This story is based on interviews with people familiar with the events involved and supported by documents obtained by Platform.
At 2:36 a.m. Monday morning, James Musk sent an urgent message to Twitter engineers.
“We’re debugging an engagement issue on the platform,” wrote Musk, a cousin of the Twitter CEO, tagging “@here” in Slack to make sure everyone online would see it. “Anyone who can create dashboards and write software can please help solve this problem. It is very urgent. If you are willing to help, please put a thumbs up on this post.
When cloudy-eyed engineers started logging into their laptops, the nature of the emergency became clear: Elon Musk’s tweet about the Super Bowl got less engagement than President Joe Biden’s.
Biden’s tweet, in which he said he would support his wife in rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles, generated nearly 29 million impressions. Musk, who also tweeted his support for the Eagles, generated just over 9.1 million impressions before deleting the tweet in apparent frustration.
In the wake of those losses — the Eagles to the Kansas City Chiefs and Musk to the President of the United States — the Twitter CEO flew his private jet back to the Bay Area on Sunday night to demand answers from his team.
Within a day, the aftermath of that meeting would reverberate around the world, as Twitter users opened the app to find that Musk’s posts topped their ranked timeline. It was no coincidence, Platform can confirm: After Musk threatened to fire its remaining engineers, they built a system designed to ensure that Musk — and Musk alone — got unprecedented promotion of his tweets to the entire user base.
For the past few weeks, Musk has been obsessed with the number of engagements his posts are getting. Last week, Platform announced the news that he fired one of the company’s two remaining senior engineers after the engineer told him that views on his tweets were dwindling in part because interest in Musk had declined in general.
His deputies told the rest of the engineering team over the weekend that if the hiring issue wasn’t “resolved,” they would all lose their jobs as well.
Late Sunday night, Musk addressed his team in person. Around 80 people were mobilized to work on the project, which quickly became the company’s number one priority. Employees worked through the night to study various hypotheses about why Musk’s tweets weren’t reaching as many people as he thought and test possible solutions.
One possibility, according to the engineers, was that Musk’s range could have been reduced because he had been blocked and muted by so many people over the past few months. Even before the events of this weekend, Musk’s long stint as Twitter’s main character, both before and after his takeover of the company for $44 billion, had led many to comment on him. filter from their streams.
But there were also legitimate technical reasons why the CEO’s tweets weren’t working. Twitter’s system has always promoted tweets from users whose posts perform better for both followers and non-followers in the For You tab; Musk’s tweets should have matched this pattern, but appear less than about half the time some engineers thought they should, according to some internal estimates.
Monday afternoon, “the problem” had been “resolved”. Twitter has rolled out code to automatically “allow” all of Musk’s tweets, meaning his tweets will bypass Twitter’s filters designed to show people the best possible content. The algorithm now artificially boosted Musk’s tweets by a factor of 1,000 – a consistent score that ensured his tweets ranked higher than those of anyone else in the feed.
Internally, it’s called an “experienced user multiplier,” though it only applies to Elon Musk, we’re told. The code also allows Musk’s account to bypass Twitter’s heuristics that would otherwise prevent a single account from flooding the main classified feed, now known as “For You.”
That explains why people who opened the app on Monday found Musk dominating the feed, with a dozen or more Musk tweets and replies visible to everyone who followed him and millions more who didn’t. More than 90% of Musk’s followers now see his tweets, according to an internal estimate.
Musk acknowledged his timeline bombing on Tuesday afternoon, posting a version of the popular “forced to drink milk” even in which a woman tagged “Elon tweets” force-feeds another woman tagged “Twitter” while pulling her hair back.
Some of his tweets on Monday were sent while he was in communication with Twitter engineers, to test whether the solutions they had devised worked as well as he thought they should.
After Musk’s takeover of the timeline caused an uproar on Monday, he appeared to suggest the changes would be rolled back, at least in part. “Please stay tuned as we make adjustments to the uh…”algorithm”, he tweeted.
The artificial boosts applied to his account remain in place, even though the factor is now below 1,000, we are told. Musk’s handful of tweets on Tuesday garnered around 43 million impressions, which is at the high end of its recent average.
As absurd as Musk’s antics are, they highlight a tension familiar to almost anyone who’s ever used a social network: Why are some posts more popular than others? Why do I see this thing and not this one?
Service engineers like TikTok and Instagram can offer partial, high-level answers to these questions. But ranking algorithms make predictions based on hundreds or thousands of signals and send messages to millions of users, making it nearly impossible for anyone to accurately tell who is seeing what.
For better or for worse, that response wasn’t good enough for Musk. As Twitter’s largest user, with nearly 129 million followers, its posts often get 10 million or more impressions, according to Twitter. (There is good reason to doubt the accuracy of these countsbut better data are not readily available.)
But Musk’s view still fluctuates considerably. The bottle-feeding tweet got 118.4 million impressions; his neighbor, a joking observation previously posted on Reddit and satirically attributed to Abraham Lincoln, obtained 49.9 million. Some of his tweets earlier this month had less than 8 million.
The most obvious reason for this discrepancy is that people think some tweets are better than others. But this is not the case have to work like this: you can also change the ranking algorithms so that they show your posts no matter what.
Terrified of losing their jobs, this is the system Twitter engineers are building.
“He bought the company, made a point of showing what he believed was broken and manipulated under previous management, then turned around and manipulated the platform to force engagement from all users to no only hear his voice,” said a current employee. “I think we’re past the point of believing he actually wants what’s best for everyone here.”
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