SAN FRANCISCO — Elon Musk issued an ultimatum to Twitter employees Wednesday morning: Commit to a new “hardcore” Twitter or leave the company with severance pay.
“This will mean working long hours at high intensity,” he said. “Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”
By mid-Wednesday, members of Twitter’s Trust and Safety team — who are responsible for keeping hate speech and misinformation off the site — were discussing a mass resignation, according to three current employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
The email came just a few hours after Musk tweeted he was tabling Twitter’s Blue Verified, his first major product since taking over last month as Twitter’s owner and chief executive, while the company sorts out issues with the feature following a botched rollout. Inside Twitter, staffers are using the additional time to conduct a postmortem on the launch, trying to understand why impersonations of high-profile individuals and brands spiraled out of control, according to a person with knowledge of the internal discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
According to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal matters, as well as internal and externally compiled data reviewed by The Washington Post, the new service failed to gain much traction during its brief stint — skewing toward a few niche communities and threatening Twitter’s core advertising revenue.
The ultimatum to employees, paired with the Blue launch and its backtrack, served as the culmination of a whirlwind couple of weeks after Musk bought the company for $44 billion late last month, putting the company under significant financial pressure. Musk slashed half of the 7,500 employees who were at Twitter when he took over.
The Post previously reported that before taking over, in his pitch to investors, Musk proposed cutting the staff by nearly 75 percent.
Musk and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.
Musk is facing pressure to push up the value of Twitter — which some analysts have said was actually worth about half of what he paid, partially because of the decline in the markets between his offer in April and its closing in October. Twitter is also expected to owe roughly $1 billion in annual interest — on top of recouping the investments of Musk’s many equity partners.
Musk has said he wants to monetize the platform, focusing on ways to drive revenue. And he’s also slashing costs and changing the company’s culture, as demonstrated by the overnight email. Musk, who is also CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, is known for his companies’ hard-charging cultures and has famously described spending nights in a sleeping bag on the factory floor.
On Wednesday, Musk took the stand in Delaware Chancery Court in a trial over a shareholder lawsuit stemming from a compensation package he received as Tesla CEO. He also defended some of his actions at Twitter, including bringing in Tesla engineers to evaluate Twitter’s engineering staff.
Musk also acknowledged a tweet claiming he had planned to sleep on the Twitter floor until the organization is fixed, a process he expects to be complete by the end of this week, he said in court.
Musk said in the email to staffers that Twitter would be more of an engineering-focused operation going forward — and while the design and product management areas would still be important and report to him, he said, “those writing great code will constitute the majority of our team and have the greatest sway.”
Employees were given instructions for how to stay on with the company. “If you are sure that you want to be part of the new Twitter, please click yes on the link below,” read the email, which linked to an online form.
Anyone who did not sign the pledge by 5 p.m. Eastern time Thursday would receive three months of severance pay, the message said.
Still, multiple employees said they refused to sign any pledge, signaling their frustration with the new direction and the blow it has dealt to staff morale. The workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said the ultimatum was the final straw.
“I’m delighted to know I have the option to leave,” one of them said. “I’m not committing to hardcore Twitter.”
The Trust and Safety team monitors and polices the site for abuse, hate speech, misinformation and other rule-breaking content. Its role is aimed at fostering a “healthy discourse” on the site, and its ousted leader, Vijaya Gadde, wrote that it did so in the name of “free expression.” Many of the members feel that Musk doesn’t value their contributions, the employees said.
If the team decides to go forward with a mass resignation, it could throw content moderation on the site into chaos — something already feared to be in jeopardy after layoffs earlier this month.
Meanwhile, advertisers have been pausing spending on the site, hurting Twitter’s main source of revenue. Companies including General Motors, Volkswagen and General Mills said they were pausing advertising after Musk took over — with some brands acting in conjunction with calls from civil rights groups to do so.
That was exacerbated last month when Musk tweeted a link to an article laden with unsupported conspiracy theories about the attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
A week ago, Musk launched a new $7.99 service that placed a blue check mark — which had previously served as a signal that an account was verified — on accounts that signed up via iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system. Quickly, accounts impersonating everyone from President Biden to LeBron James popped up, causing massive confusion.
Sign-ups were paused last week, and Musk announced via a tweet late Tuesday that the service wouldn’t relaunch until Nov. 29, “to make sure that it is rock solid.”
The Blue Verified debacle, in which some major brands were impersonated, added to advertisers’ concerns. The Post reported this week that a fake tweet using the name and logo of Eli Lilly may have cost Twitter millions, after the pharmaceutical giant paused ad spending on the site.
Punting relaunch of Blue Verified to November 29th to make sure that it is rock solid— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 15, 2022
According to the people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal matters, as well as the internal and externally compiled data reviewed by The Post, Twitter’s heaviest users are the ones most likely to subscribe, but they are also the company’s primary advertising base — a key driver of revenue.
Twitter would need to charge $44 a month each to recoup the advertising value generated by the top segment of its heaviest U.S. users if it relied only on subscriptions, according to an internal document reviewed by The Post. The more active the user, the higher the subscription price would need to be, according to the documents, which warned of the opportunity cost of cutting ads and high subscription prices needed if Twitter were to make up for the revenue generated by ad-consuming power users.
Meanwhile, those who subscribed to Blue Verified were often accounts promoting right-wing politics, cryptocurrency speculation or adult content such as pornography, a review of Twitter data compiled by a software developer showed.
Elon Musk and Twitter
About 150,000 users were subscribed to Twitter Blue — which encompasses Blue Verified — at the time of the pause, according to one of the people with knowledge of internal matters, a figure corroborated by internal data on tweets from Blue Verified accounts and an external analysis. That’s just 0.06 percent of the roughly 250 million people estimated to use Twitter each day.
That subscriber figure would bring in only $14.4 million annually in revenue — while threatening the ad revenue generated from super-users who pay for Twitter Blue and will see fewer advertisements, a trade-off that was warned about in the internal document predating Musk’s takeover.
Musk has tweeted that new subscribers would see “half as many ads.”
Twitter Blue — which previously allowed users to edit tweets, among other features — had around 100,000 subscribers before the new launch including the check mark, according to the website Platformer.
Twitter earned about 79 percent of its U.S. ad revenue from just 10 percent of its most valuable users, according to the internal document reviewed by The Post. Its top 1 percent of U.S. users — who are in turn the ones most likely to shell out $8 — earn the service more than $40 each month in revenue, the document shows.
Only a smidgen of the 150,000 Twitter Blue subscribers are fake or joke accounts, according to data compiled from Twitter’s public data feed for software developers. A large portion of the most followed accounts that got “verified” via Twitter Blue, according to the data reviewed by The Post, are from a few specific subcommunities on Twitter: pornography, cryptocurrency advocates and overseas accounts, particularly from the Middle East.
The data was compiled by Berlin software developer Travis Brown and reviewed and verified by The Post.
According to the data, most of the members of a list of some 135,000 Twitter Blue subscribers were ordinary users with a few hundred followers who had been on the site for more than six years. (It’s not clear how many had subscribed to the earlier, pre-Musk iteration of the Twitter Blue program.)
Nearly a quarter of the more than 600 Twitter Blue accounts with more than 250,000 followers focused on posting adult content, which Twitter, unlike many other social networks, allows. Many of the adult performers on Twitter use the site as the top of their marketing funnel to attract new paying customers, with their Twitter display names advertising the price of a subscription on other paid sites, such as OnlyFans, where they show their content.
Twitter is rushing to launch a paid video feature that could let their customers pay on Twitter instead of elsewhere, The Post reported earlier this month — although the site’s internal watchdog flagged the product as a “high” risk. A previous adult-content-focused subscription service product was shelved, before Musk’s ownership of Twitter, after the company realized it could not guarantee it wasn’t monetizing child sexual abuse material, Platformer reported in August.
Nearly 10 percent of overall Twitter Blue subscribers talk about cryptocurrency on their profile pages, including popular crypto news and accounts that promote crypto investments that they predict will rise, according to The Post’s review.
One major group of new Twitter Blue subscribers are right-wing influencers. Some 150 accounts that disproportionately interact with at least five prominent right-wing influencers signed up this way.
Joseph Menn contributed to this report.