As Twitter employees digested the most turbulent week in the company’s 16-year history, the message from top leadership was: sit tight.
In the immediate aftermath of the news that Elon Musk had clinched his $44bn takeover bid for the platform with Twitter’s board, staff at a virtual emergency all-hands meeting were told there would be no lay-offs “at this time” and that little else would change until the deal closes later this year, pending shareholder approval and any further dramatic twists.
But then what? Twitter’s workforce is divided and apprehensive. Some see the billionaire’s influence bringing about a new era of getting things done, away from the demands of Wall Street. Others worry about what might be undone, particularly when it comes to stemming hate speech or similar content.
“It’s a time of genuine discomfort and uncertainty,” Edward Perez, a project manager on Twitter’s “Societal Health” team, wrote on Twitter. “Most of us believe deeply that Twitter is much more than a tech platform; we have a deep responsibility to society. I hope our new owner gets that.”
Few at Twitter thought it would come to this. According to insiders, some staffers initially felt Musk was toying with them. After the bid was announced, engineers complained on the company’s Slack channels, highlighting how his political views clashed with theirs, one said. “That man just needs to leave us alone,” one senior employee said ahead of the deal.
Now serious consideration must be given to what Musk has in mind for Twitter’s future based on little more than his brief statements, an unfocused appearance on stage at the TED Conference in Vancouver earlier this month, and a smattering of tweets — some serious, some perhaps not — in which he has talked about the platform and his vision.
“Can someone just tell me if I’m rich or fired please,” joked one London-based Twitter employee, Ned Miles.
When the deal closes, the current board will no longer exist, and it will be up to Musk to decide the governance structure. Musk will also decide on the make-up of the management team including who will be chief executive, according to someone familiar with the situation, who added that there had been no discussions inside Twitter yet on the matter.
Some felt decoupling Twitter from the demands of Wall Street, which looks at growth and advertising revenue as the signs of Twitter’s ultimate health as a business, could bring new flexibility to a company struggling to solve its most toxic elements while keeping engagement and advertising revenue in shape on a quarterly basis.
“Twitter as a company has always been my sole issue and my biggest regret,” wrote Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. “It has been owned by Wall Street and the ad model. Taking it back from Wall Street is the correct first step.”
The view is shared by Bruce Daisley, Twitter’s former European vice-president, who also pointed to recent unsettling moves by activist investors that looked to oust Dorsey in February 2020, before being somewhat placated with a number of changes.
“Twitter was given huge growth projections by activist investors they are falling short of at the moment,” Daisley told the Financial Times. “In those situations there is huge pressure, so taking it private gives relief.”
Musk has already outlined vague plans for the site. The self-described “free speech absolutist” said he would focus on “making the algorithms open source to increase trust”, “defeating the spam bots” and “authenticating all humans”. Little in the statement was new or radical thinking, one former Twitter executive said.
“A lot of the big-picture stuff he’s talked about is stuff that the company was already working on, including opening up the algorithm,” the former Twitter executive said. “I do think it is more complex than he probably knows or understands. Part of the risk becomes you’re providing a road map for people who want to abuse the system.”
Some within Twitter were angry at what they saw as Musk’s oversimplification of Twitter’s challenges and how tough they would be to solve, noting Musk’s record of lofty but often unrealised promises.
“Remember when we were going to get Level 4 self-driving Tesla every year for the past 8 years?” wrote one employee on the anonymous message board Blind, where users’ place of work is verified using company email addresses. “Expect a tweet from Elon in 5 years or so admitting that the social media that allows healthy open conversation is [a] much harder problem than he thought. Jack [Dorsey] was a free speech absolutist too.”
Leaving the public markets would mean a payout for employees who hold the company’s stock. But that short-term gain, several workers suggested, removed a major selling point to stay at or join the company. “If comp is negatively affected then we’ll lose a lot of great talent and any incentive for working at Twitter will be gone,” wrote one employee on Blind.
Others questioned whether Twitter’s relaxed return-to-work policy — which promised employees they could work from home indefinitely — could be under threat. Last week, Musk pondered whether he should convert San Francisco’s downtown headquarters into a homeless shelter, given, he said in a now-deleted tweet, that “no one” was showing up to work.
Tech rivals have been circling amid the unease at Twitter, with employees at companies such as social network Reddit and Microsoft signalling an intent to woo disenfranchised Twitter staff.
“I got about 20 recruiting emails in the last day did something happen,” Hana Thier, a Twitter senior software engineer, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.