What do Twitter and Meta firings mean for social media?

Could the firings mean the end of your favourite apps?  (Nick Ansell/PA)
Could the firings mean the end of your favourite apps? (Nick Ansell/PA)

It’s a turbulent time for social media. Twitter has fired a reported 3,700 staff, Snap has cut its workforce by a fifth, and Facebook owner Meta has confirmed 11,000 layoffs - 13 per cent of its global workforce.

This affects almost all of the biggest social media platforms. Meta owns Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp, while some interpret the moves Elon Musk is making with Twitter as the equivalent of flying a plane directly towards the ground. Musk himself has suggested Twitter could go bankrupt.

TikTok has issues of its own and has decreased its ad sales target by $2 billion. All this raises questions. Is the most lucrative age of social media over? Will your favourite platforms implode, leaving you to roam around on Tumblr like a lost soul?

All these layoffs are bad news for the quality of your online experience. As most moderators are being fired, threre’s likely to be an increase in Twitter trolls - and scammers. Already, there has been a huge increase in people claiming to be celebrities, with the blue-tick feature anybody’s for less than a tenner. Scammers are also impersonating businesses, to steal your details and raid your accounts. We will also see lots of features we had previously enjoyed disappearing. And, eventually, could this mean the end of social media as we know it?

Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on.

Why are all the big social media companies imploding?

Headlines from Twitter, Meta, and Snap about staff “layoffs” are part of a wider tech downturn that has been discussed for months. Microsoft announced an estimated 1,000 layoffs in October, for example.

This is in part caused by global economic conditions. But its effects on social media companies have been compounded by other factors.

Meta plans to invest a reported $100 billion in the metaverse concept over a five-year period. That is a lot of money, even for Meta. It’s an attempt to create, or find, the “next big thing” in tech, but what Meta has to show for it to date is largely awful and depressing — so uninspiring that even its own staff don’t seem interested. Facebook’s years of exponential growth are long behind it, and its use by younger generations has declined dramatically over the past half-decade.

Conversely, companies have suspended advertising on Twitter following its acquisition by Elon Musk. Advertising spending typically decreases in difficult economic conditions, and Musk has managed to make a difficult situation dramatically worse.

Will social media go further downhill?

One worry about this poor outlook for social media companies is the platforms will get actively worse: fewer new features, worse protections for users against the ever-growing threat of scams, and more horrible content slipping through the net due to cutbacks on content moderation.

Signs of the latter are, sadly, already appearing on Twitter — a platform already known for allowing fake news to be retweeted halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.

When Elon Musk slashed half of Twitter’s workforce, he apparently took out employees working on, amongst other things, human rights, machine-learning ethics, accountability, curation, and accessibility. More recently, it was reported that 80 per cent of its contractors were let go — of which a “significant portion” will be in content moderation, according to UCLA’s Dr Sarah Roberts.

For Twitter — a site already semi-affectionately dubbed “Hellsite” by its more avid users — things could get ugly fast, especially with the site now allowing anybody to get verification for $8 a month — something previously designed to help users identify legitimate sources.

Things look a little brighter for Facebook and Instagram — though that’s partly by way of comparison to Twitter’s very public scorched-Earth transformation.

It’s also because Meta has a lot more fat to cut beyond its core services of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. Two of the earliest reported casualties are in hardware: Portal — its video-conferencing cameras and smart screens — and an unreleased smartwatch. Similarly, Snap is said to be cutting teams working on tangential experiences like games and apps, as well as its hardware division.

The cancelled Meta Portal (Meta)
The cancelled Meta Portal (Meta)

But such cancellations can only take you so far, and what we don’t know is how many of the remaining cuts will also fall on the kinds of housekeeping that make the platforms a (comparatively) pleasant place to post.

In his post announcing the layoff, CEO Mark Zuckerberg simply stated that the company would be shifting resources onto “a smaller number of high-priority growth areas” including its AI discovery engine, advertising, and its big-picture Metaverse vision. Notably, there was no mention of user experience at all.

But even if moderation and customer services are left broadly untouched, features could still be scrapped as too unpopular and/or expensive to maintain.  Back in August, Meta announced its intention to shut down its “live shopping” feature after reportedly overestimating its value during the pandemic, for example.

Right now, Meta’s social media platforms feel significantly more stable than Twitter, under a stewardship that doesn’t publicly treat the task as a game or joke. However, we are clearly seeing a sea change in the way these platforms operate behind the scenes, testing the confidence of figureheads who have spent much of their lives being labelled geniuses. And it’s hard to believe that won’t impact the core experience one way or another.

Could any social media sites close?

Does Elon Musk’s acquistion of Twitter usher in the beginning of the end? (Brian Lawless/PA)
Does Elon Musk’s acquistion of Twitter usher in the beginning of the end? (Brian Lawless/PA)

It’s possible. While most sites don’t openly entertain such ideas until they’re inevitable, Elon Musk has suggested that Twitter — a company he claims was losing $4 million a day when he took over — may be heading towards bankruptcy. In an email sent to the company’s workforce, he ominously said that it may not be able to “survive the upcoming economic downturn”.

What would this mean? A company files for bankruptcy when it can no longer meet its financial obligations. And in a classic case the company goes into liquidation, it ceases operations, and its assets are sold off. In this scenario, that would be the end of Twitter.

However, Twitter could also file for a reorganisation bankruptcy, where Musk would carry on as a trustee and try to scrape together more money to keep Twitter afloat. This is known as a “chapter 11” bankruptcy in the US, and may be a more likely outcome if the worst happens and Musk is not simply using over-dramatic language.

Social media’s outlook

Austerity is a rather novel concept for these tech companies, and how they handle it will determine the future of these platforms and others.

A race for growth at all costs has left each social media giant vulnerable in its own way — something that will only be compounded if the troubled Online Safety Bill ever finds its way into UK law.

While brands with more to cut will likely weather the storm to some extent, whether they’ll have the same addictive pull for much longer remains to be seen.