Spare a thought for the social platform’s employees, who might be asked to do the impossible.
Elon Musk is reviving his original takeover bid for Twitter Inc., perhaps because he doesn’t want to go through a legal process that divulges more embarrassing text messages. We don’t know exactly why Musk is carrying out this year’s most spectacular corporate U-turn, which Bloomberg News first reported on Tuesday, but the vitriol that Musk and Twitter have flung at one another is set to be hastily swept under the carpet as paperwork is signed. Twitter has confirmed it received his letter and that it intends to close the transaction. The deal, in other words, might actually happen.
That leaves us contemplating how one of the world’s most influential social networks will fare under Musk’s leadership. Civil liberties groups have already wrung their hands over how the site’s moderation will change, fearing a flood of hate speech and misinformation thanks to Musk’s strange and messy views on free speech. (He wants people to speak more freely on the site, but not when it involves criticizing him, essentially.)
How that pans out is an open question. What’s clearer is that in the event of a deal, Twitter will get a massive culture shock. A company notorious for its internal indecisiveness, where product decisions move at a glacial pace because managers obsess over achieving consensus with one another, will suddenly shift to a fast-paced, autocratic structure. Musk will push Twitter to chase seemingly impossible goals, under ridiculous deadlines. Staff who have mocked the idea of working for Musk in internal Slack channels will soon be reeling from what seem like insane demands.
Musk, for instance, has said he wants to authenticate all real humans on the site. That means he could very well demand that his engineers shrink the total number of spambots from around 5% to under 1%. While other CEOs might give them a few years to do the job, there’s a good chance he will tell them to do it within the next six to 12 months.
Musk has a history of demanding the impossible of his companies, while creating a reality distortion field for the rest of us about what they will achieve. In 2019 he told investors that by 2020 Tesla would put a million driverless robo-taxis on the roads, able to drive themselves anywhere in the world under any conditions. That never happened. That same year, he said his Neuralink chip would go into a human brain by 2020. So far, they have only been implanted in monkeys.
He isn’t all puffery. Musk has revitalized the US space program by putting a rocket into orbit and landing it back on Earth. He has pioneered a global revolution in electric cars, and given Ukrainians internet access with his Starlink satellite internet program.
But Musk has a history of overpromising. “Self-driving” Teslas have made dangerous mistakes, and thousands of its owners have paid $15,000 for “full-self-driving capability” that actually requires them to stay engaged in the car’s operation.
Somehow Musk has continued to dangle carrots in front of our eyes, telling us the stuff of science fiction is just around the corner. He was doing it again on Friday, at the unveiling of a humanoid robot at a Tesla event last week on artificial intelligence.
“Last year it was just a person in a robot suit,” he said. Which was true. Within 12 months and from scratch, his engineers had built a robot that could walk across the stage on slightly bent knees, wires snaking around the actuators behind metal limbs and joints.
The robot was nothing revolutionary, but Musk’s engineers had done a remarkable job in racing to develop the technology within such a short amount of time.
As he stood on stage at the Tesla presentation on Friday, he appeared to make more predictions on the fly. Tesla would sell millions of the robots, for less than the cost of a car, he said. “I would say less, probably less than $20,000,” he declared. (The cheapest human-size robot costs closer to $150,000.)
Twitter’s staff should expect similar sorts of pressures, and they will have to find creative ways to get Musk’s public pronouncements to make sense. During Friday’s robot presentation, for instance, an engineer boasted that the Optimus robot could simply use the Tesla autopilot technology to navigate around offices. The company didn’t mention that Tesla’s driving system has been trained on videos of roads, not the insides of buildings or factories. That made their demo of a robot gently placing a package on the desk of an office worker look like complete fantasy.
Expect Musk to extend his tactics to Twitter, promising swift, sweeping rule changes while demanding that product managers figure out how to make them work.
The big unknown is how his bold demands will pan out in the field of policy and free speech, a more nebulous and unpredictable domain than engineering.
He’ll also find it a lot harder to push Twitter staff to pursue his lofty goals; his contentious back-and-forth with the company means he is kicking off his leadership with a huge trust deficit. He will need to earn employees’ respect if he wants them to carry out his demands, which may be the biggest ambition yet.
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is author of “We Are Anonymous.”