Elon Musk’s chaotic reign boosts Twitter — and its smaller rivals


As a wave of Twitter employees declared they would quit following Elon Musk’s ultimatum that they accept demands for an “extremely hardcore” working culture, the billionaire boasted on Friday: “And . . . we just hit another all-time high in Twitter usage lol.”

A curious side-effect of Musk’s divisive leadership — backing Republican candidates at the recent US midterm elections, drawing up plans to loosen content moderation, and firing staff by tweet — has been that engagement among Twitter’s more than 245mn users appears higher than ever.

The cacophony created by Musk’s unorthodox management has attracted a larger flock to the social networking site, apparently drawn into the chaos unleashed by the billionaire’s $44bn takeover.

Even so, there is also evidence that some are experimenting with alternatives. Usage of far smaller rivals like Mastodon and Tumblr has rocketed, as some Twitter users encourage their followers to abandon the site to test out rivals.

Other entrepreneurs have sought to capitalise on the perceived disenchantment. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is developing WT. Social, which is described as a “non-toxic social network”. Gabor Cselle, a former Google director who previously worked at Twitter, is also building a “better Twitter”, called T2.

“The format doesn’t need reinventing but Twitter has real problems around moderation,” Cselle told the Financial Times. “I’ll be building trust and safety at the centre of what I’m doing.”

Even if Twitter has gained users, the business is struggling. Changes to moderation and verification of high-profile accounts has led some advertisers, including General Motors, Carlsberg and General Mills, to pause spending over “brand safety” concerns.

Musk has raised the spectre of bankruptcy, warning that the company might have net negative cash flow of several billion dollars.

Fears over the maintenance of the site have been exacerbated by this week’s staff departures which come just weeks after Musk cut half of the 7,500 workforce. But users who believe the company is nosediving are doing so by tweeting their concerns rather than leaving the platform.

“I think the short-term growth is the impulse we have to see the crash happen in slow motion,” said Josh Cowls, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute.

Rise before the fall?

Musk has claimed that growth in its monetisable daily active users (mDAUs) — an internal metric that counts the number of logged-in users to whom the platform shows advertising — has grown by about 2mn since his takeover last month.

Independent analysts support Musk’s assertions of user growth. Twitter’s mobile app was downloaded 7.6mn times worldwide globally in the 12 days from October 27 to November 7, up 21 per cent from the previous 12-day period, according to data from Sensor Tower.

Bar chart of Twitter worldwide weekly downloads from the App Store and Google Play (mn) showing Twitter enjoys Musk bounce after takeover

A small group of celebrities and superusers have declared that they have left the site over concerns that misinformation and hate speech are proliferating on Twitter.

Among those to depart are model Gigi Hadid, who said Twitter was becoming “more and more of a cesspool of hate & bigotry” within days of Musk at the helm, and US television producer Shonda Rhimes, who said she was “not hanging around for whatever Elon has planned.”

Meanwhile, British actor Stephen Fry, with more than 12mn Twitter followers, posted a picture of the word ‘Goodbye’ spelt out in Scrabble letters last week.

However, an FT analysis of the 50 most followed individuals on Twitter shows little indication of a significant drop-off in activity since the Musk takeover, though those numbers may be skewed by politicians such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden ramping up tweeting during the US midterm elections.

The concerns of some users does appear to reflect a changing site. In the week following Musk’s acquisition, NewsGuard said that the top accounts that it deems “superspreaders” of false information saw a 57 per cent increase in engagement in the form of likes and retweets, when compared to the two weeks prior to the buyout.

“The users Musk should be concerned about leaving are higher profile, higher status users that tend to bring audiences with them,” said Robyn Caplan, a senior researcher in social media at non-profit research institute Data & Society.

Unlikely beneficiaries

Smaller rival sites have also become unlikely beneficiaries of Musk’s acquisition of Twitter.

Engagement on once-popular microblogging site Tumblr has grown, with installs up 77 per cent to 301,000 in the 12 days after the acquisition.

Not-for-profit, open-source platform Mastodon, founded in 2016 by German software developer Eugen Rochko, has also been installed 1mn times in the 12 days following the acquisition, up from 15,000 in the prior period, according to Sensor Tower.

Some of Mastodon’s features will be familiar to Twitter users, with posts known as “toots”, rather than “tweets”, and shared content referred to as “boosts”, rather than “retweets”.

But some users have complained that the platform is too complicated to set up on and use. Mastodon has a series of different servers that form a network known as the Fediverse, and each server has slightly different policies, including towards moderation.

Fry, who is among the early converts and has amassed a following of 57,000, tooted last week: “I think we have to realise that the learning curve here is steepish, but rather than be anxious about it, shouldn’t we . . . celebrate the adventure of slowly finding out something that was puzzling at first?”

While some test out alternatives, Musk has been forced to reconsider how he plans to shake up his business.

The Tesla and SpaceX chief executive has put his flagship Twitter Blue subscription service on hold until November 29 after a surge in accounts impersonating brands and celebrities.

Users were able to pay $8 a month for verification and other benefits and impersonators took advantage to ape companies and individuals with verified accounts. These included a fake Eli Lilly account, which stated that the drugmaker was giving away free insulin.

In a sign that Musk is taking steps to reassure brands, he tweeted the company would soon roll out a feature to “enable organisations to identify which other Twitter accounts are actually associated with them”.

Attention has switched this week to whether Musk will convince enough workers to stay to implement his plans.

Staff were told via email that the offices had been closed effective immediately and would also be shut on Friday, with badge access suspended, said two people with knowledge of the incident, confirming a report by website Platformer.

Musk has rejected concerns that the exodus will lead to the site’s collapse. “The best people are staying, so I’m not super worried,” he tweeted on Thursday night.

Even those seeking to capitalise on the chaos are refusing to write off Twitter just yet. “[Musk] started two generation-defining companies with SpaceX and Tesla,” said Cselle. “I think it’s a little bit early to say how the effects of the lay-offs and some of the changes he’s made will go.”

Still, while arguing that Twitter’s usage is on the rise, Musk has also acknowledged the company’s dire finances cloud its future. “How do you make a small fortune in social media,” he joked in a tweet. “Start out with a large one.”

Additional reporting by Ændra Rininsland and Oliver Hawkins


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