Twitter headquarters at 1355 Market Street, San Francisco
Twitter headquarters at 1355 Market Street, San Francisco. Photo by Yujie Zhou. Taken Nov. 17, 2022

He let go 3,800 Twitter employees, and now 1,200 are exiting voluntarily. As Elon Musk behaves like an erratic Energizer bunny, some wonder how long it will be before Twitter implodes, and some are already saying their farewells. “I don’t think Twitter will last through the weekend,” said one user.

Is Twitter going to collapse?

Today, Mission Local talked to a group of experts from various backgrounds, including economics, online marketplaces, organizational behavior, engineering, leadership, emergency management, in an attempt to answer that question. Perhaps we should have talked to a psychiatrist, too, but that is another story.

Unlike the prevailing sentiment of doom, these experts showed cautious optimism about the near future of Twitter. While all of the experts said they disapprove of Musk’s management style, many believe he has the capability to save it, if he wants to. The platform crashing because of technical reasons is unlikely. More possible: A great loss of users uncomfortable with the site’s new culture, they said. We’ll know by the end of December, many predicted.

“Before the end of the year, it’s going to be clear if Twitter will survive or not,” said Ahmed Banafa, a tech expert and engineering professor at San Jose State University. “It’s very hard for a company like this to collapse in that way. But it’s not impossible. What we’re looking at now, at Twitter, is a disaster in slow motion.”

For Banafa, the issues are twofold. First, Musk doesn’t know how to run a social media platform. He pointed to Musk’s deployment of about 50 software engineers from Tesla to review software code at Twitter. “There is no one-size-fits-all. Every program, every product has its own programming language on problems or issues,” he said. “Twitter is not just code, Twitter is planning of the capacity of how many people are using it, of planning ahead of moderation.”

The second issue: Musk’s “management by fear” style. That, Banafa said, doesn’t work in Silicon Valley, where prosperity is built on the culture of a free mind. Banafa believes if Musk fails to temper his style, he will be left with only three options: Let someone who understands social media be CEO, while he lurks in the background; let the company go bankrupt, which is a horrible choice but helps him avoid debt; or let Tesla or SpaceX acquire Twitter, which would cover any of its expenses or losses.

Whichever he chooses, the crisis brought on by the massive turnover is imminent, and it appears Musk knows this. A source who was laid off two weeks ago told Mission Local that her supervisor had already invited her to rejoin the team.

Melvin Smith, a professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, agreed that “the risk is probably more near-term than long-term.” Especially, he said, “If so, many key individuals have been let go involuntarily, or choose to leave now voluntarily.”

Smith is inclined to have some faith in the man who managed to buy Twitter for $44 billion. “He may be able to turn this around, to backtrack, to retain enough key employees to keep things up and running. But I think it is a critical time right now.”

Peter Dominick, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, who researches leadership, shared the concern about Musk’s “more threatening than engaging” management style at Twitter. “In today’s world, it is hard to imagine how people with options would be attracted to that kind of climate,” he said. 

For some experts with a tech and economics background, the short-term outlook for Twitter may be a bit more optimistic than the mess it appears to be.

Kuang Xu, an associate professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business who studies data science and the online marketplace, doesn’t see a future where users won’t be able to use Twitter. “If you ask me, is Twitter going to crash as a service? I will guess, if they’re designed well, no.”

Different from human-intensive businesses like Uber, the number of users served can greatly affect the amount of employees needed. “Every time you open Twitter, nobody is serving you,” Xu said. (A similar example is Google.) “To maintain service does not require a lot of people.” 

But in places where users might not be aware, the consequences of a lack of employees may be occurring. “In the meantime, there’ll be no people to do labor-intensive tasks, such as content moderation.”

Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, agreed that lack of personnel won’t be fatal until, one day, a public opinion disaster occurs on Twitter, which is the “foremost concern.”

“The folks that work at Twitter are able to elevate certain information. In the past, they’ve been able to verify official accounts, and take these other measures to try and elevate accurate and timely information during a disaster,” she said. 

She said that, from what she’s read, that backup of personnel “is not really there right now.” 

According to the New York Times, it was only today that Musk asked to learn about Twitter’s underlying technology, after almost everyone on the key infrastructure teams had left. 

Perhaps more concerning about Twitter’s future than these bouts of pain is the fact that Twitter is in the jungle of a highly competitive tech industry that will step in if the crisis endures for any length of time. 

In the short term, Twitter’s lack of competition is a help, said University of California, Los Angeles, economist Lee Ohanian. Facebook, Instagram and TikTok differ in user bases, and Mastodon is too small. “I don’t see it (Twitter) being eliminated” in the short term, said Ohanian. “I don’t think he’s doing anything now that would necessarily lead it to fail.”

Things are different, however, once you stretch out the timeline. “Even if Musk hadn’t taken Twitter over, Twitter would still be vulnerable to another platform coming along,” Ohanian said. “Because things are so easy to scale up in the world of tech.”

Musk’s comments and behaviors have already triggered exits for political or social reasons. “I don’t know if it will ever get back to the number of users they had before,” said Ohanian.

In addition to winning back the trust of his employees, Musk will face the challenge of replacing those users with others. “He really has to articulate a vision that’s going to appeal to people who want to learn about news, want to hear about people’s opinions, expert opinions about that news,” said Ohanian. 

Otherwise, the little blue bird we all know so well “might be a Twitter that is really for the Elon Musk types of the world.”

Disclaimer: Kuang Xu is on Mission Local’s Board of Directors

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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  1. Regarding that ghostly income vs. straight up bleeding money: It’ll be interesting to see how ad revenue stacks up over time now that certain accounts have been unblocked, not to mention the creative mayhem that seems to have replaced any semblance of a business plan.

  2. Isn’t it strange that none of the analysts said anything about Twitter’s ability to make money? I guess in tech you can go on indefinitely bleeding money, like Uber.

  3. Daniel’s observations are spot on, in my opinion. The analyses collected by ML are from very smart people who know what they’re talking about and, professionally, have the decency to be civil about the presentations of their opinions. It would, indeed, have been interesting to have opinions from a psychologist or two because (again, in my opinion) therein lies a significant crux of whether or not Twitter survives beyond the near term: Elon’s opinion of himself, which is not based in smarts or reality. He *is* smart; just not as smart as he thinks he is.

  4. Correct, to keep Twitter running in the short term doesn’t take a whole lot of people. But it takes the right people who know how things work, many of which are gone. If they can stabilize things, in the mid term, inexperienced engineering staff will increasingly be pushed to roll out changes into production. They’ll break things, possibly painted into a corner without a known path to recovery. But if they can overcome all of that – and the root cause why there is no competition: Long term, they still won’t have a solid vision for a formula that’ll balance the books.