When Elon met Twitter
Musk says he has big plans for the company. Employees wonder how he'll achieve them
Programming note: With this, I’ll be taking my annual summer break. If something truly wild happens, I may not be able to resist writing an emergency newsletter. But my plan is to rest, read, and recharge. Thanks to all of you who help make this solo operation a sustainable endeavor, and I’ll see you back here July 5.
Elon Musk appeared at a virtual town hall for Twitter employees on Thursday to answer their questions, and by the end of the session one question loomed larger than most: can you really run Twitter off the top of your head?
Over 60 or so freewheeling minutes, the world’s richest man fielded queries over remote work, layoffs, content moderation, and other questions of pressing interest to Twitter’s roughly 8,000 employees. Time and again, he offered workers hungry for concrete answers a jumble of sentence fragments.
Will Twitter’s mostly remote workforce be able to continue working from home? Maybe, if they’re “excellent,” Musk said, according to Bloomberg’s live blog. But it’s “much better if you are on location physically,” he said, according to the New York Times’ Mike Isaac.
What sort of content moderation policies will he support? “We should allow people to say what they want,” he said. But "it's important to make Twitter as attractive as possible," Musk said, according to Insider’s Kali Hays and Hugh Langley. "Really, that means not showing people content that they would find offensive. Or even frankly, boring, is not good. TikTok does a great job of making sure you're not bored."
What should Twitter become? A Chinese-style super app, like WeChat, he said. But also “entertaining,” like TikTok. But also payments, and also subscriptions. Somewhere in this hodgepodge of half-baked ideas, Musk said, is the recipe for Twitter to attract 1 billion users — about 770 million more than it has today.
I talked to a half-dozen or so employees after the meeting. Reactions were mixed but mostly negative. Musk won some points for sounding genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of owning and running Twitter, which had been in question since he began his war of attrition against the company’s board in an effort to renege on the $44 billion deal.
Mostly, though, employees told me that the conversation had reinforced the beliefs they had about Musk heading into the meeting. If I were to make a word cloud of employee responses, some bigger ones would be: incoherent; rambling; uninspiring.
(Also at one point Musk mentioned that he has seen no evidence of alien life, and no one really knew what to make of that.)
The people I spoke with know what it takes to run Twitter, having done so themselves for many years. And it was jarring, they said, to hear someone speak with so much confidence about a company that at best Musk is only beginning to understand.
Indeed, given the shallow nature of his thinking, it’s worth considering that the hour Musk spent with employees today might have been the longest sustained period he has thought about what it will mean run to Twitter since he bought it.
Questions selected for Musk to answer Thursday were notably non-threatening. No one was allowed to ask about his criticism of current Twitter executives, or of his efforts to blow up the deal he signed, or of the recent harassment allegations against him. He did get a question about potential layoffs, which he dodged, although he noted that Twitter is losing money and said “that’s not a great situation.” (Analysts believe Musk will likely cut about 20 percent of Twitter’s work force.)
And as employees continue to wonder what the acquisition will mean for them, Musk offered bong-rip platitudes about the future of civilization. “I want Twitter to contribute to a better, long-lasting civilization where we better understand the nature of reality,” he said.
If there was any hint of Musk’s intended management style embedded in all this, it came as part of an answer to whether he would take the title of CEO upon the deal’s close. Musk takes a mischievous approach to corporate titles — he is the “Techno King” of Tesla, and his chief financial officer is “master of coin” — and so the question was more than fair.
Regardless of his title, Musk does want to "drive the product in a particular direction" and intends to lead improvement on the platform's software, product, and design.
"I don't mind doing other things related to operating a company, but there are chores," he said. "I really just want to make sure that the product evolves rapidly and in a good way. I don't really care what title is, but obviously, people do need to listen to me."
I read Musk here to say: running a company as CEO requires that you pay a lot of attention to the details, which I have no interest in doing. But I will still make a lot of pronouncements about what the product should be, and — “obviously”! — “people do need to listen to me.”
I found this interesting because, if you talk to people who have worked directly with Musk at Tesla, this is exactly how he runs that company, too. Musk sets priorities, often based seemingly on little more than a whim, and the details and any technological breakthroughs that might be required to achieve them are left to his work force.
And so while one way of looking at Musk’s answers to Twitter employees today is that they are under-baked, it may be worth considering that this is as baked as some of them will ever get. “Figure out payments,” “make it more like TikTok,” “add 770 million users” — these seem to me like the sort of instructions that Musk’s new head of product might be given on day one. And whichever employees remain at their desks will be charged with making it so.
There are historical analogs for this kind of leadership — Steve Jobs is the obvious one — but there’s a reason why it’s relatively rare. Even-keeled, detail-oriented founders tend to outperform charismatic shamans in the long run, in part because they’re so much easier to work with. That’s good for recruitment, retention, and innovation.
And I think that’s even truer today than it was 20 years ago — it’s hard to imagine Jobs’ reputation surviving the Slack screenshot era. (“Personally I find it very disappointing that our CEO continues to park in spaces reserved for employees with disabilities”; 800 👍 reactions; 900 😤 reactions, etc.)
For years now, the easy rebuttal to this criticism of Musk has been the success of Tesla. And indeed, in many ways the company is marvel, selling as many cars as it can manufacture to the most satisfied customers in the entire auto industry.
But when I look at the growing number of investigations into its Autopilot assisted-driving software, I see the consequences of Musk’s “you figure it out” leadership. Musk makes the promise — full self driving! Coming this year! — and engineers scramble to make it a reality. And if they can’t, who will be brave enough to tell the Techno King? Might it not be easier to just ship it and deal with the consequences later?
But there are signs that this, too, is starting to fracture. On Thursday The Verge’s Loren Grush reported that employees at another Musk company, SpaceX, sent an open letter to their leadership denouncing Musk’s recent behavior. Grush writes:
The letter, reviewed by The Verge, describes how Musk’s actions and the recent allegations of sexual harassment against him are negatively affecting SpaceX’s reputation. […]
“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, particularly in recent weeks,” the letter states. “As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX — every Tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public statement by the company. It is critical to make clear to our teams and to our potential talent pool that his messaging does not reflect our work, our mission, or our values.”
The sheer force of Musk’s personality has carried him a long way. But watching him as stretch himself across ever more companies, while continuing to sow chaos via tweets, you wonder how long the act can go on. Tesla stock was down 8.5 percent today; it’s down 31 percent over the past six months. Even for a world’s richest man, the laws of gravity do occasionally apply.
Musk said he’ll be back for an encore Q&A with Twitter employees, and I’m sure they can’t wait. (“When he turned off his video at the end of the Q&A, his avatar appeared to be two hands in the shape of the number 69, an apparent reference to a sex position,” noted Reuters’ Sheila Dang.)
The employees I spoke with say they are doing their best to stay focused on work. Musk, no doubt, is focused on lowering the deal price. The future of Twitter hangs in the balance, and no one is less worried about it than Elon Musk. He has his whims, and they will be enough for now.
Elsewhere in Twitter: Twitter’s Disneyland offsite is canceled! Also it turns you can make people nicer on Twitter by having a bot ask them to.
The European Union overhauled its voluntary code against disinformation, to which the big social platforms are all signatories. They can be fined up to 6 percent of global revenue if they fail to act against deepfakes and other potential harms; they have also apparently committed to expanded data access for academic researchers? Great news if so. (Katie Collins / CNET)
The United States is funding at least three companies that provide virtual private networking services in an effort to get open internet access to Russian users. (James Pearson and Christopher Bing / Reuters)
The White House will launch a task force to examine ways to curb online abuse and harassment. What about a refreshed “Be Best” campaign? (Cat Zakrzewski / Washington Post)
Japan made “online insults” punishable by up to a year in prison. So will Twitter consider to exist in the country or … ? (Jessie Yeung, Emiko Jozuka and Kathleen Benoza / CNN)
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is raising $5 million for a nonprofit organization named Beyond the Screen whose goals include building a simulated social network that regulators, academics and practitioners can use to war-game different scenarios. I love that idea. (Mark Scott / Politico)
Facebook is receiving sensitive medical information from hospital websites via its tracking pixel. (Todd Feathers, Simon Fondrie-Teitler, Angie Waller, and Surya Mattu / The Markup)
I also messed up the link to yesterday’s story about Facebook tracking pixels and anti-abortion clinics; you can find the correct story here.
Mapbox was hit by a complaint by the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the company threatened workers with job losses during a contentious unionization effort last year. (Anna Kramer / Protocol)
No one really knows what effect banning political ads has had on platforms, thanks to a lack of research, but critics say the move has hurt smaller campaigns and Democrats, who tend to rely on more on small contributions. (Issie Lapowsky / Protocol)
Google “has offered to let rival ad intermediaries place ads on YouTube to address a crucial part of an EU antitrust investigation that could pave the way for it to settle the case without a fine.” (Foo Yun Chee / Reuters)
In case the “is LaMDA sentient” story wasn’t enough Google drama for you, here’s a lawsuit from a worker who says he was fired because he complained about the undue influence of an obscure religious sect on the company. (Cade Metz and Daisuke Wakabayashi / New York Times)
Researchers say that Republicans are misrepresenting a study that found Gmail marked more emails from right-wing candidates as spam. The study used brand-new inboxes that had no user behavior to rely on to interpret whether a message might be seen as spam. (Cristiano Lima / Washington Post)
Snap is testing a premium service called Snapchat Plus to give power users early access to features. (Mitchell Clark and Alex Heath / The Verge)
Snapchat is testing comments in Spotlight, its TiKTok clone. They’ll be private by default; creators can highlight replies that they like. (Sarah Fischer / Axios)
Reddit bought the machine-learning platform Spell for an undisclosed amount. (Taylor Hatmaker / TechCrunch)
A look at Andy Jassy’s first year as CEO of Amazon, which has coincided with one of the worst stretches of financial performance in the company’s history. (Dana Mattioli / Wall Street Journal)
After Tinder was banned in Pakistan in 2020, matchmaking groups on Facebook exploded in popularity. (Javeria Khalid / Rest of World)
Ethereum miners are upset about a planned move to a proof-of-stake model, as it will make their expensive rigs worthless. (Olga Kharif and David Pan / Bloomberg)
Those good tweets
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