Shock and Awe Is Not Sustainable
Musk's Twitter Takeover, And How NOT To Change
As I write Better Bits, I share supplemental material or untangle partially formed thoughts with this supporting newsletter. I make these pieces evergreen; a software change agent discovering this work tomorrow or a decade from now should be able to find it helpful.
However, occasionally there is a news event so tawdry, so antithetical to the kind of software development I want to see in the world, I risk aging poorly while capturing a cautionary tale. In this piece, we must examine Elon Musk's first 72 hours as Twitter's owner, and assess why we can’t get away with what he did.
MY RELATIONSHIP WITH TWITTER
I've been a Twitter user since their SXSW 2007 takeover. I've had varying fits and fascination with the service throughout the years. However, nothing else online has maintained my interest and been a part of my daily routine over that time. I've discovered wonderful people, been challenged with other viewpoints I hadn't considered, and shoulder-surfed domain experts to which I wouldn't have otherwise had access. It is an essential part of my digital sense-making process.
I do believe in paying for software that I find valuable. I signed up when the opportunity arose this year to pay for Twitter Blue. Having an edit button or ad-free articles is nice, but I've found having multiple bookmark folders the most beneficial to how I use the service.
That said, there are problems. Abuse and misinformation have grown steadily throughout the past decade. Twitter's power users seem, increasingly, to be politicians, celebrities, and the people that report on them. And despite the transformative impact Twitter has had on the careers of those like me, it remains a lousy business (losing $162 million on $1.2 billion in sales, having only ever had profitable years in 2018 and 2019).
"Each day on twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it" - Maple Cocaine
Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to reverse Twitter's stagnate growth and reimagine what the service could be. Most agree that the service must change. However, anything other than incremental updates remains elusive regardless of who is in charge.
ENTER ELON MUSK
Calling the ramp-up to Twitter's purchase "messy" defames the current state of my younger kids' bedroom. From disparaging Twitter's previous leadership to claiming contradictory visions for the service (something, something, free speech, but only up until advertisers complain), it was a rocky courtship. Then, to top it off, Musk threatened to lay off 75% of the engineering staff.
In Better Bits, I write about the importance of crafting a compelling (and unambiguous) vision, building coalitions, empowering others, and the role of empathy in successful communication. I already had plenty of ground to cover before the deal closed late Thursday, October 20th. And then the next 72 hours happened.
TWITTER UNDER NEW OWNERSHIP
Surprising no one, several executives were immediately fired. That included Vijaya Gadde. Vijay was notable as one of the people responsible for Twitter's substantive defense of First Amendment rights. Twitter's content moderation decisions were based on principles and policies - at least much more demonstrably than other social media platforms. Decisions weren't arbitrary. Despite Twitter's floundering, this was one area that had a clear vision of what needed to happen and the wherewithal to execute it. That leadership is gone.
Then, Friday morning, engineers were asked to print out their code contributions from the last 30 to 60 days. The developers were to print and bring the hard copy to code reviews with Musk and Tesla engineers. As reported by CNBC, the Tesla engineers assigned to review code did not have familiarity with the programming languages and systems used within Twitter.
By midday, someone must have suggested that printing out all that proprietary code probably wasn't a good idea. Engineers then received new instructions: shred what they printed and prep to show code on their computers instead.
Also on Friday, Musk demanded a change to the home page for logged-out users. Rather than present a sign-up form, the home page now redirects visitors to the "Explore" page showing trending tweets and news stories. A code freeze had been in place to prevent rouge staffers from making changes during the transition. Overriding the code freeze required VP involvement.
Saturday, during a 1700% surge in hate speech, Twitter’s Trust and Safety team no longer had access to tools to enforce Twitter’s moderation policies. There was no VP intervention.
Finally, on Sunday, while Twitter's engineers were still dealing with the whiplash created above, news broke of Musk's "War Room" charging employees with developing a $20 Twitter Blue verification service (or maybe it’s $8?). CNBC reported that managers were instructed to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week to hit Musk’s deadlines. Those responsible had until November 7th, or about a week, to implement the feature or be terminated.
THE ABSURDITY IS THE POINT
There's a reason company owners don't pair program with their developers. Good leader avoid inconsistent or contradictory communication. And setting unrealistic deadlines with the threat of termination is only viable in the short run. So why is Musk applying a playbook from the mirror verse?
Arvind Narayanan, a Princeton computer science professor, posits that the absurdity is the point:
"Makes the place intolerable for anyone who isn't a loyal minion and increases the likelihood they leave on their own."
If others loan you $44 billion to buy a hobby project, you can run it however you want. Those of us without $44 billion, however, need to employ a different set of skills to make change happen. We can't afford to be toxic individuals that aggressively haze and alienate those around us.
The bigger the change, the more we need other people. Changing Twitter for the better, whatever that might look like, requires talented, passionate people that care. However, the tactics employed thus far appeal only to sycophants and yes-men. There may be hope for those working at Twitter after this initial period of shock and awe. But I'm dubious.
If you are interested in change approaches that build rather than destroy and can't wait for Better Bits, check out:
The fantastic Lara Hogan and her newsletter, Wherewithall
Helen Bevan (ironically, on Twitter)
Me on Mastodon, which will be my primary social presence from now on
November 2nd Update
Two additional perspectives on the ruckus:
Timothy B Lee, from the Full Stack Economics newsletter, argues that despite Elon’s “theatrical” management style, he gets economic results.
Johnathan and Melissa, authors of the Raw Signal Group email, urge against falling for the economic argument since it puts a price on employee dignity.
November 5th Update
November 16th Update
When it comes to questionable management practices unworthy of emulation, this story is the car crash I can’t stop watching.
Musk publicly belittles staff and then fires (via Tweet?!) employees that corrected him.
Musk sent out an ultimatum, giving remaining workers until Thursday to decide whether to commit to long hours or leave.
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