Matt Katz: We're back with The Takeaway. I'm Matt Katz filling in for Melissa Harris-Perry.
On Saturday, Elon Musk dropped another bombshell on the bird site, also known as Twitter. "The people have spoken Trump will be reinstated," he wrote. The former president was kicked off the platform following the January 6th insurrection. After years of tweeting misinformation, Musk recently polled users about whether Trump should be allowed to return, and Trump supporters won. The former president has not yet tweeted though, he has indicated he will stay on Truth Social, the platform he launched himself rather than returning to Twitter just yet.
It is, of course, just one of the latest of Musk's controversial moves since taking over the company on October 27th. Musk fired top executives, laid off half of Twitter's 7,500 employees, and set guidelines for new cutthroat work culture in an email last Wednesday requiring workers to commit to, "Long hours at high intensity or leave and accept three months severance."
By Friday, the email had sparked an exodus of an estimated 1,200 additional employees raising questions about whether Twitter has adequate staff to even maintain operations. I spoke early Monday morning with Alex Kantrowitz, host of The Big Technology Podcast.
Alex, given what we know about Elon Musk's management style, past business practices like with Tesla, should we be surprised by what we're seeing take place over at Twitter?
Alex Kantrowitz: Only mildly. Elon is definitely someone who operates in a world of chaos. He brought chaos to Tesla and SpaceX, and through the chaos, they ended up emerging with some big inventions, but it wasn't easy getting there. It's never a straight line with Elon Musk.
He likes to blow things up, see where everything lands, and then go for some of the most ambitious achievements possible. He's done that again at his other companies, and he's doing that with Twitter here as well.
Matt Katz: He's had success at other companies. There's criticism, of course, of it but he's had success. It does not seem like this is going successfully so far at Twitter.
Alex Kantrowitz: Yes, but we're only a month in. One of the amazing things about social media companies is they can rise and fall with the week. I think that it would be premature to say that Twitter is dead now or dying or that Elon has not succeeded, simply too early to make that statement. That being said, there are a lot of things that he's done that make you pause and say how does he really know what he's doing here?
Matt Katz: Like the Trump reinstatement and asking Twitter users to take a poll on it. What went into that decision?
Alex Kantrowitz: Well, it's hard to say because Musk initially said that he wanted to complete free speech on Twitter, then he said he wasn't quite sure what to do with Trump, which would go against that statement. Then he said there's going to be a content moderation council made up of people with varying viewpoints that would end up deciding whether Trump would come back or not.
Then, amazingly, after, what, three or four months of deriding Twitter saying it was filled with bots and you couldn't trust the user numbers, decided to poll the users about whether Trump should come back. The users voted, by a small margin, that he should, and so Elon reinstated him.
Matt Katz: Kanye West, also known as Ye, also returned to Twitter this past weekend. His account had been locked for a while for making anti-semitic remarks and he came back with a tweet that seemed to talk to Jewish people. He wrote, "Shalom," and then Musk liked that tweet. Did Musk buy Twitter, at least in part, to troll the rest of us and wink at stuff that some people see as hate speech? Is that part of what's happening here?
Alex Kantrowitz: I don't think that he was going after Twitter to amplify hate speech. That would be very surprising to me if that's what's in Elon's heart of hearts. I do think that he was trying to poke a finger in the eye of the mainstream media, in the eye of progressives who have become very pro-content moderation to a point where Elon probably thought it had gone too far. Going to the core of your question, remember, this is a man who tried to get out of the deal for three months and said whatever he could to disparage the company.
Whatever thought Elon put into building this company was obviously not his most developed idea and he probably wishes that he wouldn't have actually been forced to do it. He overpaid tremendously. His vision for the platform, again, it seems to be rooted in chaos and not enough product strategy, if you ask me. By liking a tweet from Kanye or letting Trump back on the platform or firing a good chunk of the employee base, Elon seems to be, again, going straight towards that Northern Light for him, which is chaos. It's worked out for him in the past, but just because it's worked out for him in the past doesn't mean it necessarily will again this time.
Matt Katz: His email to employees last week had cascading effects on the business. What happened after that Wednesday missive?
Alex Kantrowitz: Well, he asked employees whether they wanted to effectively be extremely hardcore and work long hours tirelessly or click No effectively and say, "I'm leaving Twitter and I'm going to take three months' severance." He's effectively having Twitter employees circle the wagons around him in some weird loyalty oath. Now, many employees did not opt to remain extremely hardcore and ended up taking the severance. This is, again, after he had laid off 3,700 employees. What he's done is he's cut Twitter's workforce down from 7,500 to somewhere in the realm of 1,000 to 2,000 people. We might end up seeing more people leave. He has been very impulsive to fire people.
What does that leave Twitter with? One is there are some concerns that the site could shut down. A lot of the core infrastructure, people, the site reliability engineers, their teams have been gutted, and in some teams, there's nobody left. What happens when there's a huge surge of traffic, say, maybe the World Cup? The thing could break. It won't be down for months, maybe a day or two, maybe a couple of hours, but that's significant. Then I think, crucially, he has also cut many people from the sales department. Anyone who sold advertising knows that it's a real relationship-based sale, and Twitter is 89% 90% ad supported.
What happens when you cut all your ad sales staff? You end up looking a very significant revenue punch in the face.
Matt Katz: If it does shut down even temporarily, like you said, as a possibility, what are the risks to society as a whole, individuals? What are some of the potential ramifications downstream?
Alex Kantrowitz: Maybe we'll all be better off if this thing goes away. I'm a Twitter user, I like it. I'm rooting for it to work but I wouldn't mourn its loss if it went away. I find that Twitter has made us as a society angry or more siloed. It's driven people who are presenting information to become more radical, more outrage-inducing, more divisive.
It's not to say that Twitter is the internet. A lot of these qualities are inherent in the internet, but the way that the product is built, the way that the retweet button is there that allows you to thoughtlessly pass along information that plays to your biases, as in your hates and your emotions versus spreading information with thoughtfulness and deliberateness, which I think that makes society better off. These are all true liabilities of Twitter and I don't think the platform has made it better. You're asked what are the ramifications if it goes away. I don't think it will completely go away but if it does, in some way it's good riddance.
Matt Katz: Alex Kantrowitz is the host of The Big Technology Podcast. Alex, thanks so much for joining us here, see you online.
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