenues have plunged, and a company that had a 7,500-strong workforce just four months ago now employs just 2,000, after yet another round of job cuts.
When Musk took over the social media platform back in October, the sometimes-richest person in the world said he was doing so not to make money, but to “try to help humanity”. He was determined to make Twitter better, he said, because it was “important to the future of civilisation to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner”.
I haven’t seen Musk take part in many serious debates of late — healthy or otherwise — though I have seen him posting a whole load of third-rate memes and re-sharing his own bad gags. I do wonder, also, whether someone who is reported to have got 80 engineers to tweak the algorithm so his tweets would be more visible than those of the US president is really the person who will manage to save Twitter and (according to him) the rest of us.
In some ways, though, all of that is beside the point. I never expected Musk, when he took over Twitter, to suddenly resist the urge to make dumb jokes, nor to stop spouting unfounded claims to his 130mn followers in an irresponsible fashion, nor to refrain from using the platform for his own personal gain. Nor did I expect him to be able — or even willing — to allowed unfettered free speech on the platform.
Furthermore, Twitter is more like some kind of ghastly open-mic night than a “digital town square”, so the idea that Musk could somehow use it to bring us all together always seemed rather far-fetched to me. What I really expected was that Twitter would simply carry on being just as bad, and just as good, as it had been before Musk took over.
But in the four months since the takeover, Twitter has felt like it has got decidedly worse. It’s not so much, for me at least, that the content has become more offensive, or more aggressive, or more fake. It’s not even about the regular technical glitches — like the broken timeline many users found when they visited the site on Wednesday. It just somehow feels like a less exciting place than it used to be; it just feels a bit . . . boring.
In an attempt to get a sense of whether this view was held more widely, this week I ran a Twitter poll to get a sense of how people felt that the platform had — or hadn’t — changed in the four months since Musk had bought it. I gave four possible answers (which admittedly might have been skewed slightly negative), guided by what I had seen and heard people say about it already: “It’s so, so much worse”; “It’s marginally worse”; “Better! Free speech baby!” and, finally, “Don’t notice a difference”.
After 24 hours, the results were in. Out of more than 2,000 people who voted, only 6 per cent said Twitter had got better since Musk’s takeover, with just over 17 per cent saying they hadn’t noticed any difference. That meant that more than three-quarters of respondents felt it had deteriorated: 31 per cent went for “so, so much worse”, and the biggest group, 46 per cent, said Twitter had got marginally worse.
This is my experience too. Twitter is becoming a less interesting product. Aside from all the glitches, bugs and outages, the user experience of Twitter has declined noticeably. The algorithmically selected “For You” tab that Musk launched in January feels more like other social media platforms — lots of pictures, videos and other viral-ready content that might be kind of addictive, but also utterly devoid of substance. We already have Instagram for that.
Twitter has also stopped allowing third-party apps — which have been an integral part of the user experience and of Twitter’s very development — to access its data freely, meaning most of these apps are now defunct.
And despite ads seeming to crop up far more than before, many advertisers have fled, causing revenues to plunge. It seems like users might be following them: according to SimilarWeb, a data intelligence company, Twitter’s total traffic declined by 2 per cent in January on a year-on-year basis. The complete data set for February is not yet available, but in the 28 days to February 25, traffic was down 5 per cent.
It might have felt like it was invincible at one point, but Twitter was never going to last for ever — the network effect that has kept all of us on the platform until now was always going to give way to another network at some point. When Twitter’s death does eventually come, we can’t lay all the blame on Musk. We can, however, blame him for making it so tedious.