Elon Musk fires a top Twitter engineer over his declining view count
Inside Twitter 2.0, turmoil leaves employees stretched to the max
For weeks now, Elon Musk has been preoccupied with worries about how many people are seeing his tweets. Last week, the Twitter CEO took his Twitter account private for a day to test whether that might boost the size of his audience. The move came after several prominent right-wing accounts that Musk interacts with complained that recent changes to Twitter had reduced their reach.
On Tuesday, Musk gathered a group of engineers and advisors into a room at Twitter’s headquarters looking for answers. Why are his engagement numbers tanking?
“This is ridiculous,” he said, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the meeting. “I have more than 100 million followers, and I’m only getting tens of thousands of impressions.”
One of the company’s two remaining principal engineers offered a possible explanation for Musk’s declining reach: just under a year after the Tesla CEO made his surprise offer to buy Twitter for $44 billion, public interest in his antics is waning.
Employees showed Musk internal data regarding engagement with his account, along with a Google Trends chart. Last April, they told him, Musk was at “peak” popularity in search rankings, indicated by a score of “100.” Today, he’s at a score of nine. Engineers had previously investigated whether Musk’s reach had somehow been artificially restricted, but found no evidence that the algorithm was biased against him.
Musk did not take the news well.
“You’re fired, you’re fired,” Musk told the engineer. (Platformer is withholding the engineer’s name in light of the harassment Musk has directed at former Twitter employees.)
Dissatisfied with engineers’ work so far, Musk has instructed employees to track how many times each of his tweets are recommended, according to one current worker.
It has now been seven weeks since Twitter added public view counts for every tweet. At the time, Musk promised that the feature would give the world a better sense of how vibrant the platform is.
“Shows how much more alive Twitter is than it may seem, as over 90% of Twitter users read, but don’t tweet, reply or like, as those are public actions,” he tweeted.
Almost two months later, though, view counts have had the opposite effect, emphasizing how little engagement most posts get relative to their audience size. At the same time, Twitter usage in the United States has declined almost 9 percent since Musk’s takeover, according to one recent study.
Twitter sources say the view count feature itself may be contributing to the decline in engagement, and therefore views. The like and retweet buttons were made smaller to accommodate the display of views, making them harder to easily tap.
An even more obvious reason for the decline in engagement is Twitter’s increasingly glitchy product, which has baffled users with its disappearing mentions, shifting algorithmic priorities, and tweets inserted seemingly at random from accounts they don’t follow. On Wednesday, the company suffered one of its first major outages since Musk took over, with users being told, inexplicably, “You are over the daily limit for sending tweets.”
It turns out that an employee had inadvertently deleted data for an internal service that sets rate limits for using Twitter. The team that worked on that service left the company in November.
“As the adage goes, ‘you ship your org chart,’” said one current employee. “It’s chaos here right now, so we’re shipping chaos.”
Interviews with current Twitter employees paint a picture of a deeply troubled workplace, where Musk’s whim-based approach to product management leaves workers scrambling to implement new features even as the core service falls apart. The disarray makes it less likely that Musk will ever recoup the $44 billion he spent to buy Twitter, and may hasten its decline into insolvency.
“We haven’t seen much in the way of longer term, cogent strategy,” one employee said. “Most of our time is dedicated to three main areas: putting out fires (mostly caused by firing the wrong people and trying to recover from that), performing impossible tasks, and ‘improving efficiency’ without clear guidelines of what the expected end results are. We mostly move from dumpster fire to dumpster fire, from my perspective.”
Musk’s product feedback, which comes largely from replies to his tweets, often baffles his workers.
“There’s times he’s just awake late at night and says all sorts of things that don’t make sense,” one employee said. “And then he’ll come to us and be like, ‘this one person says they can’t do this one thing on the platform,’ and then we have to run around chasing some outlier use case for one person. It doesn’t make any sense.”
The San Francisco headquarters, whose landlord has sued Twitter for nonpayment of rent, has a melancholy air. When people pass each other in the halls, we’re told that the standard greeting is “where are you interviewing?” and “where do you have offers?” The 8th floor is still stocked with beds, and employees have to reserve them in advance.
“Most weeknights, they are fully booked,” another current employee said.
The perks that made Twitter an attractive place to work pre-Musk have been eradicated. Food at the office? “Sucks – and now we have to pay for it. And, I know this sounds petty, but they appear to have obtained the absolute worst coffee vendors on earth.”
Slack – once the epicenter of Twitter’s open culture, where employees discussed anything and everything – has gone dormant. One current employee described it as a “ghost town.”
“People don’t even chat about work things anymore,” the employee said. “It’s just heartbreaking. I have more conversations with my colleagues on Signal and WhatsApp than I do on Slack. Before the transition, it was not uncommon in the team channel to talk about what everybody did that weekend. There’s none of that anymore.”
When Musk or the goons ask questions, employees are torn between giving the right answer and the safe answer.
“When you’re asked a question, you run it through your head and say ‘what is the least fireable response I can have to this right now?’” one employee explained.
(Of course, that’s not true for everyone at the company. “There are a handful of true believers that are obviously just ass-kissers and brown-nosers who are trying to take advantage of the clear vacuum that exists,” that same employee says.)
Despite the turmoil, remaining employees say that what they call “Twitter 2.0” has managed to improve on its predecessor in at least some ways.
“In the past, Twitter operated too often by committees that went nowhere,” one employee said. “I do appreciate the fact that if you want to do something that you think will improve something, you generally have license to do it. But that’s a double edged sword — moving that fast can lead to unintended consequences.”
The employee cited the disastrous relaunch of Twitter Blue, which resulted in brands being impersonated and dozens of top advertisers fleeing the platform.
“If Elon can learn how to put a bit more thought into some of the decisions, and fire from the hip a bit less, it might do some good,” the employee said. “He needs to learn the areas where he just does not know things and let those that do know take over.”
At the same time, “he really doesn’t like to believe that there is anything in technology that he doesn’t know, and that’s frustrating,” the employee said. “You can’t be the smartest person in the room about everything, all the time.”
With Musk continuing to fire people impulsively, entire teams have been wiped out, and their work is being handed to other, overstretched teams that often have little understanding of the new work that is being assigned to them.
“They have to become code archaeologists to dig through the repo and figure out what’s going on,” one employee said.
Meanwhile, the recent wave of layoffs in the tech industry have contributed to a feeling of paralysis among those who remain at Twitter.
“I do think the recent vibe overall in tech, and fear of not being able to find something else, is the primary factor for most folks,” an employee said. “I know for a fact that most of my team is doing hardcore interview prep, and would jump at likely any opportunity to walk away.”
There is also a sense of unease about how recent changes will be reviewed by regulators. As part of an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission, Twitter committed to following a series of steps before pushing out changes, including creating a project proposal and conducting security and privacy reviews.
Since Musk took over, those steps have become an afterthought, employees said. “His stance is basically ‘fuck you regulators,’” we’re told.
The FTC plans to audit the company this quarter, we’re told, and employees have doubts that Twitter has the necessary documentation in place to pass inspection. “FTC compliance is concerning,” one says.
Last year, before Musk took over, the FTC fined Twitter $150 million for breaking its agreement. Another breach would almost certainly result in millions of dollars in additional fines, and a flurry of news coverage — just the thing, perhaps, to get the views on Musk’s tweets trending up again.
Elsewhere in Twitter: Twitter sent EU regulators an incomplete report on how its tackling disinformation and failed to include commitments that it would empower fact-checkers. A congressional hearing on the Twitter Files offered plenty of heated exchanges but little new information. Musk reinstated the account of a Republican senator after it was blocked for a hunting photo flagged as “graphic violence.”
Multiple senior employees left Twitter after their pre-takeover stock vested on February 1. Twitter rolled out its subscription service, Twitter Blue, to users in India, Brazil and Indonesia.
Coming Friday morning on the podcast: OpenAI’s Sam Altman and Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott join us to talk about the new Bing, making large language models safer, and why they’re optimistic about our AI future. Later in the show, we talk about Google’s scramble to play catchup. Plus: the bizarre case of the AI-generated Seinfeld parody that got banned from Twitch for transphobic and homophobic remarks.
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TikTok discovered a Russian disinformation network spreading war propaganda about Ukraine to more than 100,000 European users over the summer. (Alex Barinka, Margi Murphy and Jillian Deutsch / Bloomberg)
Researchers say TikTok’s efforts to be transparent about how its algorithm works face practical and technical difficulties. Even if overseers could keep up with “constant changes to the code, they would also need detailed information about how the algorithm filtered and rated the app’s fire hose of videos to ensure no interference.” (Ryan Tracy and Georgia Wells / Wall Street Journal)
Meta completed its acquisition of the VR fitness company Within after the FTC tried to stop it. (Scott Stein / CNET)
UK antitrust regulators provisionally warned Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard could harm competition and said it might force the selloff of the Call of Duty franchise. (Katharine Gemmell / Bloomberg)
Disinformation researchers say chatbots like ChatGPT could share conspiracy theories in increasingly credible and persuasive ways and there’s no strategy to effectively combat it. (Tiffany Hsu and Stuart A. Thompson / New York Times)
Pop-up warnings that alert social media users they’re about to share misinformation stop 25 percent of flagged posts on Facebook and 38 percent on Instagram. (Aggi Cantrill and Amy Thomson / Bloomberg)
On Telegram, military supporters are doxxing women who hold pro-democracy views and sharing abusive videos of them to keep them silent. (Pallabi Munsi / CNN)
Google lost $100 billion in market value after its new chatbot shared inaccurate information in a promo video before a major event meant to position the company as seriously competing with OpenAI’s ChatGPT. (Martin Coulter and Greg Bensinger / Reuters)
At the event, Google announced a bunch of AI-enabled search, Maps, and Translate updates. They’re not coming until later this year, though. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
Google clarified its stance on AI-generated content, saying Search won’t automatically penalize it and will reward “high-quality content, however it is produced.” (Ben Schoon / 9To5Google)
The Google executive in charge of AR and VR, Clay Bavor, is leaving the company next month. He’s starting a company with Bret Taylor most recently Salesforce’s CEO and former chairman of the Twitter board. (Abner Li / 9To5Google)
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella explains why Bing could beat Google at Search. (Nilay Patel / The Verge)
Scientists are grappling with ChatGPT, noting that while it could speed up tasks like writing papers and grants, it’s still prone to error. (Chris Stokel-Walker and Richard Van Noorden / Nature)
Alibaba is developing a ChatGPT rival that is currently in internal testing. (By Josh Horwitz and Brenda Goh / Reuters)
Instagram is expanding access to its Gifts feature to creators across the US, allowing fans to provide them with direct monetary support in the form of themed virtual gifts. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
Netflix started cracking down on password sharing in Canada, telling premium and standard account holders they can “buy an extra member slot” for $7.99 per month. (David Friend / Toronto Sun)
Articles framing the fediverse, and Mastodon in particular, as a failure are getting the story wrong, this article argues. Usage is still increasing by some metrics. (Mike Masnick / TechDirt)
AI tools that rate photos to decide what to amplify and what to suppress are biased against women’s bodies, an investigation found. (Gianluca Mauro and Hilke Schellmann / The Guardian)
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The people saying Mastodon is dead, dying, a ghost town, are the ones who have made little or no effort to join a community; instead expecting it to be a 100% Twitter clone.
After fourteen years on Twitter, I'm enjoying Mastodon more and more each day. I don't regret leaving Twitter at all.
I think a good way to understand EM is to read literature on toxic narcissists... and then his behavior doesn't seem so unpredictable.
I'm still grieving and processing the death of Twitter 1.0... loving Mastodon so far but alas, most of my favorite people haven't migrated over; they just stopped using Twitter. My hope is that we're all early adopters and eventually more women, POC, activists, journalists and institutions will join.