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Staring down the Twitterpocalypse
Some predictions on what happens from here
Well, it seems like this is actually happening. Elon Musk is going to own Twitter by the end of this week.
People are acting as though the end is nigh. Mostly they’re doing this for laughs and retweets (The replies to this Ben Collins tweet are delicious). But it does seem like things are about to change, and not for the better.
I suspect this is the beginning of the end for the site. Let me spell out what that means, though. Think of this as my pre-registered prediction of how Twitter falls apart:
-People don’t actually quit Twitter en masse right away. (Where else would we doomscroll?) A few high-profile people will leave. A lot more people will gesture toward leaving. And many, many people will roll their eyes and say “yeah right, see you Tuesday.”
I don’t expect much of a mass exodus because, as polarizing and obnoxious as Elon has become, our day-to-day experience of the site doesn’t hinge on liking the owner. Twitter on Saturday will be no different than Twitter on Friday, for better and for worse.
-There will be staff layoffs, but not as deep as has been reported. Musk circulated a slide deck where he told his potential investor-bros that he’d cut 75% of the workforce. But that slide deck was full of half-baked ideas. It will take some time for him to get his bearings and implement changes. He’ll make life terrible for Twitter employees in the hopes that they quit instead of being fired. He’ll roll back content moderation and other initiatives that have been aimed at making the hellsite less hellish. But the rest of the tech industry is in a freefall right now. The outside job prospects are a lot frostier than they were six months ago.
-There will be at least a few news cycles reporting on how nothing has changed after all. Those will probably come 1-3 months from now. It’s an easy reporting assignment. The hot takes practically write themselves.
But, within a year, I expect the site will be a shell of its former self. Here’s why:
-The debt payments. Elon isn’t just paying $44 billion for Twitter. He’s also signing up for $13 billion in debt financing. That will come with interest payments of over a billion per year.
Musk is eventually going to dramatically reduce the size of the Twitter workforce — not because the employees aren’t doing necessary work, but just because he has to slash budgets to reduce overhead costs.
He’s simultaneously going to roll out an endless stream of harebrained monetization ploys, each of which make Twitter worse for the user base. He will have to do this because, once again, he’s just on the hook for way too much money here.
-The abuse. Fewer employees, less moderation, and a general return of the worst of the alt-right asshole brigade is going to amplify all the worst parts of the Twitter experience. People are going to stop opening up the app because it’s going to routinely be the shittiest part of their day. That’s when the user migration will happen — gradually, not suddenly.
-The death spiral. As the accounts you like to interact with go dark and/or move elsewhere, you’ll move elsewhere too. If we look at the history of social media, this has happened plenty of times. (Remember Friendster? Remember MySpace?) It’s only because the past decade of internet time has been so stable that we’ve come to assume the dominant platforms can last forever. (Facebook/Meta is crumbling too, by the way. The future is chaos.)
So my expectation is that Twitter will seem mostly unchanged in a month or two, and then will be a hollowed-out shell of its former self in a year or two. Elon spent too much, he doesn’t have a real plan, and he’s stumbled into the biggest tech downturn since the dotcom crash. Big money ruins everything, and the big-money demands are going to be phenomenal here.
I’ll miss the old Twitter when it’s gone. And I don’t have any idea what will come next. I also don’t know whether it will be better or worse than Twitter today.
…But maybe I’ll be wrong.
Here’s the best-case scenario for an Elon-run Twitter, though. I doubt any of this will happen, but will see it as an encouraging sign if it does:
-Elon recognizes that his only chance of breaking even is to wait out this sector-wide stock crash. Twitter isn’t going to become phenomenally profitable when every other tech company is taking a beating. (including Tesla.)
-He hires a competent CEO who has experience with the product and respect among the workforce.
-He minimizes the layoffs. There will be some layoffs and a hiring freeze at Twitter, just like at Google and Meta and every other company. But he resists the urge to move fast and break things before he identifies the load-bearing parts of the system.
-He slowly implements new monetization features. There’s a long list of stuff that Twitter was getting ready to roll out under Parag Agarwal anyway. Elon can maintain those plans and claim credit for anything that works out.
-He invests in the trust and safety team in tandem with letting formerly-banned accounts back on the site. (I’d prefer that he doesn’t let them back on at all, but that seems unlikely.) As they make life on the site obviously worse for everyday users, this creates a clear pathway for suspending their accounts again.
Basically, the best-case scenario is that Elon buys Twitter, says “oh fuck, I need this place not to fall apart before the market thaws and I can make it profitable,” and he hires people to run things who end up not changing much at all.
I doubt any of that will happen. It would be… out-of-character. But it’d be nice if the one social media site I don’t hate using didn’t fall apart because a billionaire wanted it to be his own personal sandbox. And this, I think, is the most realistic path to Elon running Twitter without ruining Twitter.
I’ll treat this post as a time capsule, and will check back on it in a year. Here’s hoping things take a turn for the better. See you on the other side of the Twitterpocalypse.