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Why some tech CEOs are rooting for Musk
They're skeptical of their workers, too. PLUS: New details on Musk's 'general amnesty' for banned Twitter users
After a long weekend away, today let’s talk about the largely positive reception that Elon Musk’s radical remaking of Twitter is getting from tech CEOs — and whether those views are likely to change if the fight that Musk is picking with Apple erodes even more value from his $44 billion purchase.
I. The CEO’s revenge
Last week, Musk publicly mocked Twitter’s somewhat notorious “Stay Woke” T-shirts. The shirts, which the company produced in 2016 after police killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, were considered suspect even at the time. In those days, it was the left rolling its eyes — particularly after then-CEO Jack Dorsey wore the shirt during a Code Conference interview, giving the impression that a phrase that had originated within the Black community in response to systematic oppression had been co-opted by white corporate marketers.
Several million news cycles later, though, it’s the right roaring with laughter at the shirts Musk found in the closet of Twitter headquarters. To them, “woke” is a signifier of liberalism run amok — a totalitarian zeal for diversity and inclusion that results in censorship and oppression for those who refuse to play along. Earlier this year, Musk complained that “the woke mind virus” threatened to destroy civilization; to find a closet full of shirts encouraging people to stay woke at his own company, then, was something of a smoking gun.
Of course, to frame Twitter’s 2016 swag as a kind of retroactive admission of guilt erases a significant amount of relevant cultural history: of the historic importance of Black Twitter to making the service culturally relevant; of Silicon Valley’s mostly terrible track record at hiring people outside the non-white, non-male norm; of 2016 as a turning point when Twitter began to stand with the users of its platform who were most likely to be targets of harassment and abuse, rather than to ignore their plight.
One reason the right has found so much joy in Musk’s takeover of Twitter is the fantasy that you could erase that history, just as easily as you can throw a bunch of old T-shirts away. To them, Dorsey represented a new, bad way of doing business, dropping everything to go protest in his home state, explicitly linking his businesses (if only symbolically) to fights for justice and equality. And Musk represents a good, old way of doing business: ignoring everything but his principles, his product roadmap, and his path to profitability.
Set aside for the moment that this vision of Musk — clear-headed, focused, stable — is largely at odds with the man who has been running Twitter for the past few weeks. That Musk might be this person has proven to be hugely influential for some of his fellow CEOs, and the ramifications of his leadership could resonate across the tech industry for some time to come.
Take David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the web development framework Ruby on Rails and co-founder of Basecamp. Last year, Platformer reported on how Hansson and Basecamp CEO Jason Fried banned “societal and political discussions” on the company’s internal forums after employees formed a diversity, equity, and inclusion council and began to complain about some of its practices.
Last week, Heinemeier Hansson published a blog post titled “the waning days of DEI’s dominance.” In part, the post is a tribute to Musk. Heinemeier Hansson writes:
The DEI movement has lost control of Twitter, which served as the main instrument to run ideological enforcement in the corporate sphere. The threat of Twitter mobs ensured quick compliance from corporate executives, and other figures of power, lest the pitchforks be aimed at their necks.
But now Twitter is owned by Elon Musk. A fact that has fundamentally altered the balance of power on the platform.
For executives who have been looking for an excuse to stop pretending that they care about diversity issues, then, Musk seems to be providing huge inspiration.
Musk seems to be proving similarly inspirational to CEOs who believe their employees have grown too lazy, too coddled, too opinionated about their workplaces. On November 16, the same day Musk asked Twitter’s remaining employees to sign an oath pledging to work long hours or resign, former PayPal CEO and Facebook crypto guy David Marcus tweeted:
Marcus has plenty of company in being annoyed at the entitlement of some tech employees; countless rank-and-file tech workers have told us stories about one outrageous request or another that one of of their peers made at an all-company meeting.
But it’s worth pausing on why workers have felt free to ask questions like this over the past decade. At the former Facebook, where Marcus worked and this incident took place, the company was generating an estimated $1.6 million in revenue per employee last year. Talented engineers had their pick of companies to work for. That gave them power — to demand better toilet paper, yes, but also to protest payouts to executives accused of sexual misconduct, or compliance with China’s censorship regime, or funding transphobic comedy.
Watching Musk remake Twitter in his image, some executives are positively giddy as they imagine a world in which all of these issues can be dismissed out of hand — and the employees responsible can be dismissed along with them.
If you’re an executive who has grown increasingly frustrated by the work culture of the past half-decade or so — and of the often skeptical tone of the journalism that has chronicled the tech industry during that time — Musk’s sledgehammer tactics must feel like a balm. These leaders only fantasized about firing their most vocal internal critics; Musk went out and did it. Often without even knowing what job those workers did!
Most CEOs won’t adopt Musk’s tactics outright. But some, like Heinemeier Hansson, will implement smaller-scale versions of it. In important ways, Musk has broadened their sense of what might be possible.
This will be particularly true if Musk’s Twitter succeeds after eliminating the majority of its workforce. As Ben Thompson noted today at Stratechery. “If Twitter can cut their workforce by two thirds (or even more, if you include contractors), then investors will start raising a lot of questions about how many employees other tech companies have, even after the current wave of layoffs. Indeed, you could see PE firms looking to acquire companies, confident they can slash costs to pay off the debt necessary.”
And if it doesn’t work? Musk’s management style seems likely to prove influential anyway. Some tech executives have long sought an excuse to begin unwinding some of the leverage that their workforce gained in the roaring 2010s. As the economy weakens, Musk’s full-throated embrace of austerity measures may have given them one.
II. The Big Bang
Can Musk succeed, though?
From his project to reinstate banned users to picking a fight with Apple, the billionaire seems to be making it harder on himself every day.
As with his decision to restore the account of Donald Trump, Musk put the question of “a general amnesty” to a Twitter poll. “Should Twitter offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam?” he asked, the day before Thanksgiving. Some 72.4 percent of respondents – some of which were likely bots – said yes. “The people have spoken,” Musk proclaimed the next day. “Amnesty begins next week. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.”
Internally, the poll set off a now-familiar chain of events. Employees learned of the amnesty as they read Musk’s tweets, tried to interpret what they meant (which laws? What constitutes egregious spam?), and quickly started carrying out his commands. Just one week earlier, employees had scrambled to reinstate Trump after Musk conducted a similarly unscientific poll. Now, they would need to revive thousands more.
In fact, since Musk’s poll, Twitter has begun the process of reinstating roughly 62,000 accounts with more than 10,000 followers, Platformer has learned, including one account that has over 5 million followers, and 75 accounts with over 1 million followers. (The identities of the accounts could not be learned before press time.) Internally, employees have referred to this event as “the Big Bang.”
The project could cause more instability at Twitter at a time when the company is hemorrhaging engineering talent, according to current employees. Each reinstatement requires Twitter to rebuild a social graph, activating data on who the account follows and who follows the account. For large accounts like Trump’s, with 88 million followers, that’s millions of lists that Twitter has to update and maintain.
The move also comes the same week that Musk plans to relaunch Twitter Blue, allowing anyone to buy a verified badge for $8 a month. An internal document about the launch, designed for employees in sales, says that impersonations have been “extremely rare,” despite all evidence to the contrary.
“We anticipated early efforts like this from bad actors, and we are adapting dynamically to prevent and detect them,” the document reads. What about “large scale coordinated misinformation attacks funded by wealthy organizations or governments?” the document asks. “Large-scale bad actors would also require a huge supply of unique credit card numbers and mobile phones,” the document says. “As we detect and suspend these, the logistical hurdles to re-offend at scale become insurmountable.”
Between the coming Big Bang and the remaining potential for brand impersonation, though, advertisers remain deeply skeptical. As they pull their spending from Twitter, Musk has called several CEOs to “berate” them for abandoning the platform, according to the Financial Times.
The latest betrayal, by Apple, appears to have cut Musk particularly deep. (Apple was Twitter’s single largest brand advertiser, according to the Washington Post, responsible for $48 million in spending in the first quarter alone.)
Earlier today, Musk tweeted that Apple had “mostly” stopped advertising on Twitter. “Do they hate free speech in America?” he asked. He followed up by asking Apple CEO Tim Cook to explain himself.
The chances that the even-keeled Cook would respond to a drive-by assault from Musk on Twitter seem vanishingly small. Amid Cook’s silence, Musk posted follow-up tweets alleging that Apple has threatened to remove Twitter from the App Store, and criticizing the 30 percent fee the iPhone maker charges app developers on some of their revenues.
Behind the scenes, Musk has also continued to antagonize his own engineers. In an email late last night, the CEO said employees should prepare for another round of “code reviews” this week. (Last week’s “code reviews” served as a pretext to lay off yet more engineering talent, particularly on machine-learning teams.)
“As a reminder, all managers are expected to write a meaningful amount of software themselves,” he added. “Being unable to do so is like a cavalry captain who can’t ride a horse.”
Current employees say Musk is planning to lay off most of the remaining engineering managers this week, though nothing has been shared in writing so far.
From a far enough distance, it’s easy to understand why some of Musk’s peers might look at his scorched-earth approach to human resources with admiration. But go even an inch deep on Twitter 2.0, and it’s clear that the person in most need of a late-night performance review is Musk himself.
The EU’s main privacy regulator fined Meta $276 million for failing to adequately safeguard more than half a billion users’ phone numbers and other information from data scrapers. (Sam Schechner / Wall Street Journal)
Twitter shut down its Brussels office, prompting concern among EU officials about the company’s ability to comply with rules on disinformation and hate speech. (Javier Espinoza, Ian Johnston and Cristina Criddle / Financial Times)
After a series of layoffs left Twitter, with few people to combat misinformation, the company struggled to police a wave of spam aimed at drowning out news about widespread protests in China. (Joseph Menn / Washington Post)
In China, social media companies are racing to take down images of blank white squares that people are posting to protest strict ongoing pandemic restrictions. (Liza Lin and Karen Hao / Wall Street Journal)
Newly uploaded footage of the Christchurch terror attack circulated on Twitter over the weekend after the company’s automated reporting function didn’t pick up the content as harmful. (Eva Corlett / The Guardian)
Republican members of Congress have gained tens of thousands of Twitter followers since Elon Musk took over, while their Democratic counterparts have lost followers. (Gerrit De Vynck, Jeremy B. Merrill and Luis Melgar / Washington Post)
TikTok parent company ByteDance conducted a Fraud Risk Assessment and found it was at risk of incurring multi-billion dollar fines and landing executives in jail if it didn’t overhaul its anti-fraud programs. (Emily Baker-White / Forbes)
Microsoft is getting ready to offer concessions to EU antitrust regulators, including offering a 10-year licensing deal to Sony, in order to stave off formal objections to its bid to acquire Activision Blizzard. (Foo Yun Chee / Reuters)
More than a third of Twitter’s top 100 marketers have not advertised on the social media network in the past two weeks. Why? What happened? (Naomi Nix and Jeremy B. Merrill / Washington Post)
Elon Musk has been personally calling CEOs of some big companies that have paused advertising on Twitter to “berate” them, according to this report. Ahh yeah that will do it. (Hannah Murphy, Alex Barker and Arjun Neil Alim / Financial Times)
Who’s paying for Twitter Blue? So far, far-right influencers, spoof accounts, and adult film stars. Also me! (Casey!) (Stuart A. Thompson / New York Times)
Dril, the face of “weird Twitter,” says he’d work for Twitter if Elon called him: “I would be his dog, I would follow his every order like a disgusting dog. I would beg for his mercy and I would learn to code if it pleased him.” (Taylor Lorenz / Washington Post)
Musk hired Daniel Francis, aka Daniel Johnson, one of the two men who posed as a laid-off Twitter engineer to trick journalists. ?????? (Kali Hays / Business Insider)
Crypto lender BlockFi is filing for bankruptcy and laying off a large portion of its staff as the collapse of FTX continues to roil the industry. (Liam J. Kelly and Daniel Roberts / Decrypt)
Major tax filing services are secretly sharing their users’ sensitive financial information with Meta. (Simon Fondrie-Teitler, Angie Waller and Colin Lecher / The Markup)
WhatsApp is rolling out a feature to let users easily message themselves. (Jagmeet Singh / TechCrunch)
OpenAI built the world’s best Minecraft-playing bot by making it watch 70,000 hours of video of people playing the game. (Will Douglas Heaven / MIT Technology Review)