For weeks, Elon Musk has publicly trashed Twitter, even though he is buying the company in a $44 billion deal. On Thursday, he finally acted like an owner.
In an hourlong question-and-answer session in the morning with Twitter’s 8,000 or so employees — the first time Musk has spoken with them since he agreed to buy the social media company in April — the world’s richest man opened up about his plans for the service. In an effusive and at times rambling address, he is touched on topics as varied as growth, potential layoffs, anonymity, Chinese apps, the existence of alien life-forms and even the cosmic nature of Twitter.
“I want Twitter to contribute to a better, long-lasting civilization where we better understand the nature of reality,” Musk said in the meeting, which was livestreamed to Twitter employees and which The New York Times listened to.
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The 50-year-old added that he hoped the service could help humankind “better understand the nature of the universe, as much as it is possible to understand.”
The meeting, which Musk participated in from his cellphone in what appeared to be a hotel room, suggested that he was set on closing the blockbuster acquisition. His intentions had been in doubt in recent weeks when the billionaire, who also runs electric carmaker Tesla and rocket company SpaceX, repeatedly raised questions about Twitter’s fake accounts in an apparent pretext for potentially ending or renegotiating the deal.
Since April, the famously mercurial Musk has tweeted that the purchase was “on hold” and accused Twitter of “actively resisting and thwarting” his rights. At another point, he had criticized some of the company’s executives. He made his inflammatory comments as global markets tumbled and shares of Tesla, which are his main source of wealth, plummeted.
The antics from Musk, who is paying $54.20 a share to buy Twitter, had left investors, the company’s employees and others guessing as to what he might do. Twitter’s stock is now trading around $37. Yet the company has insisted that the deal remains on track and that it has been sharing information with Musk, who is on the hook for a breakup fee of $1 billion if he walks away.
Musk did not directly address Thursday whether he would close the deal with Twitter, but he made it clear to employees that he had grand ambitions.
During the conversation, which was moderated by Twitter’s chief marketing officer, Leslie Berland, Musk said he hoped to expand the service to more than 1 billion users across the world. That would be nearly four times the number of current users. He added that he was hands-on at Tesla and expected to be so at Twitter.
Even with such a performance, some cautioned that Musk might still change his mind about the deal for Twitter.
“I assume he’s operating on two tracks,” said Ann Lipton, a professor of corporate governance at Tulane Law School. “Maybe he wants to lower the price or even cancel the deal. If the deal goes through, he wants additional investors.”
She added: “Publicly talking to Twitter employees, trying to assuage their concerns, maybe gives reassurances to potential investors. But I’m not clear whether that’s his Plan B or his Plan A.”
Twitter declined to comment on the meeting, and Musk did not respond to a request for comment.
Musk had been scheduled to speak to Twitter’s employees weeks ago, but the session did not take place. Then over the past week, the San Francisco-based company began collecting questions for him from employees on its internal Slack messaging system. The meeting, scheduled to start at 9 am San Francisco time, began a few minutes late, with Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s CEO, thanking Musk.
Then Musk started answering questions, including about remote work. This month, he sent memos to workers at Tesla and SpaceX saying he expected them to be in the office for 40 hours a week. Twitter’s employees have worked remotely in the coronavirus pandemic.
Musk told Twitter employees that he was open to their working remotely, given that developing software is different from showing up daily to build cars. But he said a broad lack of in-office participation could contribute to a dwindling “esprit de corps” and hoped that people would be willing to go into the office more in the future.
Musk dodged directly answering whether there would be layoffs at Twitter, though his answer was somewhat ominous.
“Right now, costs exceed revenue,” he said. “That’s not a great situation.”
At another point, he digressed into a discussion about whether extraterrestrial life was possible, though it was unclear where he netted out. He also brought up the Chinese apps WeChat and TikTok as aspirational, given that WeChat is so embedded in people’s daily lives in China and TikTok is “not boring.”
One improvement that Musk said he wanted to make was adding payments technology to Twitter. Ideally, users would be able to send money back and forth through the service, similar to how products like Venmo or Square Cash operate.
Musk, a longtime power user of Twitter with more than 98 million, has long said he believes the company’s potential followers is underutilised. He has added that he hopes to rejuvenate the service outside the eye of the public markets by taking the company private and making significant changes to how Twitter operates.
Inside Twitter, some employees have had mixed feelings about Musk. Some have said they are concerned by his Twitter habits and murky politics.
On Thursday, employees at SpaceX circulated a memo saying that they were also concerned about their CEO’s public behavior — particularly how he acted on Twitter — and that it reflected poorly on employees.
“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us,” read the letter, which was obtained by the Times and reported earlier by The Verge. “As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX — every tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public statement by the company.”
Others at Twitter have said they were worried by how Musk wants to take a laissez-faire approach to policing the platform.
On Thursday, he emphasized that he wanted to make Twitter as inclusive a platform as possible, mostly by gaining more users, adding that he would not allow criminal acts to be carried out on the network. He said that he also didn’t want to make people use their real names on Twitter and that there was a utility in using pseudonyms to express political views on the service.
Some Twitter employees, who have pointed to Musk’s reputation as an innovator, said they felt heartened after Thursday’s meeting. Musk was not hostile and seemed to have a vision for the product, despite not being able to enunciate it clearly at times, they said. Others said he had not addressed their questions, with one employee writing in an internal Slack message, which was viewed by the Times, that “if you took a drink each time he answered a question, you’d be painfully sober at the end of this.”
Musk was noncommittal when asked if he planned to assume the CEO role at Twitter when he took over the company. He said he wasn’t a traditional CEO and pointed to his title at Tesla, which is Technoking. But he also noted that he had many ideas for product updates and how the service should evolve, and that he would make those known to others within the company.
“I do expect that they will listen to me in this regard,” Musk said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.