On Oct. 26, 2022, Elon Musk’s first official day as owner and CEO of Twitter, there were already warning signs that he might not be the savior that the social-media company had hoped for.
True to his promise that “software engineering, server operations & design will rule the roost,” Musk’s first meeting was with several of Twitter’s top engineers
But during their presentation, Musk pulled out his phone and announced that he needed to tweet something.
They learned later that the urgent tweet was a video of Musk carrying a porcelain sink into the lobby of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, with the text: “Entering Twitter HQ — let that sink in!”
Musk’s dad joke was a harbinger of things to come, writes Kurt Wagner in his new book, “Battle for the Bird: Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk, and the $44 Billion Fight for Twitter’s Soul” (Atria Books), out Feb. 20.
A little over a year after his $44 billion takeover, Musk has managed to embroil the platform in a string of controversies, lose billions in ad revenue and see a 71% drop in the tech giant’s value.
All this from a man who once claimed that if he didn’t swoop in to save Twitter, its downfall “would be a danger for the future of civilization.”
Wagner isn’t the only author exploring how Musk made such a mess of Twitter.
Recent books like “Extremely Hardcore: Inside Elon Musk’s Twitter” by Zoë Schiffer (out Feb. 13) and “Breaking Twitter: Elon Musk and the Most Controversial Corporate Takeover in History” by Ben Mezrich (out now) have also attempted to parse how an entrepreneur hailed for his “revolutionary” ideas could deliver so spectacularly for Twitter.
At least among the Twitter staff, Musk “had a way of charming people, even those who were determined not to like him,” Wagner writes. “Most importantly, he had a skill for saying the things that people wanted to hear.”
During his first weeks at the company, Musk’s idealism was infectious.
He seemed to earnestly believe that saving Twitter was vitally important to the future of humanity.
“Civilizational risk is decreased the more we can increase the trust of Twitter as a public platform,” Musk said unironically during a TED2022 conference.
But as time went on, it became increasingly obvious to his new employees that Musk knew nothing about how to operate a social media company.
His understanding of Twitter “was colored almost entirely by his own experience as a user, which was far from normal considering he was a billionaire with more than 110 million followers,” writes Wagner.
During his first week, Musk sent a series of tweets promising a more relaxed approach to policing on the site. “Anyone suspended for minor & dubious reasons will be freed from Twitter jail,” he wrote.
And then later that same day, Musk declared that “Comedy is now legal on Twitter.”
It didn’t lead to a surge in hilarious one-liner tweets.
Instead, “there was a 1,300% increase in users tweeting the N-word on Twitter across several languages,” Wagner writes.
The Anti-Defamation League noted a huge surge in antisemitic tweets.
All of this made advertisers nervous, for obvious reasons. The NFL, which had a content partnership with Twitter dating back to 2013, “didn’t want its touchdown celebrations appearing alongside tweets from Nazis,” writes Wagner.
Musk, demonstrating the business savvy that made many believe he could steer Twitter into the future, orchestrated a video call with some of the biggest (and most risk-aversive) brands in the world — like General Electric, Mastercard, NBC, and Ford.
Musk “said all the right things,” writes Wagner, promising that “tweets with questionable content wouldn’t be shown to many people.”
The smooth-over was short-lived. Musk was soon undoing all the damage control with his own tweets, from claiming that civil rights activists pushing back against hate speech on Twitter were “trying to destroy free speech in America” to threatening a “thermonuclear name & shame” of advertisers who left the platform.
Not long after his “thermonuclear” tweet, more of Twitter’s advertisers began to flee the site, like United Airlines, REI and Volkswagen.
Musk “still didn’t seem to understand that his own behavior remained an issue,” writes Wagner.
“You don’t want to go to war with advertisers,” Wheeler warned him. “Oh, I will go to war,” Musk replied. “And I win wars.”
It wasn’t the last time Musk put his ideals on hold if it meant protecting his own interests (and ego).
He suspended @ElonJet, the Twitter account that tracked his plane travel in real time, despite claiming that he would protect it to prove his “commitment to free speech.”
While he promised advertisers that he wouldn’t reverse account bans and suspensions without consulting an advisory council, he did just the opposite in practice, reinstating Donald Trump’s account (based on a user poll), and then did the same with Kanye West before banning him again days later for a tweet featuring a swatstika. (“I tried my best,” he offered in explanation.)
Musk’s biggest blunder, Twitter Blue, was a bad idea from the beginning.
Musk was convinced that it would eliminate bot accounts — trolls would never pay $8 per month for verification badges, he reasoned — and would eliminate the system that Twitter had created which gave journalists “a higher status and more authority on Twitter than [Musk] thought they deserved,” Wagner writes.
Imposters took over almost immediately, even targeting Musk personally.
A blue-check account with the name @TeslaReal posted that all Teslas would be “inoperable effective immediately,” and then shared a picture of Musk posing next to convicted sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell with the caption “appreciation post for our amazing founders.”
If Musk understood the damage done, he held his cards close to his chest. “Quite the day!” Musk tweeted after Twitter Blue’s debut. “Some epically funny tweets.”
“It’s possible that Musk will still turn everything around,” Wagner writes.
After all, he did the same thing at his other companies, Tesla and rocket manufacturer SpaceX.
Twitter — or “X” as he rebranded Twitter last summer — could be “just the beginning of his next great turnaround story,” Wagner writes.
It’s certainly possible, but only if Musk can stop being his own worst enemy.
In November, he shared a glaringly antisemitic tweet just after the Hamas attack on Israel, adding, “You have said the actual truth.”
The backlash was predictable — and ironic, given that he’d banned Ye for antisemitism — and even more advertisers fled the platform, like Apple, IBM, Disney and several other major brands (Must embarked on an apology tour to Israel and Auschwitz soon afterward).
With so many missteps, how Musk ultimately went wrong is open to debate.
Esther Crawford, a former top Twitter lieutenant, suspected Musk had “surrounded himself with the wrong people,” who egged on his erratic behavior, “furthering the damage to his reputation,” as Mezrich reported in “Breaking Twitter.”
Another ex-Twitter employee (not named) told Schiffer for his book “Extremely Hardcore” that Musk is “a lot easier to understand if you’ve ever had a younger sibling that invented a game and added a new rule every time they started losing.”
But probably the best take on why Twitter (sorry, X) faces an uncertain future comes from Kimbal, Musk’s brother and one of his fiercest supporters, who opted to stop following Musk’s tweets when they became too embarrassing.
“The giant elephant in the room,” Kimbal quipped, “was that he was acting like a f–king idiot.”