Since Elon Musk fired the entire curation team responsible for contextualising the platform’s trends, Twitter’s trending tab has not been particularly useful for users. But a quick scroll through it today – even shorn of context – helps give some insight into the collective psyche of the Twitterverse.
#RIPTwitter is trending, alongside the hashtag #TwitterMigration, where users are advising each other on how to escape the platform through digital lifeboats. There is also #SpaceKaren, a reference to the attitude of the new CEO.
Twitter users have been on edge ever since Musk took over and gutted the company, first by firing half its staff, then most of its contractors, then anyone who dared to voice dissent. Each sloughing off of staff has had a deleterious effect on the platform. Things have started to break – quicker than expected.
But the tenor of conversation has changed from unease to outright panic in the past 24 hours. People are posting their farewells and writing love letters to Twitter, tweeting out into the ether in the hope that those who remain might listen. The “funereal” atmosphere that many still working within Twitter told me about as Musk rung his changes has now spread to its users. The patient is sick, the world has decided – and is not long for the world.
The reason is simple: on Wednesday (16 November) Musk sent out an email to the rump of staff who remained, warning them that an already difficult situation would get worse. He expected “hardcore” devotion. Staff who weren’t willing to give that should leave. He seemed to be implying that most couldn’t or wouldn’t hack it.
It was a gamble designed to show his power. But it has backfired enormously. According to Kylie Robison of Fortune, up to 75 per cent of staff that had remained were rumoured to favour leaving. Some of them reportedly left a meeting in which Musk was trying to persuade them to stay. Many were in key positions overseeing the platform’s infrastructure.
The latest departures spell disaster for Twitter, users worry. They fear the site is on the precipice of collapse.
That may be an overly pessimistic view, stoked by the very thing that makes Twitter great: its ability to connect people from around the world. Anyone who has lived through the multiple mad evenings when the death of Queen Elizabeth II was rumoured, but never happened, in recent years will know how quickly a head of steam can build on Twitter.
But even if the current frenzy is a little dramatic, the prognosis does not look good. Two recently departed Twitter engineers I’ve spoken to give the site between weeks and months. As more wake up in the early hours in the United States, their insights are pouring in. “I’d be shocked if it made it to the end of the year,” a third, still currently in post, told me.
The reason is simple: entire teams of staff who run critical services for Twitter are gone. Those services – IT infrastructure and the like can run for a while unsupervised, but eventually they’ll fail. When they do, in some areas Twitter has no staff members remaining who know how they work, or even how to turn them back on. “Going from thousands to hundreds of staff doesn’t look sustainable,” said Alan Woodward, professor of cybersecurity at the University of Surrey. “Worse, [Musk’s] approach seems to have alienated his best and brightest who are voting with their feet. If he’s to make anything of his enormous investment he will need them.”
There is, of course, a relatively major news event happening this weekend: the start of the World Cup. The date has been in the calendar for months, and so prep work will have been put in place to anticipate any additional strain on Twitter’s critical infrastructure. But if those calculations were incorrect, and something were to go wrong, there’s no guarantee the platform could come back online.
Will Twitter collapse this weekend? Probably not. But stranger things have happened under Elon Musk’s ownership already.
[See also: The chaos at Elon Musk’s Twitter is a parable of US power in the age of Big Tech]