Elon Musk's Twitter meltdown is a train wreck we can't look away from

Elon Musk’s Twitter meltdown is a train wreck we can’t look away from

Two weeks after Twitter found itself under new ownership, Elon Musk’s new gray check mark and an “official” label eventually appeared under screen names on some high profile accounts. And so began a bright and shiny new era of verified accounts, equality for everyone on social media and the end, finally, of copycats everywhere.

Yes indeed.

This is Musk, after all, and nothing is simple with the brash billionaire. The gray checkmarks were meant to be part of Musk’s grand plan to make verification — an official sign that you really are who you say you are — accessible to everyone. But the gray tiles barely lasted a few hours, disappearing as suddenly as they had appeared.

In an hour-long live audio chat on Twitter the same day, Musk called the labels an “aesthetic nightmare.” Two days later, the tags reappeared on Twitter’s own pages and on those of some major brands and publishers.

At the same time the gray checks went out, another part of Musk’s plan kicked in: an offer allowing people who were paying $8 a month for a Blue Twitter Follower get a blue check indicating that they have been verified. Unsurprisingly, the scammers immediately jumped at the chance to create fake, but “verified” accounts. Later Friday, Twitter suspended accounts after a number of those accounts, impersonating Eli Lilly and others, caused real havoc with fake posts.

To cap off this week, Musk, who paid $44 billion for the social media network, reportedly told employees (the 3,700 who left after laying off half the workforce the previous week) that the bankruptcy was a possibility. This message was delivered even as he tried to seduce advertisers frightened by the turmoil.

So not a great start for Musk or Twitter.

The confusing, whiplash-inducing mess, however, is a massive spectacle that’s either hugely entertaining or hugely depressing, depending on your Twitter attachment.

We are witnessing the potential rapid implosion of one of the most influential social media platforms in the world, the one that helped start revolutions (for the better) and moved the fate of the presidential elections (For the worst). Although past platforms like Friend Where Google Plus gone quietly, Twitter, in typical Musk style, could come out with the roar of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launch.

“It’s hard to see Twitter surviving this unless Musk backs down and puts an adult in charge,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at research firm Creative Strategies. “While I can understand Musk’s need for change, going in and throwing it all away is something that rarely leads to success.”

The abruptness of events on Twitter, from the layoff of half the staff to the false start on gray checkmarks, creates a level of unpredictability that is terrible for businesses but irresistible for anyone fascinated by observing a collapse in real time. The “what happens next” factor would make any reality show producer jealous.

Musk – who tweeted his conflicting ideas on Twitter – telegraphed in a Tweeter that there are more false starts and unpredictability to come. “Twitter will be doing a lot of stupid things in the coming months,” he wrote, hinting at faster changes. “We will keep what works and change what doesn’t.”

That can’t be reassuring to the advertisers it desperately needs to stay. Twitter has lost money for two years in a row and depends on ad sales, which make up almost all of its revenue.

I wish I could relax, eat some popcorn and watch the chaos unfold. I’ve weaned myself off Twitter considerably over the past few years, largely tweeting CNET stories from my staff and send a handful of retweets. But political unrest, the pandemic, and how easily I slip back into doom-scrolling dampen my enthusiasm to even open the app. I’m as detached as ever from Twitter, a place I’ve practically lived in with near-constant tweets for the past 13 years.

I suspect I’m not alone, and I could be joined by over 237 million people on Twitter who may be looking to skip to competing services like Mastodon (although my colleague Stephen Shankland think Mastodon is too complicated). Musk still hasn’t clearly stated his stance on moderating toxic content, other than firing most of the team overseeing him. That doesn’t help longtime Twitter executive Yael Roth, who has been reassuring advertisers and users since Musk’s takeover, called it quitting Twitter on Thursday. An increase in hate speech could trigger an exodus of tired, frustrated, or just plain annoyed users.

Likewise, if Musk prioritizes tweets for Twitter Blue followers and aggressively pushes that $8 monthly fee, more people might wash their hands of Twitter.

“As a result of adjustments to Twitter’s verification features, the constant back and forth over product launches and policies makes Twitter seem like a slide into anarchy,” said Rachel Foster Jones, an analyst at research firm GlobalData. “Fears about impersonation and misinformation can irreparably tarnish the integrity of the platform.”

Twitter’s public relations team, which has been significantly reduced due to the layoffs, did not respond to a request for comment.

As a journalist who’s covered technology and digital media for over two decades, I can’t ignore Twitter as a company and a story. But following every new tweet or report is a full-time job. (Lucky for you, CNET has this practice Musk-Twitter Timeline which notes the latest developments.)

I also know what’s at stake with the potential loss of Twitter, given its value as a public forum. Losing the platform that helped birth the Arab Spring and the #MeToo movement would be devastating to society.

But right now, Twitter is rapidly turning into an ever-widening chasm — and none of us can take our eyes off it.

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