At the end of 2022 I made a few predictions for the coming months, the last of which – and possibly the one I felt most confident on – was that Twitter would basically return to normal. It wouldn’t die or become a totally toxic wasteland of libertarian shit-posters, but would essentially revert to what it had always been: a place where journalists could tell other journalists how important their work is.
But, so far, Elon Musk has proved me wrong. It’s almost like he has a personal vendetta against this prediction. Not only has he, amazingly, failed to appoint a CEO for the company, he’s engaged in a campaign to make it clear that he has no intention of conforming to the expectations of Harvard Business School management theory. Every day, he logs onto his Twitter account (the second most followed personality on the platform, after former President Barack Obama) and posts a bunch of childish memes, makes a few incendiary right-wing comments, and then lays off a bunch of staff. As strategies go, it’s weird.
But, at the same time, I think it’s possible to see the Musk approach at Twitter as a form of experimental management. The Large Hadron Collider of running a Big Tech firm (albeit in the version of the LHC where it accidentally creates a black hole and swallows Switzerland). It was reported earlier in his tenure as the service’s owner that there were a lot of investors across Silicon Valley and Wall Street who were *loving* the way he was tackling Twitter’s historic excesses. Unleashed from platforms like Tesla and SpaceX (even, to some extent, PayPal) which he founded (or was involved with from a very early stage) and therefore had to be held accountable for the culture, Musk was taking aim at the company he had just bought for $43bn. He was saying the unsayable about what investors perceived to be a bloat – and a lack of genuine innovation – at the heart of tech.
And I think that’s important to remember, whenever you’re asking yourself the question of why (on earth) Musk is continuing to run Twitter like he’s a CompSci major at his first frat party. On the platform, the overwhelming majority of ‘serious’ people (yes, inverted commas intended) are telling him he’s behaving like an idiot. The market (because even though Twitter has been taken private, it’s still led by advertiser revenue) has been telling him he’s behaving like an idiot. Some of his closest professional allies have publicly disavowed him. But, behind the scenes, I’m confident that there are a number of people in the tech community who have continued to gas him up. Elon, you’re telling it like it is buddy! Sure, I couldn’t say the things you do – I don’t want to tank our share price – but we’re all so grateful that you’re taking one for the team. You’re a visionary!
But last week he did something that I think is stupid, even by his standards. He picked a fight with Halli (aka Haraldur Ingi Þorleifsson) a Twitter employee and, crucially, Iceland’s Person of the Year for 2022. That award was given to him, not for his job at the bird site, but because Halli, who has muscular dystrophy, has been building hundreds of wheelchair ramps in Iceland (targeting 1,500 ramps by 2026). Nice one.
Now, I am not in the PR business (though always happy to get into it Elon: please email) but I would’ve thought this seems a stupid person to pick a fight with. Halli, who believed he had been let go by Twitter, tweeted about his experience and Musk replied, directly, dismissing his professional efforts. Ok, that’s poor form when you’re talking to a recently laid off worker, but it’s par for the course with Musk. He believes – in a manner not dissimilar to former Downing Street advisor Dominic Cummings – that there is a an exceptional work ethic that exists, somewhere in the mysterious land of technology. But what he did next was he said the unsayable. He said exactly what I’m sure many of his fellow CEOs and investors think. What he said was:
“The reality is that this guy (who is independently wealthy) did no actual work, claimed as his excuse that he had a disability that prevented him from typing, yet was simultaneously tweeting up a storm. Can’t say I have a lot of respect for that.”
I don’t think it’s any secret that there are a lot of people who don’t really buy the modern idea of disability or its relationship to the workplace. Capitalism is, at its heart, very socially regressive. It is the pursuit of money, and the most efficient pathway to profit is almost always at odds with the most inclusive atmosphere. And so I’m sure that there are a cabal of people in tech who think exactly what Musk says here, that disability is somehow an “excuse” for poor or limited performance. It’s cold, it’s heartless, it’s a symptom of a decayed system.
But it’s also, really f****** stupid.
I’m not an employment lawyer but I saw that tweet and I thought “lawsuit”. And there’s no point slashing jobs, hollowing out the company until it can barely function, just to pay those savings back in settlement costs. Halli sold his company, Ueno, to Twitter in 2021 for a vast fee that was amortised as salary over several years: in short, that would be a very expensive settlement. Musk’s first tweet went out at 7:47am, and, at 11:51pm the same day, he tweeted:
“I would like to apologize to Halli for my misunderstanding of his situation. It was based on things I was told that were untrue or, in some cases, true, but not meaningful.”
That tweet had enormous “I’ve just spoken to a lawyer” energy, even though nothing has been confirmed in that department. It might just be the soft bigotry of low expectations, but this felt like a good resolution; as close to a humbling as Musk is likely to receive on his platform. But I think there are two major takeaways from this incident that we should all be keeping in our mind as we look at the way that digital media and technology develops over the next few years.
First, there’s some really nasty stuff circulating in tech circles that is, in my opinion, totally anathema to what good technology can, and should, do. Tech is a sector that can maximise opportunity. The original ideals of 21st century technology were distinct from finance in that sense: banks were always concerned with maximising profits, technology was about maximising opportunity. Remember that Tim Berners-Lee didn’t make a penny from inventing the World Wide Web. For a long time Mark Zuckerberg just owned grey t-shirts and sat in the office coding, like a nerd. But slowly, and with more than a whiff of Musk, tech has become more like the world of finance. More about margins, less about exciting opportunities to make the world better. Tesla was about making the world better, SpaceX is about making the world better – Twitter is about what exactly? Something vague, connected to a sense of power and self-importance.
And in this nasty world, there are a lot of people who don’t want to support employees with disabilities. Who don’t want to offer generous maternity leave or paternity leave, or give people volunteering days or mental health days or even sick leave. Who genuinely believe that the pursuit of money (the means, rather than the end, of life’s fulfilment) ought to be enough in itself.
Secondly, it is an incident that I hope will precipitate a correction to my (currently) incorrect prediction about Twitter in 2023. Musk needs a CEO very soon. There is talk that Steve Davis, CEO of Musk-owned The Boring Company (not the snooker player), might fill that role (certainly he’s already working at Twitter in an ad hoc basis). But for my prediction of a return to normality to come true, this needs to happen sooner than the Musk-mooted “end of 2023”. Because the current state of affairs is not normal, and not good.
It's funny, though, because the extent to which Musk’s attention has been diverted to Twitter would lead you to believe, perhaps, that Tesla is in truly rude health. Thriving, let’s say. And much as the author of this newsletter craves his own Tesla, that company is in a very sticky place. Battery supply issues, autopilot issues, regulatory issues, and a growing ambivalence about the car giant on Wall Street, could all make Musk a very nervous billionaire. Perhaps burning through the $43bn he invested in Twitter is a form of therapy, a way of avoiding dealing with the shit-show that is the Musk portfolio’s current performance.
One last prediction then, and one that I truly hope will look as silly as my “Twitter normality” one currently does. Expect Musk to start dropping hints about a 2024 run at the White House. Because if 2016-2020 taught us one thing, it’s that the Oval Office can provide a, time limited, solace for businessmen whose assets are rapidly devaluing.
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