Elon Musk's Twitter Won't Die. Look at Telegram.

Telegram is an even bigger social network run by a libertarian billionaire. Its popularity should dispel all notions that Twitter will disappear.

| Updated on: Dec 04 2022, 01:54 IST
Elon Musk Twitter Bankruptcy Talk: Timeline
1/13 He’s told employees to brace themselves for long hours, that “the road ahead is arduous and will require intense work to succeed,” and said bankruptcy was possible. Here’s how the saga is unfolding: (Bloomberg)
2/13 Oct. 27: Musk takes control- His first act is to fire the Board along with CEO Parag Agrawal, CFO Ned Segal, head of legal Vijaya Gadde and Counsel Sean Edgett. Musk forms advisory team that includes celebrity attorney Alex Spiro, VC David Sacks, Neuralink CEO and head of Musk’s family office Jared Birchall, investor Jason Calacanis, and partner of Andreessen Horowitz Sriram Krishnan. (Reuters)
3/13 Oct. 28: Brands begin to take pause- As Musk plans to unban accounts and says he will charge for user verification, advertisers suspend ads. (AFP)
Elon Musk Twitter
4/13 Oct. 31: Top tweeters protest- Amid murmurings of plans to charge existing verified accounts, author Steven King tweets, “$20 a month to keep my blue check? F**k that, they should pay me. If that gets instituted, I’m gone like Enron.” (AFP)
Elon Musk
5/13 Nov. 1: Teams working around the clock- The product team works over the weekend on Musk’s idea to charge users for blue check marks. A photo of product director Esther Crawford sleeping on the floor of a conference room, trying to make the deadline, goes viral. Meanwhile, managers are asked to make lists of who can be fired. Employees print out their software code for review by Musk and engineers from Tesla, to determine if their contributions are worthy of keeping a job. (REUTERS)
6/13 Nov. 3: Massive layoffs begin- A memo is sent to all employees telling them of imminent layoffs and to watch for an email with the subject line: “Your Role at Twitter.” Badge access to offices is suspended as 3,700 staffers receive word that they’ve been cut. Realizing employees essential for the continuity of the business have been let go by mistake, some are asked to come back. (AP)
Elon Musk Twitter
7/13 Co-founder EV Williams tweets, “Heart’s out to the tweeps getting laid off today.” Co-founder Jack Dorsey adds, “I realize many are angry with me. I own the responsibility for why everyone is in this situation: I grew the company size too quickly. I apologize for that.” (REUTERS)
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8/13 Nov. 5-6: Musk responds to celebrity protests- Unrest grows on the platform over the weekend, particularly over the issue of impersonator accounts. Actress Valerie Bertinelli starts a movement of people changing their Twitter names to “Elon Musk.” Comedian Kathy Griffin joins the protest, finds her account locked. Then Musk announces, “Going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying `parody’ will be permanently suspended.” (AP)
9/13 Nov. 8: Musk sells more Tesla- Despite a previous vow not to sell any more Tesla stock, Musk sells an additional $3.95 billion, bringing the total sold in past year to $36 billion. (REUTERS)
10/13 Nov. 9: Musk Blue tick mark- Blue check mark option becomes available for purchase, and immediately becomes a tool for impersonators. An account masquerading as Nintendo Inc. posts an image of Super Mario holding up a middle finger. (REUTERS)
Elon Musk
11/13 Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, and a close cadre of advisers are considering a host of changes to the way Twitter is run and makes money. (REUTERS)
12/13 Nov. 10: More key executives quit as Musk warns of bankruptcy- In his first meeting with employees, Musk tells them to brace for 80-hour weeks and requires everyone back in the office full time. He also says bankruptcy for the company is not out of the question if it doesn’t start generating more cash. Several executives in charge of keeping Twitter safe and accountable to its users quit, including chief information security officer Lea Kissner, chief privacy officer Damien Kieran and chief compliance Marianne Fogarty.. (AFP)
13/13 Nov. 11: Verified accounts get “Official” tags- Twitter adds badges that say “offiical” to verified accounts in some places, though confusion abounds. More brands depart the platform. (REUTERS)
Twitter and Telegram
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Elon Musk's Twitter won't die. Look at Telegram. (Reuters/Pixabay)

A social network, privately run by a billionaire free-speech advocate, on a shoestring budget, hosting politicians with millions of followers, and with very loose content rules.

Sound familiar?

That's the direction Twitter Inc. is going under Elon Musk, but it's also the current iteration of Telegram, a messaging and broadcasting app that's relatively unknown in the US and more than double Twitter's size, with about 700 million active users, and even fewer staff.

As Musk steers Twitter toward becoming a lawless paradise — most recently by dropping its Covid-19 misinformation rules and reinstating thousands of previously banned accounts — some have compared the platform to 4chan, the chaotic image board teeming with porn and racist memes. But Telegram, which has evolved into a broadcasting service similar to Twitter, offers a more realistic template. Its continued growth suggests a future that Musk's critics (myself included) will find difficult to swallow: Even as Twitter drains cash, staff and celebrity users, it could still thrive with activity.

Telegram was founded as a messaging app by Pavel Durov, a Russian-born libertarian billionaire whose strong views on free speech are reflected in the app's scant rules on behavior. While Twitter has 16 rules about content, Telegram has just three.

Musk's latest actions suggest he'll whittle Twitter's policies down to Telegram's size, initially by taking a more lax approach to enforcement. But he'll pay the price in advertising dollars and famous names, just like Telegram. Despite its enormous size, Durov's platform boasts just a handful of Bollywood actors and leaders including Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Donald Trump Jr.

The reason, which will come as a surprise to no one, is that government leaders, celebrities and big brands don't like sitting alongside a thriving network of extremists. On Telegram that includes QAnon influencer GhostEzra (177,000 followers), white supremacy propagandist Jack Posobiec (187,000 followers) and anti-Muslim activist and US political candidate Laura Loomer (31,400 followers). Porn and crypto pump-and-dump schemes also rank among some of the app's most popular channels, with millions of followers.

Of course, the world of content is a gray one, and having no rules isn't all bad. Telegram managed to avoid getting banned in Russia this year because it does nothing to misinformation, meaning it didn't take down Kremlin propaganda about its “special military operation” in Ukraine, unlike YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. That allowed Telegram to become a rare gateway to the truth about the war for Russian citizens.

Importantly for Musk, having fewer rules is also cheaper, since you don't need thousands of content moderators and policy staff to enforce them. While Facebook has an estimated 15,000 moderators, Telegram gets by with a few hundred. Musk again is moving in that direction, having recently cut 80% of Twitter's contractors who were mostly enforcing its content rules. In Musk speak, this is pulling Twitter back toward being more of a “tech firm,” where engineers and computer programmers are the rock stars, not policy staff. Sure, the latter have helped stop Twitter from undermining democracy, but they also weigh on margins.

There's a few other ways that Telegram has preempted Musk. For example, Durov had a public beef with Apple in 2020 over its 30% subscription fee two years before Musk did, and he also launched Telegram's $5 subscription in June, while Twitter will launch its $8 fee in due course.

Ultimately, Telegram's continued popularity dispels any notion that Twitter will die. Celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Carrey and Trent Reznor, who've cited rising toxicity under Musk, will continue to leave, but many others will stay, and reconcile themselves with sitting alongside anti-vax influencers and holocaust deniers. Today's biggest social networks are entrenched. Even Facebook, despite its financial decline, continues to attract 2 billion users daily. And Musk's brutal cost-cutting at Twitter shows you don't need huge armies of people to keep such services going. WhatsApp, prior to selling to Facebook in 2015, had 450 million active users and a workforce of just 55 people.

If Twitter's revenue drops amid a full advertiser exodus, Musk could probably run Twitter with an even smaller staff, financing the operation with those $8 fees, a few remaining ads and his equity in Tesla Inc. He'd face some major regulatory headaches from Europe, but the site would stay up and teem with activity, albeit with a wider array of crypto bros and bad actors.

Telegram shows that even with the loss of money, rules and advertisers, people tend to stay. It'll be the same with Twitter. But it won't be pretty.

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First Published Date: 04 Dec, 01:46 IST
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