Monday, July 15

How Elon Musk Changed the Meaning of Twitter for Users

After Nicholas Campiz evacuated from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, in February 2022, he stayed glued to Twitter. As battles raged across the country, he tracked them on the app, staying up through many nights in a hotel room in Tbilisi, Georgia, to read updates as they rolled in, one tweet at a time.

“As more Ukrainians hopped onto Twitter to tell their story, you had a lot of good accounts from them,” Mr. Campiz said.

When war broke out this month in Israel and Gaza, Mr. Campiz, 40, a cartographer who now lives in Florida, turned to Twitter again. But his timeline on the app, which has been renamed X, was filled with posts from accounts he didn’t recognize and content that had been debunked, he said.

With the war in Ukraine, “Twitter was invaluable because you were able to get connected to accounts that were providing good information,” he said. “I feel really helpless in this Israel-Gaza thing because on Twitter now, the ability to do that is just gone.”

It has been one year since Elon Musk bought Twitter. Since then, the meaning of the social media service has changed — sometimes drastically — for many of the people who use it.

In interviews, Twitter users, content creators and social media experts said that what had once been a trusted news source for them now needed a more skeptical eye. Some said a delightful source of spontaneity, community and humor had turned far more combative. Others said they believed that Mr. Musk had set a heavily censored environment free.

“I really enjoyed the interaction between certain people,” said Lauren Brody, 54, a human resources manager in the San Francisco Bay Area and a longtime Twitter user. “Some of it would seem so spontaneous and delightful, sometimes a little scary, but you got to see different points of view.”

Now “I’ve seen a difference,” she added. “I’ve seen images that are not acceptable and a little scary. I try not to go down too many rabbit holes.”

What Twitter means to people transformed after Mr. Musk, who also runs Tesla and SpaceX, overhauled the service. He spent $44 billion on the platform with the aim of allowing more free speech on it and turning it into an “everything app” for conversations, payments, deliveries and more. He renamed it X, loosened its content moderation rules, eliminated the jobs of about 80 percent of its 7,500 employees and changed its authentication practices.

People now visit the site less frequently, according to data gathered by the digital intelligence firm Similarweb. Traffic to X’s website dropped 14 percent over the past year, even as the platform still ranks with Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat as the sites and apps that Americans visit most.

X did not respond to a request for comment. In a company meeting on Thursday to celebrate the deal’s anniversary, Mr. Musk said, “We’re rapidly transforming the company from what it was, sort of Twitter 1.0, to the everything app.” He added that X had about half a billion monthly users, according to audio heard by The New York Times.

The shift has been especially felt by users who found communities on Twitter. The platform was known for its subcultures, which based their nicknames on their unifying interests: Black Twitter for pop culture, comedy and activism; Weird Twitter for unhinged joke posts; K-pop Twitter for devotees of the music genre.

Some communities have now withered. Bryan William Jones, 53, a visual neuroscience professor at the University of Utah, used to chat with other academics and pursue his hobby of photography on Twitter. He found exciting scientific research shared with the hashtag #ICanHazPDF, and used the site to organize get-togethers with other photographers.

“It’s a small world, and Twitter made it way smaller, in all the best ways,” he said.

But many of the people in Dr. Jones’s Twitter communities have left over the past year, complaining about misinformation and spam, he said. He has also scaled back his use of X, he said, after becoming annoyed by ads for items like marijuana gummies and finding that the conversations he used to enjoy had quieted down.

Some users have tried to preserve stories about their experiences in A People’s History of Twitter, a project led by former Twitter employees and users to memorialize the time they spent there. At an event in March for the project, topics included “why we need a ‘people’s’ history” and “is the Twitter we depended on … gone?”

For others, Mr. Musk has changed X for the better. Twitter’s former leaders were overly censorious, they said, and Mr. Musk has been refreshingly transparent by revealing internal communications from the company’s prior managers and allowing suspended accounts to return.

“I can’t say I agree with the people who were censored before, but I’m incredibly offended that it was allowed to happen,” said Peter Wayner, a technology writer in Baltimore. “I can think for myself. I don’t need a Trust and Safety Council to do it for me.”

The biggest shift has been the loss of serendipitous moments — including romantic connections and exhilarating discoveries — that Twitter once generated, some users said.

Asawin Suebsaeng, 35, a political reporter for Rolling Stone, met his wife on Twitter nearly a decade ago. “It really gave you an advanced window into what kind of person you were dealing with — what her interests were, her sense of humor, her priorities, what makes her righteously angry,” he said.

Ted Han, a software developer in the San Francisco Bay Area, stopped for an early-morning coffee in Grand Junction, Colo., during a cross-country drive with his wife in 2015. He posted a photo on Twitter of a sculpture he saw in town, and a user he didn’t know responded, saying they recognized the location.

Mr. Han, now 41, said he had messaged back and forth with the stranger, who suggested that he take a particular exit off the highway once he reached Moab, Utah. Mr. Han and his wife ended up taking that route — and were stunned by the views of the Colorado River slicing through vivid orange canyon walls.

“That was one of those moments for me that was like, ‘Oh, this is exactly what Twitter is for,’” Mr. Han recalled.

Now, he said, he is wary about posting information about his whereabouts on X because of how heated the conversations on the platform have become.

“I’m less comfortable with what I share on Twitter and think twice,” he said.

Ryan Mac contributed reporting.