To the casual Twitter user – someone who perhaps uses it just to keep up with news, friends, and “weird medieval guys” – it might look as though nothing has changed. The platform has the same design it always did, still has its verified users with their checkmarks, the tweets still flow, and Donald Trump is still not posting.
But behind the scenes, almost everything has changed. All of Twitter’s leadership and most of its staff are gone, replaced primarily by Elon Musk in the first case and by nobody in the latter. The company’s content-moderation rules have been weakened, and almost all of the people previously banned are now coming back. Advertisers are avoiding it amid fears that their sponsored posts could appear alongside more controversial ones. There have been warnings that the site could break.
That tension, between everything changing and nothing, has characterised the whole of Musk’s first month at Twitter. He, his supporters and his enemies have all forecast that the platform could be about to fall apart, and make the world worse with it. But the site remains largely the same. Whatever you predicted would happen to Twitter when Musk took over – whether the changes would be big, small, bad or good – you would be both right and wrong at the same time.
Perhaps the most defining tweet in Twitter’s history was posted 10 years ago, by what at the time was thought to be a robot. “Everything happens so much,” the account @Horse_ebooks wrote. It has never been more true than since Musk acquired the company.
But what has actually happened in the month since Musk took over Twitter? And what does it suggest about where it is going?
The story of the Musk takeover could be traced back to June 2009, when he made the account that would go on to be followed by 120 million people (at the time of writing). Back then, Twitter was still young: each day, people posted less than a tenth of the number of tweets they do today. Further, the site frequently crashed, and it was still more of a focus for curiosity than a real force in the world.
Musk’s first tweet came a year after he joined. With its focus on impersonation, it aligned well with one of his central concerns 12 years later, when he took over the company.
Please ignore prior tweets, as that was someone pretending to be me :) This is actually me.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 4, 2010
Musk’s tweets continued. As the years went by, he built up a vast following for his posts on a range of topics: some seriously promoting his business interests, or his views on world affairs; others retweeting often crude internet humour. Some were a combination of all of these things, as when his Boring Company tunnel-digging start-up began selling “burnt hair” perfume.
He was self-confessedly obsessed with the place. “Some people use their hair to express themselves, I use Twitter,” he wrote, in just one of a series of tweets and remarks about how much he enjoyed using the platform.
All through those years, Musk occasionally expressed an interest in owning Twitter. In 2017, for instance, he posted “I love Twitter” – and another user responded suggesting he should buy it, leading Musk to ask: “How much is it?”
In recent years, those posts became more common, along with expressions of concern for the future of the platform. One of his key worries was the number of bots – which often responded to his tweets using fake accounts that were designed to look like him, in an attempt to trick people into crypto scams. These concerns became linked with his desire to buy the company.
The real story of the takeover began in January 2022, when Musk started buying up Twitter stock. He initially did so quietly, using the public market to increase his holding in such a way that it passed without notice.
Then, in April, he announced he had bought a 9.2 per cent holding, becoming Twitter’s largest shareholder. He was invited to join the company’s board, accepted, and then backed out – and then, on 14 April, he offered, in a tweet, to buy the company entirely. Over the months that followed, Musk tried to pull out of the deal, but after a series of attempted escapes it became clear that the expensive legal process would force him to buy it anyway.
At the end of last month, Musk bought the company. He immediately declared himself “Chief Twit”, dismissed the management, dissolved the board, and established a “war room” from which he would implement change. On 28 October, he sent his first post as the platform’s new owner.
the bird is freed
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 28, 2022
After that, Musk’s attempts at stamping his mark on Twitter began in earnest. From his war room, he began an assault on much of what Twitter’s old and maligned management had left behind: its content-moderation rules, its employees, the technical underpinnings of the app, and more.
The first major decision was to cut Twitter’s workforce, roughly in half. This had been widely rumoured ahead of the takeover, but reports of lay-offs came just hours after it actually happened.
Vast numbers of Twitter staff were made redundant, while others quit. Even before the first wave of departures was over, the majority of the company’s employees had gone, including entire major teams. Many of the cuts were in areas of the business that had nothing to do with engineering, such as communications and content moderation.
Straight away, Twitter’s engineers started warning that the cuts meant the site could start to collapse. (It has behaved oddly at times, but is yet to stop working completely.)
The staff that remained were told they needed to work long and intensive hours to keep the company going, or face further redundancies. A photo posted on Twitter seemed to show one of its employees sleeping on the floor, and Musk, too, said that he would be staying put until Twitter was fixed.
This is a tone that has characterised Musk’s leadership of his other businesses, such as SpaceX and Tesla. Staff were asked to commit to “hardcore” working conditions if they wanted to work there – or to stop doing so. (Notably, at those companies, Musk has a bigger management team in place, helping to soften the impact of his rigorous approach; the chief operations officer at SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell, has been credited as the person who gets things done.)
At the same time as engineers were being laid off, they were also being asked to introduce Musk’s planned new features. Once again they did so, under threat of being sacked if they failed to meet the standards expected by their new boss.
On 9 November, the first of those big features started to roll out. Users could pay $8 (£6.65) to get their own verification checkmark, Musk announced. Until then, the checkmark had been used to indicate a verified account: that is, one whose owner had been confirmed as the person the account claimed to represent. After the new feature was introduced, however, anyone could pay a fee to have their account look genuine.
And many did. One user pretended to be the official Nintendo account, and posted a vulgar picture of the cartoon character Mario that remained on the site for hours; another dressed their account up to look like it belonged to pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, posted that “insulin is free now”, and triggered real movement in the financial markets.
Twitter struggled to contain the chaos: one of the more prominent attempts to do so involved rolling out a new, black, “official” badge that did the same as the old verified one, and then turning it back off after a few hours. Two days later, Twitter and Musk admitted temporary defeat: on 11 November, the paid verification facility was turned off until it could be fixed.
The difficulty with verification continues. Musk has tried a whole range of fixes, from requiring parody accounts to write “parody” in their name to using different kinds of verified checkmark, but none of them have yet worked consistently enough to bring back the paid verification feature.
That chaos – as well as the general sense of uncertainty around the takeover – led to warnings from advertisers that it could be “high-risk” to continue promoting their products on Twitter. Advertising accounts for almost all of the company’s revenue.
Musk’s response was to court advertisers while simultaneously suggesting that they were deserting the platform as a result of the behaviour of “activist groups”. But the verification chaos was in part the result of an effort to make Twitter less dependent on advertising – by bringing on board new sources of revenue – and so Musk has pushed on with it, even if he is yet to find a way in which it can actually function.
At the same time, he has attempted to build the platform’s reputation. He claimed, on Twitter, that the site was the “biggest click driver on the internet by far” – an assertion that is not true. He has also drawn attention to the record number of users on the site, its continuing growth, and its success during events such as the World Cup.
Some of those new users may be old ones that Musk has let back onto the platform. On 18 November, he announced it was “Freedom Friday” and restored a range of accounts that had previously been banned, many of them for transphobic tweets. He also brought back Donald Trump’s account, which had been removed amid fears that the former president could use it to foment deadly protest in the wake of the Capitol riots. (At time of writing, Trump has not actually tweeted since his account was reinstated.)
This burst of redemption may turn out to be a sustained one. Days after “Freedom Friday”, Musk ran a poll asking if he should declare a “general amnesty” for banned accounts, and proceed to reinstate them as long as their owners had not broken the law or engaged in flagrant spam. At the same time, he began to post yet more about what he termed the “culture war”, and the importance of freedom of speech.
Musk has emphasised that his focus is on allowing freedom of speech but not “freedom of reach”, with posts that include hateful or other problematic content being made harder for other users to find. This appears to be an attempt to reduce the burden of content moderation while keeping advertisers happy. It has led to many more hateful posts on the site, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which says that Twitter is “becoming more dangerous than ever”.
However, Twitter claims that the changes are working, and that the “impressions” on posts that include hateful speech are down. Musk made the claim amid a new focus on “Twitter 2.0” – which he laid out in a presentation that also said sign-ups were at an all-time high, impersonation is beginning to fall, and that Twitter would go on to beat Amazon and TikTok by becoming the “everything app”. (The features promised in Musk’s plan had been tried before by Twitter engineers, according to researcher Jane Manchun Wong, who found that work on all the newly announced updates had taken place years ago.)
In the weeks since then, Musk’s focus at Twitter has bounced rapidly. His interests can be tracked on his Twitter account, which has also featured personal posts, such as the one that referred to his collection of guns and Diet Coke cans on his bedside. He is tweeting more than ever, about everything from content moderation to new features for the platform.
But many of the issues he has aimed to address have seen little progress. Overall, Musk seems to be trying to introduce new features, bring advertisers to the site (or find alternative sources of income for the beleaguered company), and make staff work harder – as well as making changes to Twitter’s content-moderation rules and systems.
The proposed answers to these issues change every day. But the problems that Musk is focused on are always much the same – and they are, in many cases, the same ones that have troubled Twitter since long before he took it over.
As such, the near future of Musk’s Twitter looks a lot like it always has: trying to turn engagement and high-profile status into a profitable product. Whether you begin at the founding of Twitter, at Musk registering his own account, or when the billionaire and the company finally came together a month ago, the story is much the same.
But looking to the future, it’s finding solutions to these problems that will matter the most, as Twitter’s new owner tries to make the company work according to his vision. Musk wants it to be the everything app – and everything, as Twitter taught us, happens so much.