Twitter’s Slow and Painful End

Although a full collapse is unlikely, a different kind of death is possible.

A photograph of a skull next to the blue "verified" checkmark logo from Twitter.
Getty; The Atlantic

When Elon Musk bought Twitter, the suggestion that he might run the platform into the ground was, for many, including me, a shorthand. Many supposed that Musk would roll back key moderation policies or reinstate some banned accounts, or that his ownership would be some kind of anti-woke Bat-Signal, flooding the platform with people who are attracted to social media for its capacity to alienate people.

Instead, less than a month into Musk’s tenure, he seems to be doing everything in his power to throw a wrench in the gears of Twitter’s infrastructure. As some Twitter insiders predicted, Musk has drastically and indiscriminately cut engineering staff with crucial institutional knowledge and gutted teams that deal with Twitter’s complex legal and privacy policies and their enforcement. He’s also frozen code deployment and has pledged to disconnect Twitter’s microservices, which are part of the website’s technical architecture, but which Musk sees as costly bloat. Anecdotally, users across the world—and specifically outside the United States—are reporting all kinds of abnormalities and glitches in the way tweets load. Since Musk’s layoffs started, current and former Twitter engineers have publicly and privately expressed concern that the world’s richest man is making decisions that could cause Twitter to structurally decay and go offline during peak moments.

In recent days, I’ve had conversations with three former Twitter employees, all with varying knowledge of the platform’s infrastructure. They each argued that Musk appears to know very little about how the company he purchased actually works—that Twitter has its own, custom-built and self-hosted infrastructure, which runs out of multiple data centers, for example. And they were uncertain whether those crucial and complex parts of the company were still adequately staffed: Thousands of people have been laid off from Twitter in recent days, and remaining employees were offered buyouts yesterday. (“We will need to be extremely hardcore,” Musk reportedly wrote to staffers. “This will mean working long hours at high intensity. Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.” If that promise somehow fails to entice, workers can opt for three months’ severance instead.)

Musk seems to have picked the worst time possible for his ultimatum: On Sunday, the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicks off, an event that, according to the former Twitter employees, historically produces the site’s highest global traffic. All three individuals I spoke with said the World Cup is a major stress test for the platform in the best of circumstances, requiring careful coordination from the site-reliability-engineering team to ensure that crucial services stay up.

I initially wanted to write about how Twitter might be quickly snuffed out. But most people with any understanding of how the platform works say Twitter is unlikely to just cough, sputter, and go dark forever. Those I spoke with all described a slow rot of systems that get more load than expected and “just fail silently,” as one recent employee put it. “And then other services are just waiting for those to respond [and] you start to see things just not work.” That former employee described what was happening to Twitter as similar to plaque building up inside a person’s arteries for years before a heart attack.

This all squares with the nightmare scenarios for Twitter I wrote about as Musk was taking power. But just because Twitter might not permanently ascend to The Great 404 in the Sky doesn’t mean we won’t lose something in the process. One former senior employee suggested that Musk may simply prioritize the site so that it works great for celebrities and power users, noting that Twitter once ran a dedicated server just to handle Justin Bieber’s wildly popular account. But if the experience is significantly degraded for regular users or becomes unreliable during the kind of central news events that define Twitter, or if the platform’s most active users all migrate away, then, in a sense, the platform does die.

What then? What do we lose if we lose Twitter?

I’m sheepish to say that I find the question personally haunting. For a journalist who came up too late to latch on to the blogging era, Twitter acted as a career accelerator in a way that almost doesn’t feel real when I take stock of it. I know that I got at least one job because I was overzealous and presumptuous enough to start interjecting myself into conversations I probably had no business in. Follow somebody for long enough on Twitter and, rightly or wrongly, you begin to sense that you know them—or at least, have a rough idea of how they think and how they publicly perform their job. In the media, a whole microgeneration of younger journalists owe parts of their career to the way that Twitter collapses social networks and allows people to find new and interesting voices. This week, the writer Olivia Messer shared a poignant account of the way a series of Twitter DMs changed her life. Other accounts of this dynamic are more like time capsules, such as a 2013 story in this magazine in which Alexis Madrigal describes hiring a current Atlantic staffer largely because of a relationship built on Twitter. “One minute I’ve never heard of this kid, and the next minute, he’s engaged in interesting, respectful conversation with half of my Internet friends,” Madrigal wrote.

If that sounds quaint, it’s because Twitter has changed quite a bit since those days. At its best, Twitter can still provide that magic of discovering a niche expert or elevating a necessary, insurgent voice, but there is far more noise than signal. Plenty of those overenthusiastic voices, brilliant thinkers, and influential accounts have burned out on culture-warring, or have been harassed off the site or into lurking. And many of the most hyperactive, influential twitterati (cringe) of the mid-2010s have built up large audiences and only broadcast now: They don’t read their mentions, and they rarely engage. In private conversations, some of those people have expressed a desire to see Musk torpedo the site and put a legion of posters out of their misery. I understand the impulse, and yet a part of me views this as a privileged cohort pulling the escape-hatch ladder up behind them.

Perhaps the best example of what Twitter offers now—and what we stand to gain or lose from its demise—is illustrated by the path charted by public-health officials, epidemiologists, doctors, and nurses over the past three years. Many in this loosely defined group essentially speed-ran the 2009–15 Twitter lifecycle in a matter of months. In the earliest, most frightening days of the pandemic, before the lockdown protests and masking and vaccine arguments, medical professionals felt like a lifeline on Twitter. They provided harrowing accounts of packed ICUs or helped genomically track outbreak patterns. They offered guidance that a flailing government response was too slow to provide, and helped cobble together an epidemiological picture of infections and case counts. At a moment when people were terrified and looking for any information at all, Twitter seemed to offer a steady stream of knowledgeable, diligent experts. I remember it as an example of the platform doing what it does best.

But Twitter does another thing quite well, and that’s crushing users with the pressures of algorithmic rewards and all of the risks, exposure, and toxicity that come with virality. For many medical professionals, the pandemic spotlight and the strange brew of attention, valorization, and demonization came as a complete shock to people who largely existed outside the realm of media. Some individuals managed to build large audiences overnight while staying true to their scientific bona fides, while others fell prey to audience capture and began to sensationalize or lean into polarization. As my former colleague Zeynep Tufekci told me back in 2021, “There are a lot of people who seem to be addicted to getting retweeted—scary warnings and sensationalism can be more engaging.” Plenty of other experts simply burned out or were threatened off the site by awful, enraged people. In the summer of 2021, Julia Marcus, a public-health professional whose tweets led to her appearing on television and writing for this magazine, told me that the experience was “rewarding and meaningful in many ways, but has also made me feel vulnerable and often quite anxious. The best way for me to cope with that, for better or worse, was to get really quiet.”

Even if you don’t use the platform, Twitter has so fundamentally woven itself into our public life that imagining a world without it can feel impossible. What do our politics look like without the strange feedback loop of a Twitter-addled political press and a class of lawmakers that seems to govern more via shitposting than by legislation? What happens if the media lose what the writer Max Read recently described as a “way of representing reality, and locating yourself within it”? The answer is probably messy. As Read argues, there’s the worry that, absent a distributed central nervous system like Twitter, “the collective worldview of the ‘media’ would instead be over-shaped, from the top down, by the experiences and biases of wealthy publishers, careerist editors, self-loathing journalists, and canny operators operating in relatively closed social and professional circles.”

If it’s not already clear, I am far too close to this discussion to view it with any great impartiality. And I realize that Twitter is, by some standards, a niche platform, far smaller than Facebook or Instagram or TikTok. The internet will evolve or mutate around a need for it. I am aware that all of us who can’t quit the site will simply move on when we have to.

But moving on will be weird. Twitter is unique in the degree to which its users have shaped its evolution. Hashtags, the Retweet button—those were user hacks before they became in-house product features. And Twitter has certainly shaped us back. Many of the past decade’s most polarizing and influential figures—people such as Donald Trump and Musk himself, who captured attention, accumulated power, and fractured parts of our public consciousness—were also the ones who were thought to be “good” at using the website. And in a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, the author George Saunders mused about the effects of Twitter’s chief innovation—its character limit—on our understanding of language, nuance, and even truth.

“These days, it seems like we are having languages imposed on us,” he said. “The fact that you have a social media that tells you how many characters to use, this is language imposition. You have to wonder about the agenda there. Why does anyone want to restrict the full range of my language? What’s the game there?” Saunders, I should note, does not appear as aggrieved as the transcript might suggest. And his point is not just that the medium is different or faster, but that, in McLuhanian fashion, the constraints and the architecture change not only what messages we receive but how we choose to respond. Often that choice is to behave like the platform itself: We are quicker to respond and more aggressive than we might be elsewhere, with a mindset toward engagement and visibility. Near the end of the podcast, Saunders notes how he feels editing a short story—how the slow composition and chiseling away of language infuses more of himself into each draft until, ultimately, the draft is a version of his mind that is better than the one he can access in a given moment.

Following this line of thinking, it’s easy to argue that we stand to gain something essential and human if we lose Twitter. But there is plenty about Twitter that is also essential and human. No other tool has connected me to the world—to random bits of news, knowledge, absurdist humor, activism, and expertise, and to scores of real personal interactions—like Twitter has. I’d be lying if I said I won’t feel some amorphous sense of loss if it fades away. And I’d be lying if I said I wouldn't feel an amorphous sense of outrage toward Musk if he takes all that away.

What makes evaluating a life beyond Twitter so hard is that everything that makes the service truly special is also what makes it interminable and toxic. As hard-core users know, if Twitter is a game to attract engagement, then the worst experience you can have on the platform is to “win” and go viral. Generally, it seems that the more successful a person is at using Twitter, the more they refer to it as a hellsite. This is a weird dynamic that makes perfect sense if you use Twitter.

Twitter has always been a strange platform, to the point that its leaders have long struggled to define it. Many years ago, a source told me that the co-founder Jack Dorsey couldn’t answer the question, What is Twitter? “He said, ‘Twitter brings you closer,’” they told me. “And I said, ‘To what?’ and he replied, ‘Our users always finish that sentence for us.’”

Jason Goldman, a member of Twitter’s early team and the company’s former vice president of product, expressed a similar sentiment this week. “We had this joke about how no one really could describe what Twitter was, but that we knew it was the market leader in tweets. If you wanted tweets, you had to come to Twitter,” he told me. He then added, “Which is also why I think it’ll survive in some incredibly stupid way.”