Elon Musk appeared in a virtual town hall for Twitter employees on Thursday to answer their questions, and by the end of the session, one question bigger than most loomed: Can you really get Twitter out of your head?
Over 60 free minutes, the world’s richest man answered questions about remote work, layoffs, content moderation and other questions of major concern to Twitter’s 8,000 or so employees. Time and again he offered workers hungry for concrete answers a jumble of phrases.
Will Twitter’s mostly remote employees 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 when you’re physically on location,” he said, according to the New York Times‘Mike Isaac’†
What kind of content moderation policies will he support? “We have to let people say what they want” he said† But “it’s important to make Twitter as attractive as possible,” Musk said Insider‘s Kali Hays and Hugh Langley† “Really, that means don’t show people content that they would find offensive. Or even frankly, boring is not good. TikTok does a great job of making sure you don’t get bored.”
What should Twitter become? A super Chinese-style 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 now.
After the meeting I spoke with about six employees. Reactions were mixed, but mostly negative. Musk won some points because he sounded genuinely excited about the prospect of owning and running Twitter, a topic that’s been at stake ever since. began his war of attrition against the board of the company in a bid to get rid of the $44 billion deal.
But mostly, employees told me the conversation had reinforced the beliefs they had about Musk going to the meeting. If I were to make a word cloud of employee responses, some larger ones would be: incoherent† to walk† uninspiring†
(Also at one point, Musk said he saw no evidence of alien life, and no one really knew what to make of that.)
The people I spoke to know what it takes to run Twitter because they’ve been doing it for years. And it was shocking, they said, to hear someone speak with such confidence about a company Musk is just beginning to understand at its best.
Indeed, given the superficial nature of his thinking, it’s worth considering that the hour Musk spent with employees today may have been the longest period he’s thought about what it means to run Twitter since he bought it.
Questions selected by Musk to answer Thursday were notably non-threatening. No one was allowed to ask about his criticism of the current Twitter executives, or of his attempts to blow up the deal he signed, or of the recent allegations of harassment against him. He did get a question about potential layoffs, which he dodged, though noting Twitter is losing money, saying, “That’s not a great situation.” (Analysts think Musk will likely cut about 20 percent of Twitter’s workforce.)
And as workers 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 in which we better understand the nature of reality,” he said. he said†
If there was any hint of Musk’s intended management style in all of this, it came as part of a response to whether he would assume the title of CEO at the close of the deal. Musk takes a mischievous approach to corporate titles — he’s Tesla’s “Techno King,” and his chief financial officer is “master of coin” — and so the question was more than justified.
And Musk’s answer was telling. From Insider again†
Regardless of its title, Musk wants to “steer the product in a certain direction” and plans to improve the software, product and design of the platform.
“I don’t mind doing other things related to running a business, but there are chores,” he said. “I just want to make sure that the product evolves quickly and in a good way. I don’t really care what the title is, but it’s clear that people should listen to me.”
I read Musk here to say: running a company as a CEO requires you to pay a lot of attention to the details, which I have no interest in. But I will still make many statements about what the product should be, and – “of course”! – “People have to listen to me.”
I found this interesting because when you talk to people who have worked directly with Musk at Tesla, this is exactly how he runs that company. Musk sets priorities, often seemingly based on little more than a whim, and the details and any technological breakthroughs needed to achieve them are left to his staff.
And while one way of looking at Musk’s responses to Twitter employees today is that they’re undercooked, it might be worth considering that this is as fried as some of them will ever get. “Make payments”, “make it more like TikTok”, “add 770 million users” – these seem to me the kind of instructions Musk’s new product head could get on day one. And the employees who stay at their desks will be taxed to make it so.
There are historical analogies for this kind of leadership — Steve Jobs is obvious — but there’s a reason it’s relatively rare. Even-tempered, detail-oriented founders tend to outperform charismatic shamans in the long run, in part because they are so much easier to work with. That is good for recruitment, retention and innovation.
And I think that’s even more true today than it was 20 years ago — it’s hard to imagine Jobs’ reputation surviving the Slack screenshot era. (“Personally, I am very disappointed that our CEO will continue to park in places reserved for employees with disabilities† 800 comments; 900 comments, etc.)
The easy refutation of this criticism of Musk has been Tesla’s success for years. And indeed, in many ways the company is a marvel and sells as many cars as it can produce the most satisfied customers in the entire automotive industry†
But when I look at the growing body of research on its Autopilot assisted driving software“I see the consequences of Musk’s ‘you figure it out’ leadership. Musk makes the promise – completely 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? Wouldn’t it be easier to just send it and deal with the consequences later?
But there are signs that this too is starting to break. On Thursday The edge‘s Loren Grush reported that employees of another Musk company, SpaceX, have sent an open letter to their leadership denouncing Musk’s recent behavior. Grush writes:
The letter, reviewed by The edgedescribes how Musk’s actions and recent sexual harassment allegations against him are negatively affecting SpaceX’s reputation. […]
“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere has been a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment to us, especially in recent weeks,” the letter said. “As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX – every tweet Elon sends is a de facto public statement from the company. It is critical to make clear to our teams and our potential talent pool that his messages do not reflect our work, our mission, or our values.”
The sheer power of Musk’s personality has taken him a long way. But when you watch him span more and more companies as he continues to wreak havoc via tweets, you wonder how much longer the act can go on. Tesla shares fell 8.5 percent on Thursday; it’s down 31 percent in the past six months. Even for the richest man in the world, the laws of gravity sometimes 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 looked like two hands in the shape of the number 69, an obvious reference to a sex position,” noted Reuters’ Sheila Dang†
The employees I spoke to say they do their best to stay focused on work. Musk is undoubtedly focused on lowering the deal price. The future of Twitter is at stake, and no one is less concerned about it than Elon Musk. He has his whims, and those will suffice for now.