Twitter’s troubles predate Elon Musk’s implosion


For years, Twitter’s problems were overshadowed by those of its much larger rival social network, Facebook. Not anymore: The past year has brought a parade of bad press for the bluebird, from the firing of its CEO to an ownership battle with Elon Musk to a federal whistleblower complaint.

And on Tuesday, we learned that the San Francisco-based firm tried to develop an adult content service — only to shut it down amid concerns about its inability to police child pornography.

For a major global technology company, one of the few things more embarrassing than being forced to turn to pornography to boost revenue is being unable to do so.

As trite as Twitter’s scandals may seem, they share a common source: a broken business model that is fundamentally at odds with the free nature of its platform. And they are unlikely to abate until that tension is resolved one way or another.

The company’s year from hell began when its co-founder and CEO, Jack Dorsey, abruptly resigned in November 2021 amid pressure from activist shareholders to dramatically grow the business. His successor, Parag Agrawal, began a sweeping reorganization that was punctuated by Musk’s out-of-nowhere takeover offer — one that promised shareholders a $44 billion premium on their stake. Then, perhaps realizing his mistake in valuing Twitter as a healthy business, Musk tried to reject his offer, sparking a high-stakes legal battle.

The main reason Dorsey went down is the same reason Musk could afford to buy Twitter, which is also the same reason Musk realized he was overpaying for Twitter. Its business simply isn’t healthy or profitable enough to support a public social media platform of its size and global importance, at least without cutting a lot of corners.

Last week, Dorsey went so far as to say that his “biggest regret” was that Twitter became a company in the first place. While he may not be the most reliable analyst of Twitter’s problems — many of which are of his own making — he’s not wrong that there’s a mismatch between the company’s basic product architecture and its mandate to make a lot of money from advertising. .

Ex-security chief claims Twitter buried ‘huge flaws’

Founded in 2006, Twitter’s growth exploded in its early years, and by the Arab Spring of 2010, it was hailed as a world-changing center for free speech. Unlike Facebook, it allowed users to remain anonymous and featured an “anything goes” approach that allowed activists and dissidents to speak truth to power — while also tolerating racism, bullying, bots and pornography. In many ways, Twitter was built to be apolitical.

Like Facebook and YouTube, Twitter turned to advertising to make money, promising to connect businesses with users based on their interests. But its evolution into a notorious site for rants, hoardings and political arguments — not to mention pornography — made it an uncomfortable fit for closed-off corporate brands. And the intensity of the Twitter experience, with its rapid-fire feed bombarding users with context-free, endlessly linked texts, has limited its appeal beyond the chattering classes.

In recent years, the company has been diligently looking to cut through the clutter and build new products with mass appeal, from the short video tool Vine to the live streaming site Periscope to the live audio feature Spaces. While the ideas were inspired, the execution was often lacking, and the one thing that proved to entrench Twitter as an essential part of the public square — the Twitter-fueled presidency of Donald Trump — only exacerbated its core problems.

Over the past few years, under Dorsey, Twitter had attracted a cadre of high-minded employees determined to round out its rough edges and transform it into a place for “healthy conversations.” But the company’s shareholders lost patience with his introspection and experimentation and issued ultimatums that forced the company’s executives to prioritize growth above all else.

It’s no surprise, then, that the microscope held over the firm over the past year has revealed various forms of decay within it.

Twitter’s top lawyer has long weighed in on security, free speech. Then Musk called him out.

Last week, the Washington Post and CNN first reported that Twitter’s former security chief had turned federal whistleblower, leading to congressional investigations into his alleged flawed security practices, among other issues. . (Twitter has denied many of the allegations, calling the report a “false narrative”.)

And on Tuesday, Twitter confirmed a report from tech site The Verge that it recently halted plans for a product that would have allowed adult performers to pay users for subscriptions to pornographic content, with Twitter taking a cut — a similar business model. with the adult site Fans Only.

According to the Verge, an internal “red team” — a group of Twitter employees tasked with finding vulnerabilities or flaws in a product — found that the company was already failing to police material on its main platform that described the exploit. or sexual abuse of minors. As a result, Twitter abandoned the project this year.

In Twitter’s euphemistic words, it was an “ongoing and reflective dialogue on the topic that led us to the decision to stop the workflow for good reason and prioritize elsewhere,” according to a statement from spokeswoman Celeste Carswell.

“Twitter has zero tolerance for child sexual exploitation,” said Carswell. “We aggressively fight online child sexual abuse and have invested in technology and tools to enforce our policy.”

If there’s a silver lining to this story, it’s that Twitter was at least prudent enough to curb a bad idea after a careful internal review of the potential damage. This is a more responsible approach than the “move fast and break things” ethos of early Facebook and many other pay-tech firms.

But it’s also worth pausing to note how outrageous it is that one of the world’s most influential public technology companies was so beholden to new revenue streams that it was even considering a move to pornography. Imagine Google, Facebook or TikTok trying that.

Elon Musk wants to delay Twitter trial over whistleblower allegations

Less shocking is the revelation that Twitter considered its child sexual abuse material — or CSAM — problem to be insurmountable, at least in the short term. It has the same roots as the Twitter spam problem, the fake account problem, the extremism problem, and the disinformation problem. That is, it’s what happens when you build a vast global platform where anyone can post anything anonymously — and then try to police it with the ever-constrained resources of a company that’s forever falling short of its goals. financial.

Of course, every major social platform struggles with these issues. Twitter simply faces a more daunting task than Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and others, because it’s not raising the money needed to fund major investments in content moderation.

At one point in Musk’s takeover bid, when it looked like the Tesla titan still wanted to buy Twitter, Dorsey touted it as the “only solution” to the company’s problems. By taking the firm private, Dorsey reasoned, Musk could insulate it from short-term financial pressures and make the necessary investments to realize its grander visions. (Exactly what these visions entailed has never been coherently explained—something about decentralization.)

Instead, Musk is suing the company to get out of the deal, alleging it misled investors about the proliferation of spam and bots on its site. At the same time, idealistic Twitter employees tasked with fixing its flaws have left.

So far, it’s clear that Musk has only amplified Twitter’s problems. As for a solution, it is nowhere in sight.

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