Musk mulls over major changes to Twitter – and hits some roadblocks

Billionaire Elon Musk has been reviewing Twitter's company code with help from Tesla engineers. PHOTO: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO - Mr Elon Musk is working to make his mark on Twitter, days after assuming ownership of the service. The world’s richest man has been reviewing the company’s code with help from Tesla engineers, while consulting with powerful friends he trusts to help him make important decisions about where to take the product.

So far, it turns out that making major changes to a 16-year-old product with about 7,000 employees is easier said than done. Here is an overview of what Mr Musk is considering – and how it intersects with reality:

Job cuts

Twitter employees have been bracing themselves for layoffs ever since Mr Musk took over and fired the top executive team, including chief executive Parag Agrawal. Over the weekend, a few director and vice-president jobs were cut, according to sources familiar with the matter. Other leaders were asked at the weekend to make lists of employees on their teams who can be let go, the sources said.

Senior staff on product teams were asked to target a 50 per cent reduction in headcount, according to a source familiar with the matter. Engineers and director-level staff from Tesla reviewed the lists, the source said, asking not to be identified discussing private information.

Layoff lists were drawn up and ranked based on individuals’ contributions to Twitter’s code during their time at the company, the sources said. The assessment was made by both Tesla staff and Twitter managers.

Top of mind for employees: stock awards vesting on Tuesday. Some were waiting for that vesting date to voluntarily resign from the company, and if they do, Mr Musk would not have to pay them severance. Others are hoping the layoffs do not come before they earn those stock rewards.

Either way, staff have been exchanging private phone numbers and adding one another on professional social network LinkedIn in anticipation of being fired, the sources said.

Leadership

Mr Musk has turned to old friends for advice in the first few days of his Twitter ownership. He has been regularly meeting Mr David Sacks, a venture capitalist and friend from his PayPal days; Mr Jason Calacanis, a friend and investor; and Mr Sriram Krishnan, a former Twitter executive and current general partner at venture firm Andreessen Horowitz.

The group has been discussing Twitter’s product strategy, though it is unknown if any of them will be full-time leaders at the company. Both Mr Calacanis and Mr Sacks have Twitter e-mail addresses in the company’s internal directory, and Mr Krishnan tweeted on Sunday that he is still “very much in my day job” at Andreessen Horowitz.

One possible full-time leader is Mr Kayvon Beykpour, the former head of Twitter product who was fired earlier in 2022 by Mr Agrawal. While Mr Beykpour was seen in the office after the deal closed and has been approached about a return, nothing has been finalised, according to sources.

Vine video app

Mr Musk is considering a revival of Vine, say sources familiar with the matter. Vine, acquired by Twitter in 2012, was a popular short-form video app that minted several Internet stars before it faded and was shut down. The service started the trend now dominated by ByteDance’s TikTok and copied by Instagram’s Reels and YouTube’s Shorts.

Many employees are volunteering internally to work on the Vine project, according to a source, hoping that joining an effort Mr Musk is excited about might help them keep their jobs.

Bringing it back would not be as simple as turning it on. The product, shut down in 2016, is built on old code that would no longer communicate with Twitter’s current systems, and would most likely have to be rewritten, according to sources. It would also lead to other challenges, like the possibility of music rights partnerships and need for better creator payment features.

Verification

Mr Musk wants to start charging users for the blue-check verification badge, sources say. He has tasked a team with building the option under threat of having their roles eliminated if they do not achieve it in seven days, The Verge has reported.

The plan spurred lots of commentary from Twitter users. Some said they would never pay for something they used to get for free, while others said Twitter was leaving money on the table if it did not charge for something so coveted.

Some critics of the plan noted that if Twitter charges, it will most likely end up with fewer verified users, creating a breeding ground for impersonation and misinformation. Also, if verification becomes something users pay for – rather than qualify for, as public figures or brands – the blue tick mark could carry less social clout than it does today. 

Content moderation

Mr Musk’s best-known proposal for Twitter’s future: making it a haven for “free speech”. But it is not clear how he plans to do so. He has said publicly that he will hold off on making decisions about which banned users will be restored until he can consult with a council of outside experts.

Internally, employees say, Mr Musk has raised questions about a number of policies and has zeroed in on a few specific rules that he wants the team to review. The first is Twitter’s general misinformation policy, which penalises posts that include falsehoods about topics like election outcomes and Covid-19. Mr Musk wants the policy to be more specific, according to sources.

He has also asked the team to review Twitter’s hateful-conduct policy, according to the sources, specifically a section that says users can be penalised for “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals”. In both cases, it is unclear if Mr Musk wants the policies to be rewritten or the restrictions removed entirely.

While things get sorted out, some people who work in Twitter’s Trust and Safety organisation are unable to alter or penalise accounts that break rules around misleading information, offensive posts and hate speech, sources say. There are some exceptions, as the most high-impact violations that would involve real-world harm are handled manually. But some employees are concerned about the tools remaining frozen, days before a major United States election. BLOOMBERG

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