The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Twitter was — and is — broken

The Twitter logo and a photo of Elon Musk. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
5 min

There’s a famous tweet from Stephen A. Smith that reads, “TAke a look, y’all: IMG_4346.jpeg.” The joke was there was nothing to look at — he’d tweeted, by accident, the string of numbers and letters in a photo’s file name instead of the photo itself.

Monday, as the ESPN personality self-deprecatingly pointed out, it looked as if every other Twitter user had made a similar mistake: Across the website, links didn’t lead anywhere and pictures didn’t load.

The cause, apparently, was an “an internal change that had some unintended consequences.” Later, the company clarified the precise technical cause, but in the interim that statement looked like the euphemism to end all euphemisms. Yes, Elon Musk, if you do away with 75 percent of a company’s employees and replace all existing processes and policies with a new strategy that can only be described as “winging it,” stuff will start to break.

Really, though, this latest hiccup in a mishap-filled few months was not only another example of the platform’s practical predicament but also a metaphor for its spiritual malady.

Megan McArdle: How Elon Musk fired Twitter staff and broke nothing

Twitter on Monday was a mess of missed connections. Tell your followers to check out the latest addition to your oeuvre — you’ve been working on it for months! — and they’d find themselves unable to reach it, informed instead by error message that they lacked “access to this endpoint.” Share a snapshot of your dog contorted in an implausible and therefore adorable position and readers would wonder what you were speaking of when you’d typed, “Came home to this today.” A ransacked apartment? A flooded bathroom? A candlelit dinner prepared by a besequined Harry Styles?

All there was, in place of any of this, was a void: broken links and blank boxes. Emptiness.

It’s no surprise that after the decimated staff at Twitter resolved the problem, people turned the mini-imbroglio into the meme of the day, continuing to send out tweets purporting to contain images but whose actual attachments were replicas of those same blank boxes. They conjured up false scoops on, for example, the leaker of the Supreme Court draft opinion on abortion rights — STORY HERE, except it was nowhere. They riffed on revealing their career-defining opuses at this, the perfect moment, only to unleash … nothing.

The bit meets the moment because Twitter has started to feel empty every day. The site still works — well, most of the time — but much of its old magic is missing. Some users have departed, decamping for alternatives or detoxing altogether. Some are still around, but they’ve lost some of their joie de tweet. They suspect the platform is on the same crash course as so many “self-driving” Tesla Model Xes. And they also know that the quality — of advertisements, of algorithmic recommendations, of back-and-forths — isn’t quite what it once was.

Hugh Hewitt: I defended Twitter to other conservatives. I was wrong.

Hate speech reportedly is rising, and resources are scarce to prevent trolling, disinformation, child sex exploitation and other ills. Everyone’s feed is full of someone people call “menswear guy,” even if they don’t like menswear, because somehow the algorithm has decided that’s what they want. Even the principle of free speech that Musk claimed animated his acquisition has evaporated. The only principle that applies now is personal whim. When a wounded Musk learned that President Biden’s tweet about the Super Bowl was outperforming his own, he reportedly set engineers to the all-important task of boosting his missives above everyone else’s. (Musk has denied this.)

Twitter, in its best days, earned the nickname “hellsite.” But flaws aside, the platform had something its bigger brethren didn’t. Which was, basically, community. There were niches, from media Twitter to weird Twitter to stan Twitter, yet there were times that it seemed everyone on the site was talking about the same stuff. Users dreamed up main characters of every week by finding someone doing something funny, or abhorrent, or embarrassing and agreeing, together, that it deserved their attention.

Compare “Bean Dad,” a man who explained at length about refusing to help his 9-year-old daughter as she struggled for hours to open a can of baked beans, to this week’s featured player: an ex-Twitter employee who asked Musk to confirm whether he had been fired and was met with mockery from the CEO over his record at the company as well as the accusation that he had used a disability as an “excuse” to underperform. The designer in question has muscular dystrophy. The “Bean Dad” tale is terrible, sure, but playfully absurd, too. The still-developing saga of the ex-employee is only terrible.

Today, something ineffable on Twitter is missing, perhaps because no one really believes anymore that the site is theirs. “This platform is so brittle (sigh),” Musk moaned about this week’s snag. He was speaking his usual mumbo jumbo about hardcore software-writing and “the code stack” — but, in essence, he was right. Whatever Twitter was, after years of memes and main characters and controversies and conversations, was delicate. And regardless of whether links lead somewhere and photos load, it is broken.