A year ago, billionaire and new owner Elon Musk walked into Twitter's San Francisco headquarters with a white bathroom sink and a smile, fired its CEO and other top executives, and began transforming the social media platform into what today it is known as X.
X looks and feels kind of like Twitter, but the more time you spend with it, the clearer it becomes that it's just an approximation. Musk has done away with the core features of what created Twitter, Twitter — its name and blue bird logo, its verification system, its trust and security advisory group. Not to mention content moderation and hate speech enforcement.
It also laid off, laid off or lost the majority of its workforce — engineers who keep the site running, moderators who keep it from being overwhelmed by hate, executives tasked with making rules and enforcing them.
The result, say longtime Twitter watchers, was the end of the platform's role as an imperfect but useful place to find out what's going on in the world. What X will become, and whether Musk can achieve his ambition to turn it into an “everything app” that everyone uses, remains as unclear as it was a year ago.
“Musk hasn't managed to make a single meaningful improvement to the platform and is no closer to his vision of an ‘app for everything' than he was a year ago,” said Insider Intelligence analyst Jasmine Enberg. “Instead, X has driven away users, advertisers, and has now lost its primary value proposition in the social media world: To be a central news hub.”
As one of the platform's most popular and prolific users, even before he bought the company, Musk had a unique experience on Twitter that differs significantly from the way regular users experience it. However, many of the changes he introduced to X were based on his own impressions of the site — in fact, he even polled his millions of followers for advice on how it should work (they said he should quit).
“Musk's treatment of the platform as a tech company he could rebuild and his vision instead of a social network fueled by people and ad dollars was the single biggest cause of Twitter's collapse,” Enberg said.
The blue checkmarks that once meant that the person or institution behind an account was who they said they were — a celebrity, an athlete, a journalist from a global or local publication, a nonprofit organization — now simply indicate that someone is paying $8 a month for a subscription service that boosts their posts over unverified users. It is these payment accounts that have been found to be spreading misinformation on the platform that is often amplified by its algorithms.
On Thursday, for example, a new report from the left-leaning nonprofit Media Matters found that multiple X accounts with tens of thousands of followers claimed the mass attack in Maine was a “false flag,” planned by the government. Investigators also found such accounts spreading misinformation and propaganda about the Israel-Hamas war — so much so that the European Commission issued a formal, legally binding request for information to X about its handling of hate speech, disinformation and violent terrorist content that related to war.
Ian Bremmer, a prominent foreign policy expert, posted on X this month that the level of misinformation about the Israel-Hamas war “algorithmically promoted” on the platform “is unlike anything I've ever been exposed to in my career as political scientist.”
It's not just the platform's identity that's on shaky grounds. Twitter was already struggling financially when Musk bought it for $44 billion in a deal that closed on October 27, 2022, and the situation looks more precarious today. Musk took the company private, so its books are no longer public — but in July, Tesla's CEO said the company had lost about half of its advertising revenue and continues to face heavy debt.
“We are still cash-flow negative,” he posted on the website on July 14, due to a 50% drop in advertising revenue plus a heavy debt load.
“We have to get cash flow positive before we can afford anything else,” he said.
In May, Musk hired Linda Yaccarino, a former NBC executive with close ties to the ad industry, in an effort to attract top brands, but the effort has been slow to pay off. Although some advertisers have returned to X, they aren't spending as much as before — despite a rebound in the online advertising market that boosted the most recent quarterly earnings for Facebook parent Meta and Google parent Alphabet.
Insider Intelligence estimates that X will bring in $1.89 billion in ad revenue this year, down 54% from 2022. The last time ad revenue came close to that level was in 2015, when it reached $1.99 billion . In 2022, it was $4.12 billion.
External research also shows that people are using X less.
According to research firm Similarweb, global web traffic to Twitter.com is down 14% year over year and traffic to the ads.twitter.com portal for advertisers is down 16.5%. Mobile performed no better, falling 17.8% year-over-year based on combined monthly active users for Apple's iOS and Android.
“Although Twitter's cultural relevance was already beginning to wane,” before Musk took over, “it's like the platform no longer exists. And it was a death by a thousand cuts,” Enberg said.
“What's really fascinating is that almost all of the trauma is self-inflicted. Usually, when a social media platform starts to lose relevance, there are at least some external factors at play, but that's not the case here.”