Software Development
Advertising / Ethics / Social media

Why hasn’t Twitter broken? (Or has it?)

The social media platform has proven itself resilient after top engineers were let go. Whether or not it still works for all users is another story.

Twitter is standing, but is it OK? (Image by Holly Quinn, made with Playground.ai)
In November 2022, the fall of Twitter was imminent.

After the massive rounds of layoffs that followed Elon Musk’s takeover of what was once the most influential social media network in the world, former Twitter engineers flocked to the national tech press to tell the world its days were numbered. Without enough workers and expertise behind Musk, it would soon collapse.

It’s now March, more than four months later. Twitter is still working.

Or is it?

“The [site reliability engineers] did a good job in architecting the system, and the system is stable on a day-to-day basis as a result,” said Salas Saraiya, a Philadelphia-based engineer and CTO of HR tech company Employee Cycle, on Technical.ly’s community Slack. “Chaos engineering is a thing — plan for the unexpected so there won’t be fatal errors even with a turbulent production environment.”

Basically, the engineers did their jobs so well that the system now functions without them.

Which begs the question: How long can this ghost ship sail?

“There is a limit to how much it can take and still stay upright,” Saraiya said, citing a late December New York Times article on frequent outages as Musk continued to cut costs.

And they didn’t stop. On March 6, Twitter hobbled itself for part of the day after its leaders “made an internal change that had some unintended consequences.” It was not the most recent incident, but one of the most noticeable for users.

The platform itself stood. People could access it, but images and links were widely down. And the team, as it were, did resolve the issue. The tech is so sound that even as Twitter alters itself, it hasn’t collapsed.

But it’s also not the same place. It’s measurably worse, filled with hate speech, spewing misinformation and crawling with bots.

If something is trending, it might be a campaign to distort reality, something Musk himself has been known to do. For example, “Hunter Biden’s laptop” is known to trend high when criminal investigations and lawsuits involving right-wing politicians and pundits are in the news.

Some of Musk’s policy changes have eroded public trust in anyone on the platform. Twitter Blue made it so anyone could impersonate a verified user (aka a “blue check” after the blue checkmark next to the handle), including Musk himself. The subscription service was such an initial disaster that it was pronounced a failure within 48 hours, but those paid for blue checks are still everywhere on Twitter. Yes, you’ll see a different message for verified legacy users and Twitter Blue customers by clicking on the checkmark, but the checkmarks look identical.

That means today, your garden variety internet troll can rock a blue check. Some of them could even be bots, instructed to disrupt the flow of conversations.

But hey, Twitter needs the money that comes from subscriptions, because its advertising model pretty much tanked as soon as the moderation went away. Brands from Coca-Cola to Chanel to Chevrolet have pulled ads from Twitter.

“The reality is that for a brand, if there’s racism on a platform, I do not want my ads there,” Eliot Pearson, CTO for Baltimore digital marketing company Enradius, told Technical.ly. “And Elon isn’t showing that he’s going to course correct for that. His solution was to name and shame advertisers. So from a business model perspective, I think it is very broken and it’s probably irreparable.”

Last month, Twitter also announced that it would start charging users for the use of its API, used by developers and researchers, starting at $100 a month. This change could impact, disaster relief organizations, among others.

It’s also become harder and harder to curate your Twitter feed. It used to be that your feed would be comprised of tweets, retweets and likes from people you follow. If someone you follow started posting about a topic you didn’t want on your timeline, you could just unfollow or mute them. Now, tweets from people you don’t follow, unconnected to you by likes or retweets, are injected into your feed. If you are outspoken about your views, the algorithm will inject tweets that in most cases you’ll likely align with.

However, if you keep a fully apolitical account, Pearson has found that the algorithm for users’ feeds is not neutral. He owns multiple Twitter accounts associated with orgs and communities he’s led in the past. There, he’s noticed something strange.

“I am pretty much a ‘bleeding blue’ progressive, and basically, people I follow are very liberal as well,” he said. “Looking at my profile, I didn’t see anything different. And then I have other another account just sitting there for a couple of years. I looked at this account and I started seeing messages from [Republicans] Jim Jordan and Nikki Haley. I believe what they’re doing is they’re trying to sway people that haven’t really shown strong political bias either way — people in the middle, the ‘undecided voters.'”

It’s hard to deny that Twitter is a different, darker place than it was even through some of the darkest times of this decade of “unprecedented times.” At least then, you could report threatening or inciteful content and misinformation and there was a team to handle abuse.

“The problem is that a platform like Twitter can hurt our democracy, because people are just spreading misinformation,” Pearson said. That’s not going to be good for any of us. Yeah, Twitter’s broken.”

Companies: Twitter
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