What We Lost When Twitter Became X

A little more than a year ago, Elon Musk began his reign at Twitter with an elaborately staged pun. On Wednesday, October 26, 2022, he posted a tweet with a video that showed him carrying a sink through the lobby of the company’s San Francisco headquarters. “Entering Twitter HQ—let that sink in!” he wrote. At the time, I was a coder for Twitter’s language-infrastructure team. (If you’ve ever used Twitter’s translation feature, or are using Twitter in a language other than English, that was us.) I saw Musk’s tweet when it was shared in a company-wide Slack channel. He looked like a giddy warlord entering an enemy stronghold he’d besieged for months.

There were no more updates until the next day, when a Twitter employee shared a tweet from CNBC: “Elon Musk now in charge of Twitter, CEO and CFO have left, sources say.” The ambiguity of the phrase “have left” was soon clarified by a Times article reporting that Twitter’s C.E.O., C.F.O., and general counsel had been fired, along with its head of legal, policy, and trust. Originally, the acquisition had been slated to close on Friday, but Musk pulled a switcheroo by “fast-closing” the deal on Thursday afternoon. This maneuver allowed him to fire the executives “for cause,” which denied them severance and stock options. The vibe in the office was jokey and un-self-pitying. Everyone seemed in for some grim comedy while it lasted.

Musk filled the vacant leadership suite with his lawyer-fixer Alex Spiro and a few others whom the employees collectively called “the goons.” Some key internal managers kissed the ring and enlisted themselves as Musk’s lieutenants; another reportedly puked into a trash can when asked to fire hundreds of people. Half of the workforce was laid off, but those whose roles turned out to be somewhat critical were then begged to return. Some unlucky engineers were dragooned into launching the new Twitter Blue feature, which would charge users $7.99 per month for a “verified” check mark; the rollout was catastrophic. “We are excited to announce insulin is free now,” a newly verified account impersonating the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly tweeted; the pharma’s market valuation went down by billions that day. Twitter Blue was the first in a series of pratfalls that would slash sixty per cent of the company’s advertising revenue and lead to an exodus of users to other platforms.

I wasn’t laid off, but anyone with functioning nerve endings could see that staying would offer no joy. At 12 A.M. on the day before Thanksgiving, Musk sent an e-mail with the subject line “A Fork in the Road.” He wrote, “Going forward, to build a breakthrough Twitter 2.0 and succeed in an increasingly competitive world, we will need to be extremely hardcore.” The e-mail included a link to a Google form that needed to be filled out by 5 P.M., East Coast time, the next day. It had one question—“Would you like to stay at Twitter?”—that had one answer: “Yes.” I am not hard-core. I took the exit.

The next day, I went to Twitter’s headquarters one last time. During the first week of the takeover, we employees had felt like extras in an episode of the show “Silicon Valley,” but the comedic aspect of the affair had ended. In the office, every conversation started with each of us asking, “Did you click ‘Yes’?” The prevailing mood, somehow, was quietly celebratory: if you had quit, it felt freeing to be no longer subject to the whims of a mercurial techno boy. (Of course, a sizable number of employees had no option but to stay, to keep their work visas.) Those who had opted in seemed almost apologetic. In a strange reversal, those of us who were quitting felt sorry for those who had chosen to remain.

After leaving the monolithic Art Deco building on Market Street, I biked around San Francisco, listening to a Twitter Space hosted by the journalists Katie Notopoulos and Ryan Broderick. It ran for almost four hours, and was joined by nearly two hundred thousand people. Listening to a cast of early Twitter employees, journalists, and Twitter users of all stripes speak nostalgically about the platform affirmed what I’d long suspected: many Twitter users hate Twitter the way New Yorkers hate New York—they don’t. It was as if people had gathered to mourn a common foe whom they had publicly reproached yet privately appreciated. They were stunned by Twitter’s sudden and unceremonious death, given that they’d been sparring with it just days ago. The speakers eulogized the careers that had been made, the friends who’d been discovered, and the memes that they’d indulged on the platform. “Tweeps are just hanging out in Slack saying nice things to each other until their access is cut off,” the journalist Casey Newton tweeted, on the day of the layoffs. “Twitter employees get endless shit, but the ones I knew—they worked hard, their work mattered, and they never stopped trying. Not until the moment their screens went blank.”

During my time at Twitter, the employees I met were ludic and easeful. Yet, even on quiet days, there was an undercurrent of vigilance. The platform was defined by a paradoxical mix of silliness and seriousness, the latter often undergirding the former. When I got hired, one of the first things I did when I received my laptop was log on to Slack and scroll back to January 6, 2021. I already knew from reporting by the Washington Post and the Verge that the call to permanently ban Donald Trump from Twitter had come from employees: “We helped fuel the deadly events of January 6th,” they wrote, in an internal letter. On Slack, I saw thread after thread of employees questioning executives’ milquetoast responses to the letter, especially after Facebook had banned Trump and YouTube had suspended his account.

I joined the company almost a year after the January 6th reckoning, but the culture of open criticism was well preserved. On Slack, employees weren’t afraid to directly mention the company’s co-founder Jack Dorsey, or its C.E.O., Parag Agrawal; if someone poked fun at @jack or @paraga, the executives often responded with sassy repartee. But, when Musk took over, questioning of him led to swift firings. A number of employees debated Musk’s actions in the company-wide #social-watercooler channel, and, the day after, we woke up to find many of their accounts gone. “So is this like a Candyman situation?” someone posted. “Mention Elon three times and we get deactivated?”

The idea of openness had expressed itself outside of the company, too, in Twitter’s significant yet underappreciated contributions to open-source and academic research. Bootstrap, a tool kit for building visual interfaces that was released freely by Twitter in 2011, is now used by twenty per cent of all Web sites. (Once you see its visual language, you’ll recognize it everywhere.) And countless useful tools had been built by other programmers using Twitter’s A.P.I., or application-programming interface—a way for outsiders to make use of Twitter’s data. Among other things, the A.P.I. allowed people to create automated accounts, from New New York Times, which tweeted “words when they appear in the NYT the 1st time,” to SF QuakeBot, which sends alerts when earthquakes occur in the Bay Area.

One of Musk’s changes was to introduce new pricing plans that made A.P.I.s unaffordable for many users. This seemed typical of the new regime. At pre-Musk Twitter, product decisions were usually made from the bottom up, or with careful A/B testing. But now there seems to be one “product person”—Musk—who is singularly unequipped to imagine what a typical Twitter user might want. On Twitter, users construct different gestalts of the platform through their own feedback and engagement; in this respect, Musk’s usage pattern is many standard deviations away from what’s ordinary. Click on any of his tweets to read the replies, and you’ll find an entropic mix of flattery, belligerent language, memes, and product shilling. Imagine the maelstrom of likes and mentions he gets every millisecond. There’s nothing “standard” about Musk’s Twitter experience. It’s like tasking someone who only flies on private jets with redesigning the commercial-flight experience.

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