Twitter’s troubles predate Elon Musk’s takeover


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

And on Tuesday, we learned that the San Francisco-based company had attempted to develop an adult content service – only to scuttle it amid concerns over its inability to control child pornography.

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

As varied as Twitter’s scandals may seem, they share a common source: a flawed business model that’s fundamentally at odds with the freewheeling nature of its platform. And they are unlikely to diminish until this resolves this tension one way or another.

The company’s hellish year began when its co-founder and CEO, Jack Dorsey, abruptly resigned in November 2021 under pressure from activist shareholders to significantly expand the company. His successor, Parag Agrawal, embarked on a sweeping reorganization that was cut short by Musk’s unexpected takeover bid, which promised shareholders a premium on their shares of $44 billion. Then, perhaps realizing his mistake in rating Twitter as a sound business, Musk tried to walk back his offer, sparking a high-stakes legal battle.

The main reason Dorsey was ousted is the same reason Musk could afford to buy Twitter, which is also the same reason Musk realized he was paying too much for Twitter. Its business just isn’t healthy or lucrative enough to sustain a public social media platform of its global size and importance, at least without cutting a lot of corners.

Last week, Dorsey went so far as to say his “biggest regret” is that Twitter became a business in the first place. While he might not be the most reliable analyst of Twitter’s problems — many of which were his fault — he’s not wrong that there’s a disconnect between the core product architecture of company and its mandate to make a lot of money through advertising.

Ex-security chief says Twitter buried ‘glaring loopholes’

Founded in 2006, Twitter’s growth exploded in its early years, and during the 2010 Arab Spring it was hailed as a global hub for free speech. Unlike Facebook, it allowed users to remain anonymous and displayed an “anything goes” approach that allowed activists and dissidents to speak truth to power – while tolerating racism, bullying, bots and pornography. In many ways, Twitter was designed to be ruthless.

Like Facebook and YouTube, Twitter has turned to advertising to make money, promising to connect businesses to users based on their interests. But its evolution into a site known for bashing, piling, and political argumentation — not to mention porn — has made it an easy choice for buttoned-up corporate brands. And the intensity of the Twitter experience, with its rapid flow assaulting users with endlessly juxtaposed, context-free snippets of text, has limited its appeal beyond chatter classes.

In recent years, the company has been serious about toning down the naughtiness and creating new products with mass appeal, from the short-video tool Vine to the live streaming site Periscope to the live audio feature Spaces. While ideas were inspired, execution often lacked, and the one thing that has proven to entrench Twitter as an essential part of the public square — Donald Trump’s Twitter-fueled presidency — has only exacerbated its problems. fundamentals.

Over the past few years, under Dorsey, Twitter had attracted high-minded executives of employees determined to smooth out its rough edges and turn it into a place for “healthy conversations.” But the company’s shareholders lost patience with his soul-searching 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 that’s been handed to the company over the past year has revealed various forms of rot in its innards.

Twitter’s top lawyer has long weighed in on safety and free speech. Then Musk called her.

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

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

According to The Verge, an internal “red team” — a group of Twitter employees tasked with finding weaknesses or flaws in a product — discovered that the company was already failing to vet material on its platform. main story that depicts the sexual exploitation or abuse of minors. Suddenly, Twitter abandoned the project this year.

In Twitter’s euphemisms, it was “continued and thoughtful dialogue on the topic that led us to the decision to pause the workflow for the good reason and prioritize elsewhere,” according to a statement from the gate. lyrics by Celeste Carswell.

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

If there’s a silver lining to this story, it’s that Twitter was at least cautious enough to rein in a bad idea after careful internal scrutiny of potential harm. It’s a more responsible approach than the “move fast and break things” philosophy of early Facebook and many other high-tech tech companies.

But it’s also worth pausing to note how crazy it is that one of the world’s most influential public tech companies is so strapped for new revenue streams that it was even considering turning to pornography in the first place. Imagine Google, Facebook or TikTok trying this.

Elon Musk wants to delay Twitter lawsuit over whistleblower allegations

Less shocking is the revelation that Twitter viewed its child sexual exploitation material – or CSAM – problem as insurmountable, at least in the short term. It has the same roots as Twitter’s spam problem, its fake accounts problem, its extremism problem, and its misinformation problem. Simply put, it’s what happens when you build a massive, global platform where anyone can post anything anonymously, and then try to control it with the perpetually limited resources of a company that is still below its financial targets.

Of course, all major social platforms struggle with these issues. Twitter simply faces a bigger task than Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and others because it doesn’t generate the money to fund huge investments in content moderation.

At one point during Musk’s takeover bid, when it looked like the Tesla titan still wanted to acquire Twitter, Dorsey hailed it as the “one-size-fits-all solution” to the company’s problems. By privatizing the company, Dorsey explained, Musk could insulate it from near-term financial pressures and make the investments needed to realize its bigger visions. (Exactly what those visions entailed has never been coherently explained – something about decentralization.)

Instead, Musk is suing the company to back out of the deal, based on the claim that it misled investors about the prevalence of spam and bots on its site. At the same time, the idealistic Twitter employees tasked with correcting its flaws have leaked.

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

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