Whither Twitter

Twitter has occupied an embarrassingly large part of my online existence since the spring of 2008–a span of years that somehow exceeds my active tenure on Usenet. But the past two weeks of Twitter leave me a lot less certain about how much time I will or should spend on that service.

I did not have high expectations in April when Elon Musk–who, never forget, already has two full-time jobs at just Tesla and SpaceX–offered to buy Twitter. He had already revealed a low-resolution understanding of content moderation on social platforms but took the advice of a clique of tech bros and told Twitter’s board that he had the answers: “Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it.”

Photo of Twitter's site showing the "fail whale" error graphic and a "Twitter is over capacity" message, as seen in a phone's Web browser at CES 2010.

Seeing Musk then spend months and what could be $100 million in legal fees trying to squirm out of his accepted, above-market offer of $54.20 a share did not elevate those expectations.

Just before a court case he probably would have lost, Musk gave in, threw $44 billion ($13 billion borrowed) on the table and took over Twitter on Oct. 28. He quickly sacked a handful of top executives before firing about half of the workforce with careless cruelty. One friend figured he’d gotten canned when he couldn’t log into his work laptop.

Things have skidded downhill since. On Twitter, Musk keeps showing himself an easy mark for far-right conspiracy liars and the phony complaints of online trolls; in its offices, he’s ordered a rushed rollout of an $8/month subscription scheme that grants the blue-circled checkmark of a verified account, on the assumption that credit-card payment processors will catch fraudsters.

The predictable result: a wave of fake but “verified” accounts impersonating the likes of Eli Lilly, Nintendo, George W. Bush, Lockheed Martin, Telsa and Musk himself.

Also predictable: Twitter advertisers reacting to this chaos and their fear of wobbly content moderation (rejected by Musk) by smashing the Esc key on their spending plans until they can figure out what’s going on. Musk has responded by whining that companies pausing ad campaigns amounts to them “trying to destroy free speech in America.”

As for legacy verified accounts like my own, Musk has oscillated from saying that they’d require the same $8/month charge to suggesting they’d continue to saying they will be dropped–while also introducing, yanking and then resurfacing gray-checkmark icons for certain larger organizations over a 36-hour period. Oh, and not paying your $8 a month might mean your tweets fall down a bit bucket.

After a Thursday that saw Twitter’s chief information security officer, chief privacy officer, and chief complaince officer resign by early morning, Musk told the remaining employees at an all-hands meeting that “Bankruptcy isn’t out of the question.” Since Twitter now owes more than $1 billion a year in interest on the debt from Musk’s acquisition, that warning seems reasonable.

I am not writing this out of schadenfreude. As much as Twitter can drive me nuts (what is it with the militantly stupid people in my replies?), I’ve found it enormously helpful as a public notebook, a shortcut to subject-matter experts, an on-demand focus group, and an ongoing exercise in short-form prose. As (I think) my Washington Post colleague Frank Ahrens once observed, Twitter lets journalists write the New York City tabloid headlines we couldn’t get away with in our own newsrooms.

A "Keep Calm and Tweet #ONA12" badge from the 2012 Online News Association conference.

If Twitter really does implode, which now seems a much more real possibility even if a roundtrip through Chapter 11 is more likely, I don’t know how I’d replace it.

Many of the people I follow there are advancing evacuation plans on a federated, non-commercial, somewhat confusing social platform–not Usenet, but Mastodon.

I have taken tentative steps to do likewise, in the sense that I created one account on the well-known server Mastodon.Social and then realized I’d created a separate account on the xoxo.zone server in 2018 after hearing Mastodon talked up at a meetup during the XOXO conference in Portland. Now I need to decide which account to keep and which one to migrate, and indecision over that makes it easier to stay on Twitter and watch it burn.

Meanwhile, seeing Musk’s stark, public display of incompetence continues to leave me baffled when I compare that to the Musk venture I know best, SpaceX. If Musk ran SpaceX this impulsively and with this little willingness to learn from others, multiple launch pads at Cape Canaveral would be smoking holes in the ground.

Instead, SpaceX is the leading provider of launch services in the world, sending Falcon 9 rockets to space and landing their first stages for reuse on a better-than-weekly basis. “Transformational” is not too strong of a word for what SpaceX has accomplished since it first orbited a prototype Dragon capsule in December of 2010; this part of Musk’s career ought to be Presidential Medal of Freedom material, with bipartisan applause.

(I got to see that reentry-singed Dragon capsule up close in July of 2011 when NASA hosted a Tweetup at the Kennedy Space Center for the final Space Shuttle launch, yet another experience I owe in some way to Twitter.)

I keep hoping that I will see this sort of steely-eyed focus in Musk’s stewardship of Twitter. Instead, he appears to be off to an even worse start than I could have imagined. And I can imagine quite a bit.

Weekly output: 5G IoT security worries, Big Ten carriage deals, House of the Dragon streaming glitches, Netflix + ads, Russian digital attacks on Ukraine, YouTube TV, Thursday Night Football, Xfinity Mobile, NBC Sports Washington, non-TV video viewing, Plex breach, video budgets, FuboTV, LotR: Rings of Power, SpaceX + T-Mobile

Monday’s schedule has three big items on it: the Space Launch System’s Artemis I liftoff, our kid starting seventh grade, and my flying across the Atlantic for the IFA electronics trade show in Berlin for the first time since 2019. They’re all pretty exciting, although one of them has a vastly more detailed checklist.

(The IFA organizers are covering most of the travel costs for an invited group of U.S. journalists and analysts, your blogger here included.)

Screenshot of story as seen in Safari on an iPad mini 5.8/22/2022: The next wave of wireless security worries: API-driven IoT devices, Light Reading

My Black Hat coverage continued with this recap of a talk about the possible security risks of connected devices on 4G and 5G networks.

8/22/2022: NBCUniversal and its Peacock streamer get Big Ten Saturday night, FierceVideo

I spent my mornings this week filling in at my video trade-pub client, starting with this post about a sweeping deal for college-sports carriage rights.

8/22/2022: Some Fire TV users fired up over streaming glitches with HBO Max, FierceVideo

Some House of the Dragon viewers had trouble watching the Game of Thrones prequel on Amazon Fire TV devices.

8/22/2022: Report: Netflix to keep new movies and kids’ shows ad-free, FierceVideo

I can imagine the relief of cash-strapped parents on learning that the upcoming cheaper-with-ads version of Netflix won’t feature ads in kid-oriented content.

8/23/2022: Six months into the war, how have Ukraine and its Western allies resisted Russia’s digital tactics?, Fast Company

I was almost done with this piece when I got the chance to quiz TCP/IP co-author Vint Cerf at a Washington event about how Russia has abused his creation.

8/23/2022: YouTube TV to add YouTube Shorts and four-channel viewing, FierceVideo

This lede essentially wrote itself: “YouTube TV’s shorter-attention-span viewers may applaud (albeit briefly) two new features apparently coming to the streaming video service.”

8/23/2022: DirecTV-Amazon deal keeps Thursday Night Football in bars, FierceVideo

This story about NFL rights is really one about the uneven availability of broadband in the U.S.

8/23/2022: Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile Cuts Rates for Subscribers With 2 or 3 Lines, PCMag

Verifying the fine print in Xfinity Mobile’s plans took a surprisingly long time.

8/24/2022: Comcast sells D.C. RSN to Monumental Sports & Entertainment, FierceVideo

After I wrote this, the Washington Post reported that MSE founder Ted Leonsis is preparing a bid to buy the Washington Nationals.

8/24/2022: 59% of U.S. adults watch video daily on non-TV devices, FierceVideo

I wrote up a survey of video-viewing habits.

8/24/2022: Plex reports data breach, tells users to reset passwords, FierceVideo

It was somewhat nice to write about a data breach that didn’t involve me.

8/25/2022: Survey: 26% of U.S. households have cut video budgets, FierceVideo

This survey found that Americans’ biggest money-saving move was dining out less often.

8/26/2022: Fubo adds slate of Cinedigm FAST lifestyle channels, FierceVideo

I noted that the streaming-TV provider Fubo’s list of channels is now as long as the average cable company’s.

8/26/2022: WSJ: Amazon spends $715 million on The Rings of Power, FierceVideo

I would have written this piece faster if I hadn’t spent so much time finding Lord of the Rings references to drop into it.

8/26/2022: T-Mobile to Expand Coverage With the Help of SpaceX’s Starlink Satellites, PCMag

A very long Thursday wrapped up with me writing a version of this post from an advance copy of the joint SpaceX/T-Mobile announcement, then rewriting it that night after watching the stream of the event.

Weekly output: Starlink, spectrum coordination, flight delays (x2), T-Mobile and Verizon 5G home broadband, Mark Vena podcast

About one year later than I’d planned, I’m flying to Las Vegas Tuesday to cover the Black Hat information-security conference. Two big factors in my deciding to go ahead with that trip this year: My kid is now vaccinated and boosted, while I had Covid barely seven weeks ago.

8/2/2022: SpaceX’s Starlink has soared, but a course correction may be on the horizon, Fast Company

More weeks ago than I’d like to admit, one of my editors asked if I could do a more in-depth look at the progress of SpaceX’s Starlink low-Earth-orbit broadband constellation. A day after this piece ran, Reddit’s ever-informative r/starlink served up new evidence of capacity issues at this service: a new rate plan in France that cuts the monthly rate in half but imposes a 250 GB threshold for possible speed deprioritization.

8/2/2022: 2 Key Federal Telecom Agencies Promise to Play Nice With Wireless Spectrum, PCMag

Two federal offices about two miles apart in D.C. pledged to work better together in spectrum planning. That might seem like an obvious thing to do, but the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration last updated this memorandum of understanding in 2003.

Story as seen in Chrome on a Pixel 5a phone, showing its lead illustration: a photo of people waiting on line at an airport.8/3/2022: Don’t Get Stranded: How to Watch for Flight Delays and Get Around Them, PCMag

A discussion on PCMag’s Slack workspace about coping with travel hiccups led to me asking if I could write this story, and not just because I’d like to recoup my added travel costs from my unplanned extra night in Toronto in June.

8/3/2022: How Verizon ‘fixed wireless’ and T-Mobile home broadband is converting cable customers, USA Today

After a reality-check interview with an analyst who reminded me that fiber scales so much better to meet demand than fixed wireless can, this column on the progress of T-Mobile and Verizon’s 5G-based home broadband got a bit less enthusiastic about its potential.

8/4/2022: S02 E32 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

My main contribution to this discussion was talking about my Starlink story, but if you watch the video of the podcast you can also see me scowl at a Lightning cable.

8/5/2022: DOT Moves to Strengthen Rules on Refunds for Flight Changes, Cancellations, PCMag

Speaking of travel delays, I returned to the subject to cover a set of proposed Department of Transportation rules that would clarify what counts as a significant schedule change and a cancelled flight–and require either non-expiring trip credits or straight-up refunds for travel canceled because of a future pandemic.

Weekly output: inflight WiFi (x2), cheaper broadband, Google I/O, Texas social-media law, DEA data-portal hack, Twitter mourns Shireen Abu Akleh, SpaceX recap

BOISE–For the second year in a row, I’m on the road for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project. And this time the work has taken me much farther from home: After completing the network drive testing I started here after arriving Sunday afternoon, I’m heading to Seattle, Portland and then the Bay Area before flying home.

5/9/2022: Wi-Fi on the plane: Here’s how in-flight connectivity is changing (and costing), USA Today

I know everybody loves to complain about the unreliable state of inflight WiFi, but I see two positive trends worth a little applause: flat-rate pricing and free use of messaging apps.

5/9/2022: White House Lines Up 20 ISPs to Offer Free 100Mbps Broadband to Qualifying Households, PCMag

I wrote up the Biden administration’s announcement of a partnership with 20 Internet providers that will lower service costs to zero for households eligible for the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program–and noted how this deal’s ban on data caps make some of these companies’ existing broadband plans look even worse.

5/10/2022: Wi-Fi on the plane: Here’s how in-flight connectivity is changing (and costing), This Morning with Gordon Deal

The business-news radio show had me on talk about recent developments in using the Internet from a chair in the sky.

Screenshot of story as seen in Safari on an iPad mini 55/12/2022: Here are the 4 most surprising takeaways from the first day of Google’s I/O conference, Fast Company

Part of the keynote that opened Google’s I/O conference reminded me of today’s Apple, while another part evoked a previous decade’s Microsoft.

5/12/2022: US Appeals Court Rules Social Media Content Moderation Should Be Restricted, PCMag

I wrote about an unexplained and inexplicable ruling by a panel of federal judges that allowed a blatantly unconstitutional Texas law to take effect. My post had its own inexplicable error: I linked to the wrong one-page ruling and therefore named the wrong judges. No readers yelled at me about the mistake before I realized it on my own, but I feel stupid about it anyway.

5/12/2022: Hackers Reportedly Gain Access to Drug Enforcement Administration Data Portal, PCMag

My old Washington Post pal Brian Krebs had a scoop about what seems to be a massive data breach made possible by poor security practices, which I wrote up while adding some context about the White House’s recent moves to improve federal infosec.

5/12/2022: Twitter reactions to Shireen Abu Akleh’s death, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me on Thursday night to discuss how Twitter reacted to the horrible news of their correspondent being shot and killed, apparently by Israeli soldiers, while reporting in the West Bank.

5/13/2022: Here’s How Close We Came to Relying on the Russians for ISS Trips, PCMag

I spent Thursday afternoon in D.C. at Ars Technica’s Ars Frontiers conference, and an insightful interview of former NASA deputy administrator by that estimable news site’s space reporter Eric Berger yielded this recap.

Weekly output: Nielson streaming-spend study, Apple TV+ + MLB, SpaceX so far, FIFA+, Netflix double thumbs-up, CNN+ viewership, VR interest, Stellantis + Qualcomm, Mark Vena podcast, new Amazon CEO shareholder letter

Happy Easter! I hope this holiday’s message of reborn life resonates in Ukraine in particular.

(Patreon FYI: Readers there got a bonus post about a few shopping tactics that can let you buy an Apple gadget below list price.)

4/11/2022: Nielsen study shows most streaming viewers spend $30 or less, FierceVideo

I spent the first three days of the week filling in at my trade-pub video-industry client, starting with this writeup of some Nielsen research.

4/11/2022: Apple TV+ debuts Friday Night Baseball, FierceVideo

I used this post to share my own review of Apple’s baseball-coverage venture, as viewed during Friday’s Nationals-Mets game.

Fast Company SpaceX history post4/12/2022: How SpaceX came to dominate the launch business, Fast Company

I knew that a lot of aerospace-establishment types were skeptical of SpaceX a dozen years ago, but digging up their actual quotes was something else.

4/12/2022: FIFA makes a new bid for soccer fans with FIFA+ streaming, FierceVideo

If any sports organization can afford to bankroll a streaming service and then let anybody watch for free, it would be FIFA.

4/12/2022: Netflix adds double-thumbs-up option for rave reviews, FierceVideo

Remember: Don’t call this new Netflix review option “two thumbs up,” because that’s a trademarked Ebert & Siskel phrase.

4/13/2022: Report cites fewer than 10,000 daily viewers for CNN+, FierceVideo

Maybe CNN’s subscription streaming service would have more paying viewers if the news was less depressing?

4/13/2022: Adults remain uninterested in VR live events, FierceVideo

The Morning Consult survey that I wrote up referred to virtual reality as “the metaverse,” but I was not going to use Facebook’s preferred word in the headline or lede if I could help it.

4/14/2022, Stellantis Partners With Qualcomm for 5G-Connected Cars, PCMag

Writing up this connected-car news allowed me to use some leftover notes from Qualcomm’s Tech Summit and then from CES.

4/14/2022: S02 E16 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I joined this podcast (also available in video form) via my laptop, once again using my phone’s camera in place of the laptop’s webcam.

4/15/2022: In First Shareholder Letter, Amazon CEO Sticks With the Bezos Playbook, PCMag

I made a point of noting the things new Amazon CEO Andy Jassy didn’t mention in his first letter to shareholders.

Weekly output: space tourism, Netflix sharing, FedEx drone delivery, trans-Atlantic data privacy, App Store attacks (x2), new ISP deals excluding old customers, DoD cybersecurity rules of engagement

My published work this week includes one story about people in space and another about robots in the sky.

Story as seen in Safari on an iPad mini and showing its illustration, a close-up of the Inspiration4 badge on a SpaceX space suit3/28/2022: Will SpaceX, Blue Origin, or Virgin Galactic ever be affordable?, Fast Company

Covering the Satellite 2022 trade show in D.C. two weeks ago both allowed me to interview somebody who’s experienced suborbital space flight and write this post about the prospects of more people being able to have that experience–if they can write a sufficiently large check.

3/29/2022: Using Someone Else’s Netflix Account? You’re Not Alone, PCMag

I wrote up a survey that found that 15 percent of Netflix viewers watch for free on somebody else’s subscription.

3/30/2022: FedEx Teases Texas Drone-Delivery Demo, PCMag

The embargoed copy of this announcement specified a flight test around Dallas, but the final copy of the release left out that geographic detail.

3/30/2022: The new trans-Atlantic data agreement puts E.U. priorities first, Fast Company

This explainer went farther into the policy weeds than I’ve gone in a while.

3/30/2022: Dutch Class-Action Seeks Almost $5.6B From Apple for App Store Overcharges, PCMag

The first of two posts about Apple’s App Store control covered a pending class-action lawsuit in the Netherlands–where Apple is asking for trouble with insultingly greedy responses to regulators’ demands that it let dating apps opt out of Apple’s in-app billing and its cut of 15 or 30 percent.

3/31/2022: Apple Finally Lets ‘Reader’ Apps Link Out to Sign-Up Pages, PCMag

The second post covered an overdue and still inadequate App Store liberalization move by Apple. Yes, I enjoyed the chance to throw in a comparison to 1995-vintage AOL.

4/1/2022: New deals for existing customers? AT&T, Charter and Spectrum make getting better rates hard., USA Today

This column originally ran with a headline that named Comcast; although large and seemingly unfeeling telecom conglomerates can start to look alike, that cable company did not figure in my story.

4/2/2022: Biden Admin May Roll Back Trump Policy on Military Cyber-Offensive Operations, PCMag

Writing this got me up to speed with an episode of questionable executive-branch conduct under the previous administration that I’d missed.

Weekly output: SpaceX and Polaris, AMC earnings, Mark Vena podcast, 3G shutdowns

Best part of this holiday weekend: seeing one of my best friends from college for the first time since the fall of 2019.

In other news, this week’s bonus for Patreon subscribers was a peek at how I redid my smartphone battery-life testing routine for an upcoming review.

Screenshot of Fast Company story as seen in Safari on an iPad mini, illustrated with a photo of a SpaceX launch. 2/16/2022: How SpaceX’s new mission hopes to improve life here on Earth, Fast Company

Writing this post about an upcoming chapter in private space travel gave me an excuse to revisit one of the lesser-known chapters of NASA’s 1960s history, which is always good.

2/16/2022: AMC tops 9 million streaming subscribers as 2021 revenue hits record high, FierceVideo

AMC Networks’ earnings call was easier to transcribe than most, thanks to the executives on the call not being all White guys.

2/17/2022: S02 E07 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

For the first time in a month, this podcast (also available in video form) had its full cast of characters: our industry-analyst host plus me and my fellow tech scribes John Quain and Stewart Wolpin.

2/20/2022: Alarmageddon? Home security, medical device makers worry 3G is being shut down too soon, USA Today

When I started researching this story, the prospect of AT&T shutting down its 3G network on the 22nd didn’t seem like it could cause that much trouble. But that’s why you do the reporting before the writing.

Weekly output: smartphone plans, online misinformation, Twitter perceptions, SpaceX Starship, cord cutting stats, online-privacy bill

I have a short workweek followed by my first family-reunion Thanksgiving in two years.

Patreon readers got an extra post this week: a look at my attempts to ensure that the panels on which I speak aren’t filled out by people who look more or less like me.

Wirecutter phone-plans guide, as seen in Chrome on a Pixel 3a Android phone11/15/2021 The Best Cell Phone Plans, Wirecutter

This update–the first substantial revision to this guide since the summer of 2020–should not have taken this long, but it’s been a trying year for everybody.

11/15/2021: How Do You Combat Online Misinformation? Katie Couric, Prince Harry Have Some Ideas, PCMag

I wrote about a report on online misinformation from an unusual group of experts.

11/15/2021: We Read Twitter for Entertainment, Trust It for News (Unless We Vote Republican), PCMag

This post covered a pair of Pew Research Center studies about people’s attitudes towards Twitter. The most susprising finding: how many Twitter users misunderstood their own privacy settings.

11/18/2021: Elon Musk’s Starship rocket may launch to orbit in January, Fast Company

The SpaceX founder was scheduled to speak for 30 minutes but spent more than twice as much time at this virtual National Academy of Science meeting. I could have filed a vastly longer story, but I didn’t want to write myself into a bad per-word rate.

11/18/2021: Cord Cutting’s Latest Toll: 1.34 Million Legacy Pay-TV Subscribers Gone, PCMag

I decided to write up this report on pay-TV subscriptions by comparing the numbers involved to cities. Hence: “The top seven cable operators combined to lose 700,500 subscribers, a figure you may find easier to visualize as ‘almost the population of Denver’.”

11/19/2021: Who Owns Your Data? Calif. Congresswomen Try Again With Online Privacy Act, PCMag

The Online Privacy Act reintroduced by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D.-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D.-Calif.) seems to get a lot of things right, but it lands in a Congress that seems singularly incapable of passing even incremental privacy upgrades.

Weekly output: space tech, Fox earnings

Not going to Las Vegas for Black Hat deprived me of some conference receptions (excluding those that got canceled on account of the resurgent pandemic) and also reminded me of a failure mode specific to virtual events. As in, a speaker’s presentation stalled out on one slide, but he didn’t realize that because he apparently didn’t check the online chat and there was no IRL audience to say “next slide!” at increasing levels of volume.

8/3/2021: CES and Space Tech, Clubhouse

I finally opened my mouth on the audio-room app to chat about the intersections of private space-launch firms and next year’s CES with my space-nerd pal Doug Mohney. We had exactly one person show up in the audience, which I guess means we should have led off with cryptocurrency and blockchains.

Screengrab of FierceVideo post as seen in Chrome on an Android phone.8/4/2021: Fox touts Tubi in quarterly earnings, FierceVideo

Fierce asked me to fill in to write up Fox’s quarterly earnings. I found it weirdly fascinating to hear Fox execs voice total confidence in their prospects, pandemic or not–even though some of the most-watched Fox News hosts have repeatedly questioned the utility of mass vaccination against the coronavirus. (I made sure to include that angle in the story.) I hope people who have been suggesting that an ad boycott will bring Fox to its knees will read this story or one like it and be reminded of how much money this company makes from affiliate fees collected from every pay-TV subscriber, even those who never watch a second of Fox News.

Weekly output: Gmail storage management, ShowStoppers TV, Starlink reality check, ClearStory Connects

Happy Fourth! This year’s Independence Day is so much better than last year’s.

Screenshot of column as seen in USAT's iPad app6/28/2021: With Google’s new limit on free data storage, don’t forget your Gmail inbox. It could be stuffed, USA Today

This column started, as many do, with tech support for a relative: My mom was nearing the 15-gigabyte cap on her Google account, and almost all of that was the fault of various e-mail marketers unwilling to shut up.

6/28/2021: MWC 2021, ShowStoppers

I emceed this virtual demo event for companies looking to get some publicity out of this year’s mostly-virtual Mobile World Congress trade show. It was fun, but I would have rather been in Barcelona.

6/30/2021: Elon Musk says Starlink’s satellite internet is probably not for you, Fast Company

My own MWC coverage consisted of this writeup of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s reality-check interview at MWC (he also appeared remotely), in which he splashed cold water on some Starlink hopes while also not addressing a few concerns about that low-Earth-orbit satellite-broadband network.

7/2/2021: ClearStory Connects, ClearStory International

This Dublin-based PR firm had me on a video call to talk about my work and what I find works and doesn’t work in tech marketing. Spoiler alert: The “any interest?” follow-up remains unlikely to close any deals for me.