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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Twitter has been hollowed out almost entirely by Elon Musk

Twitter has been hollowed out almost entirely by Elon Musk

So drastic have been his actions that its very survival is in question

Whether Musk has a larger plan is a matter of furious debate (Photo: AP)Premium
Whether Musk has a larger plan is a matter of furious debate (Photo: AP)

"RIP Twitter" has been trending on Twitter. Naturally, everyone who complained about the platform being a hell site is now gushing about the joy it brought to their lives and how much they will miss it. That’s pure Twitter for you. Fortunately, Twitter is not going to die today or tomorrow. But there have been fears that it would go dark at some point.

This isn largely because Twitter is now running with a skeletal crew. After half the company was let go of just two weeks ago, hundreds more left the firm last week after Elon Musk set a deadline for the remaining staff to agree to “extremely hardcore" conditions or take three months severance pay and move on. Many took the latter.

It’s unclear exactly how many of Twitter’s original 7,500-strong workforce remain employed by the company after Musk took over. A reporter from Fortune tweeted that 75% of its remaining 3,700 staff had quit, while according to the Verge, about 2,900 of the earlier staff have stayed behind. The real figure may well be somewhere in the middle.

Many member of Twitter’s staff who emoji-saluted their way out the door warned the site would crumble in the near future without enough critical engineers in place. It does not help that Twitter temporarily suspended badge-access across its office buildings, meaning that no one could get into its offices.

Naturally, Musk has dismissed these concerns. “The best people are staying so I’m not super worried," he tweeted on Thursday last week.

Musk likes to surround himself with loyalists and he has revelled in having such a fanbase on Twitter, primarily responding to him with messages of praise. Those who stand up to correct him are shown the door. The thin-skinned billionaire has fired several engineers who openly criticized him. Musk may say that he values excellence, but it stands to reason that many of the smartest people at Twitter have now left.

You could argue that running a global online platform with a skeletal crew is absolutely possible. Let us assume that between 1,000 and 2,000 staff members now remain at Twitter. That is still a lot of engineers, especially considering that WhatsApp had just a fraction of that—55— when it was bought by Facebook in 2014, and was maintaining a messaging app for about 450 million monthly active users at that point. Twitter, in contrast, is estimated to have about 300 million monthly active users.

You could also argue that drastic times call for drastic measures. Musk has taken the reins of a company that was bloated and unprofitable in its latest quarter. To radically bring costs down, he needs to cut staff to a nucleus of ‘hardcore’ engineers who can work at high speed and high intensity.

But neither of these arguments really hold weight if Twitter’s goal is long-term success. Meta-owned WhatsApp may have ticked along nicely with a few dozen workers, but it also was notoriously cautious about rolling out new features and its founders focused primarily on simply keeping its servers running. Musk has no intention of just keeping servers running. He wants to turn Twitter into the “everything app" with a host of new features like payments to emulate larger online platforms like China’s WeChat.

That is an especially challenging task for Twitter. After 16 years of operation, its systems are loaded with technical debt, bugs left behind after myriad iterations and upgrades. Its systems are highly complex and distributed across multiple networks. Reshaping them will take time and expertise—but Musk is in a hurry, and he has jettisoned many of the people who know these systems well.

Musk is planning to relaunch his $8 Twitter Blue service by end of this month “to make sure it’s rock solid" after a major bout of chaos around it. But Twitter itself might not be so solid by then.

It’s unclear why Musk’s approach has been so extreme. Perhaps he is desperate to claw back his investment and pay back creditors. But he didn’t need to take such drastic measures.

Twitter was not on the brink of disaster when Musk took over. It has been mostly profitable over the past five years and ran a decent advertising business that, until Musk’s takeover, brought in about 90% of its revenues. That business looks increasingly uncertain as advertisers balk at the turmoil at the company.

Musk is like a mechanic who replaces the engine, timing belt, chassis and car frame after it has been taken in with a deflated tire. It’s overkill and almost certain to backfire. 

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology

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Published: 21 Nov 2022, 10:41 PM IST
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