Future Tense

The Places Where Twitter Is Already Breaking

A Twitter bird with a Critical Warning symbol over it (an exclamation point in a rounded yellow triangle).
Photo illustration by Slate

As reports arrive hour after hour of mass resignations, office closures, emergency meetings, and general Muskian chaos, ex-Twitter employees are warning of impending problems, and users across the United States are preparing for the platform’s imminent death. Reasonable enough, considering the massive departures have really hit the teams in charge of traffic, content moderation, front- and back-end engineering, content moderation, 24/7 on-call technical assistance, community management, system libraries, story curation, trust and safety policy, and user information. The infrastructure has proved sturdy enough that the social network probably won’t fully collapse—at least, not just yet. What might happen instead, as some former tweeps and digital observers have opined, is that continual bugs and glitches will pile up without sufficient task forces on hand to fix them.

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Already, Twitter’s user bases outside the United States are facing these issues. “Twitter is very slow in India, Indonesia & many other countries,” Elon Musk tweeted Tuesday. “This is fact, not ‘claim’. 10 to 15 secs to refresh homeline tweets is common. Sometimes, it doesn’t work at all, especially on Android phones. Only question is how much delay is due to bandwidth/latency/app.” This isn’t a new problem: Indian desktop users reported ample service interruptions even earlier this month.

Musk may be acknowledging the concerns here, but he’s also rid his company of the people who actually know what to do about it. If you think the labor cuts and departures within the U.S. are bad—which they are—you should see how Musk has cleaned house in other nations. Twitter services for the entire continent of Africa were hollowed out just four days after its Ghana office opened. About 90 percent of Twitter staff in India, which comprises the website’s third-largest market, have also been left without jobs. According to Rest of World, “the company laid off practically all of its marketing and communication teams” throughout Southeast and East Asia, while sweeping layoffs also hit offices in Mexico and Brazil. These regions claim some of the largest numbers of Twitter’s users; these countries are where the app plays an outsize role in national discourse, activism, policy, and culture. Not coincidentally, they’re also the places where tweeters have reported slowdowns in overall UX, bugs while logging in to the service, and erroneously restricted accounts.

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No two Twitter experiences (or feeds) are the same, and some user reports of website errors in various countries on Thursday night were self-admitted jokes. But as posters gathered to mourn what’s come of the platform—an occasion Musk celebrated as an “all-time high in Twitter usage lol”—there appeared to be a higher-than-usual number of network outages worldwide. Hundreds of such reports arrived that night alone from key countries like Singapore, India, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, and South Africa, per data scraped by Downdetector. These are, of course, some of the very countries where mis- and disinformation run most rampant, where censorship and shutdowns occur routinely, and where dedicated knowledge workers are needed most in fending off such catastrophes. They’re also countries that really like soccer, leading some fans to worry about what may happen online during the World Cup kickoff Sunday.

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Back in July, Twitter experienced its worst global outage in years, with services rendered completely unavailable everywhere for nearly three hours total. If it took that long to fix the network at a moment when Twitter still had a 7,500-strong workforce, what will happen when the next outage hits and only a couple thousand people are at the helm?

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Clearly, that won’t be where Musk directs his energy. The day after the mass company resignations, he was tweeting about new features: the “deboosting” and demonetization of “negative/hate tweets,” and the reinstatement of suspended accounts belonging to Kathy Griffin, Jordan Petersen, and the Babylon Bee (though not Donald Trump or Alex Jones). The New York Times further reported that Musk was “considering shuttering one of Twitter’s three main U.S. data centers,” which would leave the remaining servers “with potentially less back up computing capacity in case something fails.” (Which could easily happen!) This, despite the fact that after Musk carried out his own round of layoffs, no one was left to watch the servers in Twitter’s New York outpost, which led the room where they were housed to overheat and knock out Wi-Fi capacity. “Breakages are already happening slowly and accumulating,” one employee told the Washington Post.

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It makes sense, then, that Australia’s online regulator is working with fellow government departments in Fiji, Ireland, and the United Kingdom “to create new laws combating abuse, harmful content and illegal material on social networks,” the Canberra Times reported this week. (The official account for the French Embassy in Fiji, for one, is preparing to get off Twitter altogether.) After all, someone’s gotta keep an eye on the service while Elon Musk keeps messing things up—even though the prospect of such regulation also raises complicated free speech questions.

For whatever it’s worth, every time I tried to dig up Musk’s tweet inviting users to scroll Twitter for World Cup commentary this weekend, I was constantly told the tweet was now unavailable. So much for that, then.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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