In April 2022, Elon Musk acquired a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter, making him the company’s largest shareholder, and was offered a seat on the board. Luke Simon, a senior engineering director at Twitter, was ecstatic.
“Elon Musk is a brilliant engineer and scientist, and he has a track record of having a Midas touch when it comes to growing the companies he’s helped lead,” he wrote on the workplace messaging platform Slack, according to an article of The Guardian.
Musk had offered to buy the company for the absurdly inflated price of $44bn. The move thrilled employees like Simon who chafed at Twitter’s laidback atmosphere and reputation for developing new features at a glacial pace.
On Slack, a product manager responded to Simon’s enthusiasm for Musk with scepticism: “I take your point, but as a childhood Greek mythology nerd, I feel it is important to point out that the story behind the idea of the Midas touch is not a positive one. It’s a cautionary tale about what is lost when you only focus on wealth.”
The comment would prove to be prophetic. According to more than two dozen current and former Twitter staffers, Musk has, since buying the company in October 2022, shown a remarkable lack of interest in the people and processes that make his new toy tick.
He has purged thousands of employees, implemented ill-advised policies, and angered even some of his most loyal supporters. If “free speech” was his mandate for Twitter the platform, it has been the opposite for Twitter the workplace. Dissenting opinion or criticism has led to swift dismissals. Musk replaced Twitter’s old culture with one of his own, but it’s unclear, with so few workers and plummeting revenues, whether or not this new version will survive.
On 26 October 2022, an engineer – let’s call her Alicia – sat in a glass conference room in San Francisco trying to explain the details of Twitter’s tech stack to Elon Musk. He was supposed to officially buy the company in two days, and Alicia and a small group of trusted colleagues were tasked with outlining how its core infrastructure worked.
The following week, on 3 November, employees received an unsigned email from “Twitter” relaying that the time for layoffs had started. By 9am the following day, everyone would receive a note telling them whether they still had a job.
Moments of institutional chaos are always someone’s opportunity, and at Twitter, that person was a product manager named Esther Crawford. Before the takeover, Crawford had been focused on products that let creators make money from their Twitter accounts.
Twitter’s trust and safety team compiled a seven-page document outlining the dangers associated with paid verification. What would stop people from impersonating politicians or brands? They ranked the risk a “P0”, the highest possible.
Musk’s blundering left a deep scar. Twitter Blue was meant to begin shifting Twitter’s revenue away from ads toward subscriptions. He torched the company’s ad business – the source of the vast majority of its billions in revenue.
The Blue disaster accelerated a rush of advertisers abandoning the platform, including pharmaceuticals giant Eli Lilly, and by December, what was left of Twitter’s sales team began offering hundreds of thousands of dollars in free ad spend to lure back marketers.
On 10 November, with just 20 minutes’ notice, Musk gathered his remaining employees to address them directly for the first time. He spoke frankly about the state of the business and suggested even more layoffs were to come.
On 16 November, Musk emailed his remaining 2,900 employees an ultimatum. He was building Twitter 2.0, he said, and workers would need to be “extremely hardcore”, logging “long hours at high intensity”. The old way of doing business was out. Now, “only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade”. He asked employees to sign a pledge through Google Forms committing to the new standard by the end of the next workday.
In an impossible-to-follow tweet thread that unfolded over several hours, Taibbi published the names and emails of rank and file ex-employees involved in communications with government officials, insinuating that Twitter had suppressed New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop.
After it was pointed out that Taibbi had published the personal email of Jack Dorsey, that tweet was deleted, but not the tweets naming low-level employees or the personal email of a sitting congressman.
One of Musk’s other Twitter Files journalists, Bari Weiss, denounced the crackdown: “The old regime at Twitter governed by its own whims and biases and it sure looks like the new regime has the same problem. I oppose it in both cases.” Musk responded by unfollowing her.
Twitter continues to haemorrhage money, so much so that Musk has stopped paying its bills. The landlords of Twitter offices in San Francisco and London are suing over unpaid rent. And this month Twitter has been auctioning office furniture.
On Christmas Eve, Twitter abruptly shut down a data centre in Sacramento, California; it also announced it would significantly downsize a data centre in Atlanta, Georgia. Engineers struggled to keep the service running.
Outages would happen sporadically, the worst one in January, when the site was down for more than 12 hours for users in Australia and New Zealand. But it was nothing near the catastrophe Musk’s critics had predicted. Twitter Blue was relaunched and mostly, the platform kept humming along.
Late in December, Twitter employees noticed a prominent face was gone from Slack: Luke Simon had left the company. No one knew why. Some joked darkly that kissing Musk’s ring wasn’t enough to keep anyone safe anymore. Simon’s Twitter account no longer exists.
Musk himself is starting to appear defeated. Tesla shares started 2022 trading at nearly $400. By September, Tesla’s stock price had dropped by 25 percent. It plummeted again after Musk bought Twitter and ended the year at 123 US dollars. Investors are begging Musk to step away; Tesla employees are too.
Musk claims he always intended to be Twitter’s CEO only temporarily. With the damage he has done in three months – to the company and to his own wealth – those watching the nosedive, whether with horror, can’t help but wonders how much longer he can wait.