Twitter’s Flaws Snag Elon Musk’s Media Ambitions

Since his $44 billion deal to buy Twitter last year, Musk has maintained that he wants the platform to be the go-to online venue for prominent figures, companies and others to post content and make announcements.

He has also significantly shrunk Twitter’s staff and suggested other companies should follow suit. At The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit this week, he said many employers had too many people and they could boost productivity with leaner staffs.

Both of those positions drew attention Wednesday night after Twitter suffered technical problems during the DeSantis event. As the Florida governor was set to speak on Twitter Spaces, a live audio-only feature, many users said the technology wasn’t working for them and that the audio was going in and out.

There was “just a massive number of people online, so the servers are straining somewhat,» Musk said at one point.

Roughly 20 minutes after it was scheduled to begin, the event was transferred from Musk’s Twitter account to that of his associate, technology investor David Sacks. A tweet from Sacks featuring a recording of the event said: “Twitter performed great after some initial scaling challenges.»

The platform showed roughly 300,000 listeners tuning in near the close of the event late Wednesday. Sacks’s tweet said more than three million users tuned in, a number that was increasing Thursday morning, suggesting it included users who listened live as well as afterward.

The setback comes after another high-profile figure, former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, revealed plans earlier this month to launch a show on Twitter. Carlson was one of Fox’s most popular anchors and could draw new users to the platform, raising the stakes for ensuring it doesn’t malfunction.

Fox News parent Fox Corp. shares common ownership with Journal publisher News Corp.

“Political figures and anyone for that matter have to factor in the risk from the platform,» said Republican digital strategist Eric Wilson.

He added that the benefits of running Twitter Spaces events and tweeting in general likely outweigh the potential for glitches. “You don’t have to deal with someone else’s agenda,» he said. “You get to go direct to the consumer.»

Twitter Spaces launched two years ago and hosts have ranged from K-pop artists and Hollywood actors to cryptocurrency enthusiasts and musicians. It initially faced competition from the app Clubhouse, which soared in popularity during the pandemic but later lost its footing.

It isn’t immediately clear whether the technical glitches during the DeSantis event could’ve been prevented had the company had higher staffing levels.

But a lack of staff and poor planning can lead to such results, said Rahul Telang, a professor of information systems at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College.

“That’s exactly what happens when there’s turmoil in a company and half your staff leaves or you fire them,» said Telang. “This was a big event that required serious planning on the back end.»

Twitter didn’t comment.

Twitter’s performance has been under scrutiny since Musk completed his takeover of the company at the end of October and took it private. He subsequently slashed the company’s workforce, prompting some former employees and outside observers to question whether the cuts would impede Twitter’s operations.

During the Super Bowl in February, many Twitter users complained about malfunctions around the time of Rihanna’s halftime performance, saying tweets weren’t loading. The sporting event has historically been Twitter’s biggest day of the year in terms of ad revenue generated. A few days later, Twitter suffered a temporary outage as it failed to load for users across several regions.

“There’s always this balance that companies are striking when they do these massive layoffs,» said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “The goal is to cut off the fat, but if you cut off the muscle, are you making yourself more agile or not?»

On top of its technical woes, Twitter has continued to grapple with fake and spam accounts. On Monday, multiple verified accounts tweeted a bogus image with text falsely claiming a large explosion had occurred at the Pentagon, said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto. The verified accounts purported to be news outlets or breaking news tickers, he said.

Technical glitches and fake accounts were a thorn in Twitter’s side before Musk’s takeover. His intentions for Twitter are much grander than his predecessor’s and could require more support.

Musk has indicated that Twitter is now in competition with the news business. He recently jabbed on the platform at the New York Times and National Public Radio, and he has weighed in on the accuracy of certain news outlets.

In addition, Musk has said he plans to turn Twitter’s finances around by making it less dependent on advertising. He said he is aiming for a future valuation of more than $250 billion for the company by putting it at the center of users’ lives as an app that would also be the world’s largest financial institution.

To help Twitter realize those objectives, this month Musk announced that former NBCUniversal ad chief Linda Yaccarino would soon succeed him as CEO. He said he would focus on product design and technology.

Making sure Twitter runs without such hiccups is critical for retaining users. The company also needs to please advertisers, who accounted for about 90% of Twitter’s revenue before Musk’s takeover.

Musk is “clearly trying to make some big changes» at Twitter, said Challenger. “But if they don’t have the ability to act quickly, it can be self-defeating.»

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