The problem behind all of Twitter’s other problems

For years, Twitter’s problems were overshadowed by those of its much larger rival social network, Facebook.

Not anymore: The past year has brought a parade of bad press for the blue bird, from the ouster of its CEO to an ownership battle with Elon Musk to a federal whistleblower complaint.

And on Tuesday, we learned the San Francisco-based firm tried to develop an adult-content service – only to scuttle it amid concerns over its inability to police child pornography.

For a major global tech company, one of the few things more embarrassing than being forced to turn to porn to boost revenue is proving incapable of doing so.

Sundry as Twitter’s scandals might seem, they share a common source: a broken business model that is fundamentally at odds with the freewheeling nature of its platform. And they aren’t likely to abate until it resolves that tension one way or another.

The company’s year from hell started when its co-founder and CEO, Jack Dorsey, abruptly stepped down in November 2021 amid pressure from activist shareholders to dramatically grow the business.

His successor, Parag Agrawal, embarked on a sweeping reorganisation that was interrupted by Musk’s out-of-nowhere takeover bid – one that promised shareholders a premium on their stock at $44 billion.

Then, perhaps realising his mistake in valuing Twitter as if it were a healthy business, Musk tried to renege on his offer, sparking a high-stakes legal battle.

The primary reason Dorsey was ousted is the same reason Musk could afford to buy Twitter, which is also the same reason Musk realised he was overpaying for Twitter.

Its business simply isn’t healthy or lucrative enough to sustain a public social media platform of its global size and significance, at least without cutting a lot of corners.

Last week, Dorsey went so far as to say that his “biggest regret“ is that Twitter became a company in the first place. While he may not be the most reliable analyst of Twitter’s troubles – a lot of which were his own doing – he’s not wrong that there’s a mismatch between the company’s basic product architecture and its mandate to make piles of money from advertising.

Founded in 2006, Twitter’s growth exploded in its early years, and by the 2010 Arab Spring, it was being hailed as a world-changing hub for free speech.

Unlike Facebook, it allowed users to remain anonymous and flaunted an “anything goes” approach that allowed activists and dissidents to speak truth to power – while also tolerating racism, bullying, bots and pornography. In many ways, Twitter was built to be unpoliceable.

Like Facebook and YouTube, Twitter turned to advertising to make money, promising to connect businesses with users based on their interests.

But its evolution into a site notorious for put-downs, pile-ons and political arguments – not to mention the porn – made it a queasy fit for buttoned-down corporate brands. And the intensity of the Twitter experience, with its rapid-fire feed assaulting users with contextless, endlessly juxtaposed textbites, has limited its appeal beyond the chattering classes.

In recent years, the company has earnestly sought to tamp down the nastiness and build new products with mass appeal, from the short-video tool Vine to the live-streaming site Periscope to the live-audio feature Spaces.

While the ideas were inspired, the execution was often lacking and the one thing that turned out to entrench Twitter as an essential part of the public square – Donald Trump’s Twitter-fuelled presidency – only exacerbated its core problems.

Over the past few years, under Dorsey, Twitter had attracted cadres of high-minded employees determined to round off its rough edges and remould it into a venue for “healthy conversations“. But the company’s shareholders lost patience with his introspection and experimentation and issued ultimatums that forced the company’s executives to prioritise growth over all else.

It’s no surprise, then, that the microscope that has been held up to the firm over the past year has revealed various forms of rot in its innards.

Last week, The Washington Post and CNN first reported that Twitter’s former security chief had turned federal whistleblower, leading to congressional inquiries into its allegedly flawed security practices, among other issues. (Twitter has denied many of the allegations, calling the report a “false narrative”.)

And on Tuesday, Twitter confirmed a report by tech site the Verge that it recently halted plans for a product that would have allowed adult performers to charge users for subscriptions to pornographic content, with Twitter taking a cut – a business model similar to the adult site OnlyFans.

According to the Verge, an internal “red team” – a group of Twitter employees tasked with finding the weaknesses or flaws in a product – found that the company was already failing to police material on its main platform that depicts the sexual exploitation or abuse of minors. As a result, Twitter abandoned the project this year.

In Twitter’s euphemistic words, it was an “ongoing and reflective dialogue on the topic that brought us to the decision to pause the workstream for the right reason and prioritise elsewhere”, per a statement from spokesperson Celeste Carswell.

“Twitter has zero tolerance for child sexual exploitation,” Carswell said. “We aggressively fight online child sexual abuse and have invested in technology and tools to enforce our policy.”

If there’s a bright side to this story, it’s that Twitter was at least prudent enough to pump the brakes on a bad idea after a careful internal review of the potential harms. That’s a more responsible approach than the “move fast and break things” ethos of early Facebook and many other hard-charging tech firms.

But it’s also worth pausing to note just how wild it is that one of the world’s most influential public tech companies was so strapped for new revenue streams that it was even considering a pivot to porn in the first place. Imagine Google, Facebook or TikTok trying that.

Less shocking is the revelation that Twitter deemed its child sexual abuse material – or CSAM – problem to be insurmountable, at least in the short term. It has the same roots as Twitter’s spam problem, its fake accounts problem, its extremism problem and its misinformation problem. That is, it’s what happens when you build a vast, global platform where anyone can post anything anonymously – and then try to police it with the perpetually limited resources of a company that’s forever falling short of its financial goals.

Of course, every big social platform struggles with these issues. Twitter just faces a more daunting task than Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and others, because it isn’t minting the money needed to finance huge content moderation investments.

At one point in Musk’s takeover bid, when it looked like the Tesla titan still wanted to acquire Twitter, Dorsey praised him as the “singular solution” to the company’s problems. By taking the firm private, Dorsey reasoned, Musk could insulate it from short-term financial pressures and make the investments needed to realise its grandest visions. (Exactly what those visions entailed has never been coherently explained – something about decentralisation.)

Instead, Musk is suing the company to get out of the deal, based on the claim that it misled investors about the prevalence of spam and bots on its site. At the same time, the idealistic Twitter employees tasked with fixing its flaws have been fleeing.

By now, it’s clear that Musk has only amplified Twitter’s problems. As for a solution, it’s nowhere in sight.

The Washington Post