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Twitter 2.0, blue checks and the Mastodon alternative: what's next for the bird app?

By Tom Jarvis | Founder and managing director



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December 6, 2022 | 9 min read

After Twitter employees were told to 'go hard or go home', Tom Jarvis of Wilderness recounts the chaos that has followed Elon Musk acquiring the platform.

Twitter on smartphone

Where will Twitter veterans go next? / Joshua Hoehne via Unsplash

It's been a month since Elon Musk took over Twitter, and what a chaotic few weeks it has been. The chaos of the last few weeks included Musk sending an email to all employees, telling them to commit to an "extremely hardcore" working culture or leave, as he looks to build what he calls "Twitter 2.0".

A fork in the road

In the internal email, which was (unsurprisingly) leaked on Twitter and titled ‘A fork in the road’, Musk gave all employees an ultimatum. They had 24 hours to sign an online form committing to ‘long hours at high intensity’. Those who refused to sign the form would have their contracts terminated, before receiving severance pay.

It’s all part of Musk’s supposed move to building an "engineer-led", Twitter with "those writing great code" taking a more important role, according to former Uber engineer Gergely Orosz, who has been reporting extensively on the changes at Twitter.

The push for a more ‘hardcore’ culture follows two rounds of layoffs at the company. The first, a purge of roughly half of Twitter's entire global workforce in early November, completely decimated the company's trust and safety teams. This came a week before the US mid-terms, with renewed concerns around the platform's ability to moderate and control disinformation and hate speech.

According to reports, senior figures around Musk have been attempting to persuade key employees to continue working in areas of continuing importance to the company. This was followed by reports that Musk was firing people for criticizing his approach, both publicly on Twitter and in private channels. Reporter Casey Newton stated that more than 20 employees were let go in just a few days for Slack posts alone.

Advertising & the future

In an attempt to charm advertisers and communicate his ‘vision’ for the product, Elon Musk attended a Twitter Spaces chat with Robin Wheeler, head of ad sales, who had reportedly quit, only to be convinced by Musk personally to stay.

In this almost hour-long conversation, Musk talked first about verification and his plans for a subscription model, Twitter Blue, before only partially answering questions about brand safety, hate speech and other important issues brands and advertisers wanted clarity on. So unconvincing was his performance that many major advertisers started to either pull or pause spend for their clients on the platform.

Despite wanting to move the company away from its advertising-supported model, Musk needs these ad dollars to keep the lights on. But just a week after his Twitter Spaces appearance, Group M, part of WPP, the world’s biggest ad company and Twitter’s biggest spender, told its clients that Twitter ads were a "high risk" use of ad budget.

This move follows IPG and Omnicom, two of the other major advertising networks, warning clients about the risks of advertising on the platform at this time. With a pre-layoff Twitter, according to Musk himself, burning through $4m a day and with hefty interest payments on the debt he took out to finance the original deal, this could mean huge trouble for Twitter.

Flying the bird blind

Despite a grand plan to make Twitter the first western ‘super-app’, it seems Musk took over the platform without a detailed, considered vision of what the future holds.

Musk seems to be steering the direction of the business at a whim. This has been evident from the very moment he took over at Twitter but is perhaps best showcased when quickly ditching two levels of verification following the launch of Twitter Blue.

A string of impersonations of notable accounts followed (including a fake Nintendo account tweeting of an image of Mario giving the middle finger), leading to Musk retreating with a plan to re-launch of the new subscription product later in November, giving the business time to "make sure that it is rock solid".

Just hours after it was rolled out Musk tweeted, "I just killed it", without further explanation. He went on to tweet that Twitter "will do lots of dumb things in coming months. We will keep what works & change what doesn’t". This move-fast-and-break-things approach seems at odds with a platform that has such huge cultural and political importance around the world.

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The move to Mastodon

Mastodon and other platforms are seeing a rise in users as people look for alternatives. Mastodon’s servers reportedly had a meltdown in early November following more than 500,000 sign-ups to the service. The decentralized social platform, which works similarly to Twitter, had a small, niche, but dedicated audience since its founding in 2016. It went from just over 300k users in late October to well over one million in just a week.

Meanwhile, Bot Sentinel, a platform that tracks Twitter usage, estimated that more than one million Twitter accounts have been deleted or deactivated since Musk took over the company.

Whether this is just a blip, with Mastodon and Discord seeing a rise in usage before tailing off, is anyone’s guess. One test will be the eventual roll-out of Twitter Blue; if that impacts how non-paying users can reach an audience or even engage with paid-for users, we might see an even bigger shift to free platforms that allow for similar content sharing and discussion.

Robert Gehl, a professor of communication and media studies at York University in Canada, suggests that “what’s happening now is causing people to rethink social media”. Musk hopes that for Twitter, that will be a good thing. But for many users it means looking for something new.

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