May 24, 2024

Remember Twitter?

That was Elon Musk‘s favorite social-networking service. He was such a fan that he made a $44 billion bid for the company, then tried to renege on the deal when tech stocks swooned in 2022 before he was forced to consummate the pact after Twitter sued him.

The tech mogul closed the debt-burdened Twitter deal on Oct. 27, 2022, and promptly terminated the senior executive team. In the one year since then, Musk among other things has overseen an 80% reduction in headcount; renamed the company “X”; partially dismantled Twitter’s blue check-mark system and now grants “verified” status to $8-per-month X Premium subscribers (whose posts receive algorithmic preference); and launched a test to charge users $1 per year to post to the platform (which he says is necessary to combat bots).

So how’s it going at X today? Not great, according to several indicators.

Millions of users, including several celebrities, have quit in the wake of Musk’s takeover and dramatic refashioning of Twitter. In September 2023, monthly active users for X/Twitter had dropped 15% worldwide (and 18% in the U.S.) year-over-year, according to web analytics provider SimilarWeb. Other third-party measures indicate a roughly similar decline; mobile daily active users dropped 16% on an annual basis in September 2023, to 183 million, according to Sensor Tower. Musk last month claimed that X has 550 million monthly active users, who share up to 200 million posts daily, but it’s unclear how that might compare to past measures. (As a public company, Twitter reported a metric it dubbed “monetizable daily active users”; Musk has repeatedly disparaged Twitter’s former methodology for reporting users and estimating spam/bot accounts.)

Advertising has shrunk even further. U.S. ad spending on X/Twitter by major ad agencies from September 2022-August 2023 dropped 54%, according to ad-analytics firm Guideline (via WSJ). Despite Musk’s promise to marketers that he would not turn Twitter into a “free-for-all hellscape,” advertisers have been wary of Musk’s mercurial decisions, including his move to reinstate thousands of formerly banned accounts (including Donald Trump’s), not to mention his own bizarre posts that at times have traded in conspiracy theories.

The decline in ad sales tracks with Musk’s own comments — and he has accused activist groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, of damaging the company’s advertising business by alleging that X has allowed hate speech to flourish. “Our US advertising revenue is still down 60%, primarily due to pressure on advertisers by @ADL (that’s what advertisers tell us), so they almost succeeded in killing X/Twitter!” he posted on Sept. 4. Musk had threatened to sue the ADL for defamation, but the feud appears to have de-escalated: The group released an Oct. 4 statement saying in part, “We appreciate X’s stated intent over the last few weeks to address antisemitism and hate on the platform.” (Meanwhile, this summer X sued an activist research group, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, over its claims about a rise in hate speech, which X has said are false.)

In March, Musk told employees Twitter’s value had dropped by more than half, to $20 billion. In July, he said the company was still cash-flow negative, citing the drop in ad revenue and a “heavy debt load.”

Musk, currently the world’s richest person with an estimated net worth of $220.8 billion, obviously loves owning X. And he’s intent on transforming it into a “single application that encompasses everything” — including processing financial payments, he told Xers at a virtual all-hands meeting Thursday marking the one-year anniversary, The Verge reported. “I actually mean someone’s entire financial life. If it involves money or securities it will be on our platform,” Musk reportedly said. “You won’t need a bank account… It will blow my mind if we don’t have that rolled out by the end of next year.”

At the same time, Musk has been stretched thin given his other obligations, including serving as CEO of Tesla and SpaceX. This summer, he hired Linda Yaccarino away from NBCUniversal as X’s CEO; she oversees ad sales and business operations, while Musk remains in charge of technology and product decisions.

Yaccarino has reliably stuck to Musk’s talking points. But she has at times appeared to be out of the loop: At Vox Media’s Code 2023 conference last month, Yaccarino was asked by interviewer Julia Boorstin of CNBC about Musk’s plan to charge a fee for all users of X — and whether he had consulted her before announcing it. Yaccarino seemed caught off guard and unaware of Musk’s public announcement on the topic a week earlier; she dodged the question, while also insisting, “We talk about everything.” When Boorstin asked whether she was in a “placebo role as CEO in name only,” Yaccarino replied, “Not nice.”

“Who wouldn’t want Elon Musk sitting by their side running product?” Yaccarino said rhetorically.

In a blog post Thursday titled “One year in, the future of X is bright,” Yaccarino reeled off a 23-point list of accomplishments under her boss’s stewardship. No. 1 on the list, echoing Musk’s free-speech mantra: “X is now a place where everyone can freely express themselves, so long as they do so within the bounds of the law. We believe open and respectful discourse is the single best way for humanity to thrive.” She also said X is “moving toward launching a global payment system – more soon!”, commenting that “We want money on X to flow as freely as information and conversation” and saying the company has “already secured first money transmitter licenses in several states.”

According to Yaccarino, X is regaining “advertiser momentum.” Since mid-May, she wrote, all major agencies have reversed their “pause guidance” against advertising on X. “Last quarter alone over 1,700 advertisers returned to X, from small businesses to major brands — including 90 of the top 100 ad spenders from a year ago,” she claimed in the blog post.

Also on Thursday, the @X account (née @Twitter) said in a celebratory post, “ok everyone get ready to pop the champagne because today marks 1 year in,” followed by disco-ball and champagne-bottle emojis. “over the last 12 months, we shipped 100+ features in total, most of which we’ve built in public and with a tight feedback loop, giving you all the chance to weigh in, suggest ideas and help us improve,” the post said. “much more to come! our goal is simple: to make X the coolest and most enjoyable place on the internet.”

The “coolest and most enjoyable place,” of course, is whatever that means according to Musk’s tastes. Whether that all adds up to X being able to right its financial ship remains to be seen.


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