Twitter, cut in half


Twitter, cut in half
“Elon Musk holding a chainsaw,” Stable Diffusion

I. The Snap

The email went out at 5:21 PT PT on Thursday.

For a full week, Twitter employees had waited in hopes of hearing something directly from their new owner. Instead, they had heard only from Elon Musk’s intermediaries, and even then usually not directly. Managers would share some strange new edict — print out your code; scratch that, now shred it — and employees would scramble to comply, even if it meant sleeping at the office.

Everyone knew layoffs were coming; the big questions were when, and how deep they would go. The email — from “Team,” signed only by “Twitter” — began to offer some answers. “In an effort to place Twitter on a healthy path, we will go through the difficult process of reducing our global workforce on Friday,” it began. “We recognize that this will impact a number of individuals who have made valuable contributions to Twitter, but this action is unfortunately necessary to ensure the company’s success moving forward.”

The company’s 7,500 or so employees would learn their fate via email, according to the message. By 9AM PT today, everyone would receive a message informing them about whether or not they had been laid off. For those who were getting cut, a similarly bloodless message from “Team” ushered them out the door. (“It is with regret that we write to inform you that your role at Twitter has been impacted.”) An accompanying document about severance would confirm the scope of the cuts: about 50 percent, or well over 3,000 people.

Before all that, though, there was Slack: that virtual water cooler, made so essential in Twitter’s remote work era, where employees gathered to guess their fates. They made tributes to their colleagues and reminisced about the good times; they exchanged contact information and urged one another to stay in touch, as if preparing to return home from summer camp.

And then around 8PM PT, Tweeps began to get their news. Rumman Chowdhury, director of machine learning ethics at the company, suddenly found herself logged out of Gmail. “Has it already started? Happy layoff eve!” she tweeted, darkly.

Musk remained, as ever, above it all. “Why is small talk even legal!?” he tweeted as the layoff notices began to go out.

In Slack, employees began to say goodbye. They adopted two emoji: 💙, to represent Twitter, and 🫡, to represent a final salute to their peers. In a screen recording of Slack that I viewed, dozens upon dozens of employees saluted one another while offering words of comfort.

They also posted memes from Avengers. Comparing the layoffs to the Infinity War installment of the franchise, in which the super villain Thanos wipes out half of all life by snapping his fingers, employees began posting memes from the movie across Slack.

After the layoffs, we asked some of the employees who had been cut what they made of the process. They told us that they had been struck by the cruelty: of ordering people to work around the clock for a week, never speaking to them, then firing them in the middle of the night, no matter what it might mean for an employee’s pregnancy or work visa or basic emotional state.

More than anything they were struck by the fact that the world’s richest man, who seems to revel in attention on the platform they had made for him, had not once deigned to speak to them.

“It'll stick with me forever that he never addressed the employees even once before firing half of us,” one longtime employee who was laid off today told me. (Former employees spoke on condition of anonymity for fear that giving their names could affect their severance packages). “Downright cowardly that he couldn't bring himself to sign his name to the layoff email.”

A second employee laid off today struck a similar note.

“I was at peace with the layoffs, but I half expected the man who passed the sentence to also swing the sword,” they told us. “Apparently no amount of wealth can solve his insecurity. Tweeps will be fine, [but] I can’t say the same for the future of the platform.”

II. The law

January 4, 2023: officially, that’s the last day that those laid off will be employed at Twitter.

Unofficially, though, their employment ended sometime in the middle of last night. What follows will be a two-month period designed to protect Musk from lawsuits.

“During this time, you will be on a Non-Working Notice period and your access to Twitter systems will be deactivated,” the company told laid-off workers in an email obtained by Platformer

Twitter said it would continue to pay employees during the non-work period, adding that workers will get healthcare coverage until the end of January. After that, most will receive a month of severance pay — half the severance offered employees when Twitter was a public company. In an FAQ document, the company explained that if employees refuse to sign a release of claims, they will still get paid for the next two months, but will not receive severance. 

By the end of Thursday, a class-action suit had been filed against Twitter, alleging the company has violated the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act by suddenly laying off half its workforce. (According to the Department of Labor, businesses with more than 100 full-time employees are required to give 60 days notice if they lay off 33 percent or more of the staff). 

"Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, has made clear that he believes complying with federal labor laws is ‘trivial,’” said Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney who filed the complaint, in a statement emailed to Platformer. “Straight out of his Tesla playbook, he is now in the process of laying off what could be half of Twitter’s workforce — thousands of people — and we were concerned he would do this without regard for federal and state employment protection laws.”  

Liss-Riordan made a similar argument in a class-action suit filed against Tesla earlier this year, after that company laid off 10 percent of its workforce. In September, a US magistrate judge said the case should go to private arbitration — a win for Tesla. 

According to the Department of Labor, employers can’t just pay people instead of giving them 60 days notice. But because the penalties for violating the WARN Act are providing laid off workers back pay and benefits, “generally this approach by an employer — pay in place of notice — means that the employer has already met the penalty specified in the Act.” In other words, even if a judge finds Twitter did violate the WARN Act, the company will likely already have met the penalty by paying people for the next 60 days.

But Twitter has a strong case that did it give employees 60 days’ notice, according to labor lawyer Vincent P. White. “These layoffs were structured by people who make $1,600 an hour to make sure the company doesn’t violate the WARN Act,” White told us. “They know what they’re doing. I think their argument will be that they laid off employees and cut off access because they’re afraid of sabotage or misuse of user data, and that will likely hold.”

That doesn’t mean Twitter is completely in the clear, though. Employees remaining at the company who have been working remotely are already being asked to return to the office on short time frames — as little as two weeks, we’re told, even if it would require a long-distance move.

Some workers we’ve spoken to have speculated that Musk intends to reduce the number of Twitter workers even further by using impossible return-to-office demands. But that could could provide grounds for a lawsuit, White says.

“That’s not a reasonable timeframe to move,” White said. “Twitter can force people back to the office — it just can’t do it in this timeframe.”

In the meantime, whether they were laid off or not, several employees we’ve spoken to say they are hiring attorneys. They anticipate difficulties getting their full severance payments, among other issues. Tensions are running high.

III. The Leftovers

If it was terrible to be laid off from Twitter on Friday, many employees found also that it felt terrible to remain. Aside from the email informing them of their continued employment, they had received no communication from Musk and his small council. Half of their colleagues were gone, but no one knew which colleagues. An internal directory had been made inaccessible, and in any case it had not been updated to reflect anyone’s employment status.

And yet still, there was Twitter to run: systems to maintain, code to write, projects to sync up on. And so workers began to create Google Docs listing who they could confirm was still employed at the company. They messaged colleagues on Slack to see who would message back. If the person responded, they got added to the doc.

“We’re basically messaging all our coworkers trying to figure out who’s left, like after a disaster,” one employee told us.

The confusion has made the company vulnerable should systems begin to break down or suffer an attack, employees said.

“It’s extremely unclear who still works here,” another worker told us. “Lots of ‘everybody left raise their hands’ in project channels.”

We asked remaining workers about the likelihood of an extended Twitter outage in coming weeks as the company adjusts to the loss of so much institutional knowledge. Opinions varied, but everyone we talked to said the concerns are valid and some said they expected that the service would suffer downtime in the coming months.

In the meantime, there were other sorts of wreckage.

The layoffs gutted entire teams, including the ethical AI team, which is responsible for making Twitter’s algorithms more transparent, the communications team, which — according to one estimate — went from roughly 80 people down to two, and the entire human rights organization. Other teams that were hit hard: the disability experience team, the internet technology team (which keeps Twitter up and running), marketing, social, and the “Redbird” organization for internal tools, according to the New York Times. The company’s employee resource groups were all shut down as well, employees said.

The company’s trust and safety teams were reduced by just 15 percent, tweeted Yoel Roth, who runs them. That relatively small decline reflects the brand-safety crisis that appears to be shaping up for Musk: multiple large advertisers have paused or pulled their spending amid concerns over Musk’s freewheeling style (and conspiratorial tweeting), and the head of the NAACP called for a total advertising boycott. (“They’re trying to destroy free speech in America,” was Musk’s take.)

It was grim. It was also, in any number of ways, pointless: there had been no reason to do any of this, to do it this way, to trample so carelessly over the lives and livelihoods of so many people.

Eight days into Musk’s ownership of Twitter, many pundits have begun to predict that this is the beginning of the end. No one can quite imagine a world without Twitter, but no one can quite imagine this version of Twitter surviving, either.

By the end of the day, an exasperated Musk was left tweeting that he had no choice but to make these cuts, insisting that content moderation at Twitter is as strong as it has ever been, and pointing out how generous he had been with his severance. (Several employees noted to me that of the “three months” worth of pay they will get, two months are legally required by the WARN Act.)

If buying Twitter had ever seemed like a lark for the world’s richest man, by November it all seemed quite serious. At some point this week, Musk changed his location on Twitter to “Hell.” A few days later, hell came to his workforce.

Friday might not have been the end of Twitter, but it sure felt like the end of something. A remaining employee, scrolling through the Slack channels that on Thursday evening had been so active, noted that by Friday morning the activity had come to a standstill.

Whatever might be under way at Twitter is now happening in small, private channels. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

“It’s a ghost town,” the employee said.

Hard Fork

On this week’s show, hours before layoffs began, Kevin and I talked to two Twitter employees about life inside the company. If you haven’t listened to the show yet, this is a great place to dive in.

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