Springtime for Elon
I really feel for everyone at Twitter right now. A change of leadership is never easy, but with Elon Musk’s takeover at Twitter, the company’s chaos is in a league of its own.
Musk has a well-documented history of shooting off his mouth, and he started the monthslong saga of acquiring Twitter in what was almost certainly the height of his usual mercurial whims. In fairness, I’ve said a lot of dumb things too in my life, for which I’ve never got myself stuck having to spend billions of dollars. But, you know, that’s Musk, the entrepreneur and Twitter instigator who launched a car into space just for fun. He seemed to quickly realize that the $44 billion price tag he offered (and which Twitter accepted) was perhaps a bit too generous considering the company’s valuation is roughly only a third of that along with its history of never turning a profit; not only that, but the (on paper) richest man in the world simply lacked the cash on hand to buy it without securing financing from a slew of investors, all of whom are going to want their money back and then some. He seemingly tried to back out, but the paperwork was all in order, and realizing it was too late to change his mind, Musk surrendered to his self-imposed imprisonment atop the global town square.
Now, stuck with a bright blue albatross around his neck, he finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to make Twitter profitable, which (again) it has never been. But watching his actual decisions over the last weeks, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Musk is pulling a Producers: trying to tank the website so he can declare bankruptcy and avoid paying back his investors. It’s hard to imagine what he’d be doing any differently if that were indeed the case. The decisions he’s made have been turned over endlessly already (but I simply must point out that he started selling verification badges to anyone willing to pay $8 and then immediately realized there actually did need to be a mechanism to identify imposters, so Twitter introduced, then removed, and then halfway-re-introduced a new gray badge to replace the feature he’d gutted for cash), but the part I want to focus on is how dirty he’s done not only the people who use Twitter, but his own employees. As a leader, he has thus far failed them.
Between immediate 50% layoffs, attrition resulting from those layoffs, personally firing anyone who says anything bad about him on Twitter and Slack, or even pushes back, and just this week informing his staff that anyone who isn’t “hardcore” will be let go by the end of next week, is there going to be anything left of Twitter? Gutting Twitter of the people who make it possible — the very people necessary for it to function properly — in the pursuit of profitability at all costs isn’t just bad business (which it is), it’s also nearly the worst display of management and leadership I have ever seen.
Leaders don’t shy away from criticism, they seek it out. It’s how you get better; it’s how your company gets better. To have longtime employees sticking it out through a major, tumultuous transition, actively and eagerly trying to make a challenged company better, that should be every CEOs dream. So I can’t imagine the thought process — or more likely, knee-jerk impulse — behind throwing those kinds of employees to the wind. In his attempt to project strength, Musk has made himself look weak and insecure. In his insistence that only he knows best and it’s his way or the highway — ignoring employee feedback and advice, only to have to backtrack when things blow up in his face — Musk appears indecisive and in over his head. And in his need to instill fear and fuel panic, instead of fostering calm and stability, Musk himself seems afraid. As astutely observed in last week’s episode of Andor, “Power doesn’t panic.” In short, it’s a bad look (likely overlaying an even uglier state of internal affairs), for Musk and sadly, for Twitter.
You see, a lot of boss’s misguidedly use the threat of termination as a motivator, but all that really does is teach people that you can’t be trusted or relied upon and that you certainly don’t have their best interests at heart. Employing fear and lashing out for control kills morale, creates a stressed, less productive team, and ensures that employees work only up to the line that guards their continued employment. Punishing anyone willing to speak out or stand up creates an environment that snuffs out innovation and stifles creativity and growth. It may not be immediate, but in the end, the combination is always a death sentence. In Twitter’s case, we’re seeing that play out at high speed, with vital employees choosing to simply walk away, unwilling to neither suffer the abuse nor participate in the destruction of something they all worked incredibly hard to build: the most extraordinary public forum the world has ever seen.
Twitter is colloquially called “the hellsite” by its most devoted users; its moderation has always been woefully inadequate, it floats the loudest, angriest voices to the top, and it encourages outrage. But despite all that, it’s also a very special place, and its team really did believe in the work. Twitter could be an extraordinary forum that fostered life-changing relationships and elevated movements fighting for the rights of women, communities of color, and the LGBTQ community. The workplace itself, by all accounts, was pretty great as far as workplaces go, offering flexibility, perks, collaboration, community, and camaraderie in its unique stresses, employing thousands of talented folks who are now suddenly being cast off. Jack Dorsey and Parag Agrawal might not have been perfect CEOs, but they’d led the building of Twitter into something unprecedented and remarkable, and they both cherished its place in the world. Now, Twitter is being run by its own biggest troll. Hannibal has taken Rome.
For those still there, Twitter has become a parody of its own platform: while its new leader fancies himself a champion of free speech, employee speech is heavily and punitively moderated, and the entire business can turn on a dime based on a single man’s passing whim — quite the opposite of the democratic, libertarian bastion Jack Dorsey (and ostensibly Musk himself) want the platform to be. As Musk scours the site for employees criticizing him so he can publicly fire them, it’s clear that the dedicated people who have kept Twitter operating have the choice of either keeping their heads down or losing them. Which, it really shouldn’t need to be said, is a fantastic way to not only drive away the team you’ve got but also make sure top talent stays far, far away in the future.
If Musk’s relentless push for profitability is sincere, and he’s not actually trying to gut the business, declare bankruptcy, and skip town on his creditors, I can’t imagine this is the way to get there. Advertisers have dropped like flies, and some of Twitter’s most loyal and prolific users have shuttered their accounts, unwilling to be associated with the flood of racist hate speech and gratuitous misogyny that sprung up the moment he took over. And Musk’s solution seems to be to start charging people for access to said vitriol, the result of which saw droves of imposter accounts buying up blue checkmarks and creating PR crises by the minute that then caused stock drops for the real brands. The spiral is only driving users away, making the site less, and less, and less monetizable and creating a demand for an alternative that offers the experience users actually want.
Everyone loves a good train wreck, I guess, except the people on the train. For the sake of those still at Twitter and everyone who uses the platform, we can only hope that this chaos reaches its limit, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Perhaps the value of Twitter, in the end, isn’t monetary at all, but as a lesson, a cautionary tale of cult-of-personality fueled business leadership eating itself alive. We would all do well to heed it.