By the end of last week, when some of the initial dust around Elon Musk’s arrival as Twitter new largest shareholder had settled, Twitter employees tried to approach the situation with some gallows humor.
One line in particular became a standard among messages traded between Tweeps (as Twitter employees call themselves): Maybe Musk, in all his unconventionality, could figure out a way to begin rewarding them in Tesla stock. Certainly, shares of the electric carmaker run by Musk had lately outperformed Twitter stock (by more than a factor of 10 in the five years before Musk showed up at Twitter’s doorstep).
“Everyone was trying to crack jokes about it,” says a person at Twitter who viewed the chats. “But then it’s like, ‘OK, what does this mean for us?’”
That’s still not particularly clear because there’s quickly been several more twists in the corporate drama, which has proven surprisingly topsy-turvy in a short amount of time.
Once Musk revealed his 9.2% stake company last Monday, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal a day later said Musk would join the board, a move that unnerved some Tweeps. They worried Musk, who has become one of the service’s most popular figures through controversial statements about everything from drugs to politics, would damage Twitter’s internal culture, according to conversations with approximately a half dozen current Twitter employees, all of whom spoke anonymously because they weren’t authorized to talk publicly. Over the last decade, the company has developed a reputation as, frankly, a nice place to work. (Tweeps tend to unironically post things like #LoveWhereYouWork.) It is a contrast to the move-fast-and-break-everything mantra present at other Big Tech companies, which try to mitigate such hard-nosed behavior with lucrative salaries and lavish perks. Leaving some at Twitter to feel that Musk and the uncertainty around him imperiled their work. “It’s been chaos,” says a Twitter employee. “Chaos and confusion.”
Those factors have only been compounded over the last few days. Musk has now chosen to turn down the board seat he’d agreed to days earlier, informing Agrawal about the decision on Saturday morning (presumably pacific time). Here, hour-by-hour timing surprisingly matters. Musk spent much of Saturday on Twitter throwing out increasingly wild suggestions for the $37 billion company—scrap ads, abandon the San Francisco headquarters—adding to already sizeable consternation among Twitter rank and file.
Unlike other situations where an aggressive shareholder might ride in and hope to shake up a company through private board meetings and backroom deals, Musk offered front-row seats to the world, a startingly break with typical corporate protocol. In fact, he offered average Twitter users a chance to get in on the action directly. Musk released two polls last week to his 81 million followers, one about whether they wanted an editing function and another about changing the company name. (He presented the latter with only two affirmative-style responses, presenting an inevitable path where Twitter would lose a consonant and its name would be a crudish joke.)
At some point on Saturday, Agrawal seems to have presented Musk with an ultimatum: Accept the board seat and stop stirring up such trouble. Or continue to do as you like—and don’t take the directorship. Musk chose the second, though we still don’t know (and likely never will) which of his strange ideas pushed Twitter and him over the brink.
Agrawal, who had worked with founder Jack Dorsey to publicly embrace Musk last week and shares some common ideas with the pair about decentralizing some power over social media, notified Twitter employees about the U-turn decision Sunday evening. He also published a version of his note on Twitter, and the company has cancelled a planned Q&A session between Musk and Twitter employees. (Twitter declined to comment further about Musk.)
Agrawal’s note came at strange moment for Twitter employees. Monday was a so-called Day of Rest at Twitter, a day off each month the company gives to employees to recharge—hang out with their kids, go to the spa, stock up at Costco, whatever. But some Twitter employees found Monday less than relaxing, left trying to digest the “he’s in, he’s tweeting, he’s out” happenings around Musk. It was the second time in recent months that corporate news has consumed a Day of Rest : Dorsey’s departure in November also leaked out on a Day of Rest. “They might as well cancel the Days of Rest. They’re cursed,” one Tweep complained, finding it hard to enjoy a quiet breakfast. “Obviously, I’m kidding,” the person added hastily, “but something does always to seem to happen recently.”
It’ll likely remain the case, too. The whole thing with Musk seems unlikely to have found a permanent conclusion, and Agrawal was none too coy about this in his public statement. “There will be distractions ahead, but our goals and priorities remain unchanged,” he wrote. Agrawal has inherited a set of bold goals from Dorsey, who agreed to them to fend off another assailing investor several years ago. Twitter hopes to have $7.5 billion in revenue and 315 million daily users by 2023, tough targets that have hung heavily on the company shares. For now, investors chose to shrug off Musk’s sudden reversal about the board, sending Twitter stock up 1.8% on Monday, a day when the Nasdaq dropped 2.2%.
Musk, the world’s wealthiest person, is well positioned to launch a hostile takeover against Twitter if he chooses. Though there are some questions about how exactly he’d finance it—his fortune is mostly in Tesla shares, not liquid cash—and whether Twitter would adopt a poison pill defense to ward him off, diluting his stake at great cost to itself. Musk on Monday made a new filing with the SEC about his Twitter stake, outlining his intentions to possibly “engage in discussions with the Board…through social media or other channels” and said he “reserves the right to change his plans at any time.”