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Elon Musk has big ideas for Twitter. Users should buckle up.

The Tesla CEO has teased multiple new features, but history shows changes to Twitter are easier said than done

Elon Musk has teased a number of new features for Twitter, which could lead to rapid-fire trial and error in coming months. (iStock/Washington Post illustration)
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Elon Musk loves experimentation. Twitter is a straightforward product that makes its users mad every time it changes something.

What could possibly go wrong?

Zach Bowders, a data analyst living in Memphis, got nervous about the introduction of a Twitter downvote button back in February, only to see it disappear from his app about a week later, he said. Now he’s wondering what to expect as Musk takes the reins of the social network after agreeing to buy the company for about $44 billion this week. He likes the billionaire’s ideas for a more transparent Twitter algorithm that shows users why it boosts or buries certain content, he said. But it’s hard to predict which ideas will stick.

“If we take him at his word, he’s interested in rebuilding people’s trust,” Bowders said. “I think with public figures and billionaires in particular, it’s hard for us to really know anyone’s motivations.”

Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, official as of Monday, sparked speculation about the social media company’s next product moves. Musk has teased big ideas including a long-awaited edit button, identity authentication to fight automated “bot” accounts and clearer indications that content was algorithmically promoted or squashed. Musk’s agenda could lead to rapid-fire trial and error in coming months, product development experts say. Whatever happens, users should buckle up: In Twitterland, new features can disappear as fast as they come, and it’s tough to make everybody happy.

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The past few years have brought new features from the social media company, including premium subscription Twitter Blue and audio chat rooms called Spaces. Some ideas — such as temporary “Fleets” and a separate tab for chronological feeds — got left on the cutting room floor. Recently the company concluded its test of the downvote button, a Twitter spokeswoman said without clarifying whether the feature will come back, and it’s still testing the option to tweet audio snippets.

The spokeswoman said the company is always taking steps to make discourse on the platform healthier and boost engagement. She declined to comment on Musk’s product ideas.

It’s normal for software companies such as Twitter to test new features with batches of users and drop them if they don’t pay off, says Melissa Perri, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and chief executive of the Product Institute, an online training center for product management. Usually, the question isn’t whether users like the features but whether they improve important metrics for the company, she noted.

Musk’s personality could throw that data-based decision-making into flux, she said.

“Twitter is great at killing features that don't work. I know Elon embraces failure, but there is a question on whether he will be willing to kill his big bets if they don't work,” she said.

Musk has shown a penchant at his companies for testing new hardware and features before they’re entirely baked, taking risks that other companies’ legal and management teams might nix. For instance, Tesla, where Musk is CEO, has put technology it calls Full Self-Driving on public roads as a live beta test, issuing updates around every two weeks to address bugs it finds in real time. And the rocket company SpaceX, where he is also CEO, has not been shy about failed tests that see millions of dollars’ worth of equipment go up in flames as the company works to develop reusable rockets.

Musk did not respond to a request for comment.

Musk’s Twitter ideas could follow suit, says John Cutler, who coaches companies in data-based product decisions at product analytics company Amplitude. The edit button, which Twitter says was in the works before Musk teased it in a public poll, has some serious obstacles to implementation, Cutler said. Most notably, authors could edit their posts after they’ve been retweeted and change the message retweeters meant to convey. During an April 14 TED interview, Musk suggested “zeroing out” all favorites and retweets upon an edit, adding that he’s open to other ideas.

It’s easy for someone with little experience in the social media industry to toss out ideas without considering the ripple effects or understanding the complicated social-network dynamics that even specialists at Twitter may struggle to parse, Cutler said. Making those ideas work is another matter.

“This story could easily end with Elon Musk one year from now concocting some story about how Twitter is too entrenched or whatever, it’s so backward, ‘I’m going back to rockets,’ ” Cutler said.

Faiz Siddiqui in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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