Confused speculation about the 11-minute disappearance of Donald Trump’s Twitter account turned to jubilant mania Thursday night when Twitter’s government and elections team shared the satisfying backstory: The account was “inadvertently deactivated due to human error.” But it got better. A couple of hours later, the account seemed to walk back the “inadvertent” part and confirm the gleeful fantasy so many of us have had:
Through our investigation we have learned that this was done by a Twitter customer support employee who did this on the employee’s last day. We are conducting a full internal review.
This is exactly what every person who has ever worked in customer support—and maybe most Americans, even Trump fans—has been half-jokingly wishing for: for some true patriot with nothing left to lose to look over her shoulder, hold her breath, and click the button.
I have not worked in the tech industry for a handful of years now, but when I did, I worked at web applications similar to Twitter in the broadest sense, doing customer support in each app’s first years. My duties varied wildly, but much of my tenure involved customer support and general “hand-holding,” as it’s called internally, of high-profile users. Which is why seeing political commentators express breathless shock that there exists the ability for “some random Twitter employee” to delete the president’s account makes me laugh a dark, cynical laugh.
Of course they can do that. Customer support workers can do almost anything. (“When you’re a customer support star, they let you do anything.”) Being surprised by this is like being surprised that the bank teller you bring your deposit slip to can see the last few transactions in your account. They need this information to help you, which is their job.
Having the superpower to log in as anyone and do whatever the front-facing version of the app can do—often more—is the one aspect of that job that I continue to think about, and long for, and cringe over the inevitable abuse of. We called it God Mode. God Mode is “special permissions.” The sort of thing a customer support rep needs to be able to do if, say, trying to help a user upload some godforsaken image file for his avatar, an image that you know is never going to work. After a soul-draining number of back and forths, you realize he will never understand the problem. Fine. Have him send you the image. Resize it for him. Log into his account as him and upload the image. Done.
Yes, the reps can read your messages. Yes, they can find other anonymous accounts registered by you under the same IP. Ban you, block you, delete your account. (Can you imagine how many Twitter support inquiries are simply people asking how to delete their accounts? So many.)
Some of these abilities are necessary—in my own day, I needed to be able to access user’s private messages, for instance, when they were flagged for spam or for harassment. Some are simply a byproduct of engineering. Is someone really going to specify in the code that there be an alternative login process that lets employees “sign in as user but without being able to see their DMs because that would violate privacy even though we are a private company with the blanket ability to do almost anything according to our terms of service.” (Though maybe Twitter really does this!)
I don’t want to publicly implicate myself or my former employers in anything but the vaguest terms, but: Imagine it. You make $40,000-$60,000 a year and you spend 10 hours a day fielding messages from the angry, the frustrated, the clueless. People who are thwarted, being harassed, or want to interview your boss for their undergraduate thesis. Your so-called “teammates” on the technical side make five times as much as you and are respected accordingly. They’re highly skilled, highly employable. They noodle around. Go to meetings. Argue about “the grid.” You spend your days dealing with the fallout: trying not to be defensive, trying to practice empathy and compassion and keeping a list of bugs and user complaints to bring up at the next meeting, where no one will listen to you because you are “a random support person.”
So yes, you make your own fun. You joke about deleting the president’s account because even though it feels like you have no power at this company full of people drunk on their own power, you always have God Mode. You could do anything. (Though after yesterday you can bet every management team at every tech company is embroiled in an email thread right now about their own “full internal review”—did our Twitter hero ruin God Mode forever?)
Twitter, like most platforms, was not built slowly, thoughtfully, or with ethical implications in mind (desperate attempts at retroactive thoughtfulness posted to Medium notwithstanding). It was built to scale. To be efficient. To be accessed on the backend by underlings like you, so that you could take small actions without slowing things down by consulting someone more senior. There’s no hierarchy here anyway, or so everyone claims. Almost anyone can do almost anything. It’s just assumed they wouldn’t. Which is, of course, hilarious and naive.
And that’s what was so thrilling Thursday for those 11 minutes, even though they ended the same way it began—with somebody on the back end with special permissions, only this time, they restored the account completely. It’s almost as if the whole thing never happened, but those of us who know can take delight in the utter madness that must have been Twitter HQ in those precious 11 minutes of national reprieve, on a day when someone with nothing to lose did the thing the rest of us could only dream about. For 11 brief minutes, they were God.