Anchors Away

“The public markets are going to say a lot about us, but always remember, things are never as good or as bad as they say.”

It was a few days before our IPO at Twitter in 2013, and our captain was preparing us for the violence of the sea.

Dick knew that even with the relentless pounding Twitter had taken internally and externally for almost its entire voyage as a company, attaching a price to it that fluctuated many times per second, every day of the work week, would magnify the choppiness significantly.

Eyes on the horizon. Steady as she goes.

The next several years would prove Dick to be even more correct than he probably believed at the time. We would launch an important feature. Stock down. We would lose an important leader. Stock up. We used to laugh and shake our heads about how little the public markets seemed to understand what was really going on inside of the company… both positive and negative.

I worked at Twitter from 2012 to 2016, building and leading the Design & Research org. I worked for both Dick and Jack, and with multiple Heads of Engineering and Product. There have been zero unexciting or unimportant “eras” to have worked at Twitter, but I always think of this era as the time when:

  • The company transitioned from being private to public
  • The core service transitioned from text-only to a more visual, interactive timeline
  • The business transitioned from no revenue to billions of dollars per year

There are so many other things that happened in the time period — good and bad — but those are the three most notable. Talk to anyone else who was around during that time and they’ll all have their own favorite parts. Mine was helping build the kindest and most talented Design & Research team I had ever been a part of. Some are still at the company today, and many have joined me at my current job. I know you’re not supposed to say “work is like family” these days, but we go to each other’s weddings n’ shit.

Anyway, I was reminded of Dick’s wise words to us on the cusp of going public when we all found out this month that the company is now on the cusp of going private again, at the hands of Elon Musk.

Some people — although no employees I am aware of — seem to think this is the greatest news in the world. Some people think it’s the worst news they could imagine. Is it possible though that it’s neither? According to Costolo’s Razor, this is probably the case… but we can’t say with certainty until we know.

I have several things I’m very worried about, and also several reasons why I think things might turn out okay anyway. Let’s start with the new caretaker himself. I use the word caretaker because I think at this point, Twitter is a public good, no matter who may technically own it.

On balance, I don’t care much for Elon Musk.

However, he has a mix of valuable and deplorable qualities, and I think it’s important to deconstruct them to try and figure out how this whole thing might end up.

On the plus side:

  • He is uncommonly intelligent, as is evidenced by his deep knowledge and navigation of the hard sciences
  • He has built several incredible things that are good for the world, like mass-produced electric cars, a charging grid, and a new generation of rockets
  • At times, he shows a determination to do the greatest possible good for humanity

All of that tracks for me. I can dislike the guy and still admit that all the things above are true.

On the negative side though:

  • He has created working conditions at his companies that have been so bad he’s been litigated repeatedly over it
  • He shows no understanding of the complex social dynamics (aka soft sciences) that Twitter has to mitigate every single hour of every single day
  • He puts people who are just trying to help in physical danger by targeting them on Twitter
  • He openly admits that human feelings are not something he understands
  • He routinely makes disingenuous statements in order to get attention
  • He insulted the heroic free diver who helped save those trapped kids in Thailand by calling him a pedophile… for absolutely no reason
  • He publishes incredibly insensitive material including a Tweet comparing the Prime Minister of Canada (unfavorably) to Adolf Hitler

The word I keep coming back to with all of this stuff is “callous”. There is a callousness to Elon Musk that shows up in almost everything he does. The strange part is, his fans seem to actually love this callousness, while his detractors hate it.

I imagine the inner dialog for an Elon Musk fan is something like “Finally! Someone who doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks and just does what he wants!”

There are a lot of people in this world who don’t give a shit what anyone thinks and they do what they want. Most of those people fail. So in Elon Musk, they have a role model who at least verifies that the way they wish they could live their lives can actually work.

So they root for him.

And they defend him.

And they click their little mice thousands of times on 4chan and Reddit and Twitter lobbing mook beef at those who would dare question The Great Man™.

This is the point where you perhaps want me to spend another thousand words ripping Elon Musk to cement your opinion that he is wholly an evil human being. I’m not going to though, because I don’t believe that. I believe there are actually very few wholly evil people in this world. Most people are a mix of good and bad. I know I am.

The thing is though, if there is ONE quality Twitter — the company and the service — does not need more of it’s callousness.

The very best leaders Twitter has ever had are the most caring ones. The Adam Bains. The Leslie Berlands. The Doug Bowmans.

The worst leaders they’ve ever had have been the callous ones. No need to name names here. Every Tweep will have their own examples, probably all the way from 2006 until present day. If you think you’re in this list, it’s your own brain that’s telling you that… not mine.

Callousness inside of Twitter manifests itself in a lot of really damaging ways. To use a small personal example, in 2013, we made a change to the Block function that made it act more like Mute (this was before Mute existed). We had direct feedback from a very smart woman on our team (hi K!) that this would make it a lot easier for a man who had harassed her to continue harassing her. We released the change anyway, and lo-and-behold, thousands of users came forward to complain about the position we had put them in. We rolled it back within 24 hours and developed the separate Mute function you rely on today, but it’s a very small example of what happens when you don’t truly internalize the question “who will this hurt?”

There are plenty more examples of callousness hurting the company. Summarily rejecting candidates without certain prestigious degrees. Not taking seriously the experience of women and under-represented minorities at the company. Not taking the time to experience the product in other countries or over very slow connections. Not listening when thoughtful co-workers sound the alarm on toxic people.

Callousness also happens to be one of the biggest problems with the service itself. People think that Twitter has a Nazi problem. I’m sure there are Nazis on Twitter but for the most part, straight-up Nazi-ism gets dealt with pretty resolutely. The bigger problem has always been people slithering right up to the edge of what the Terms of Service prohibit and making life hell for innocent people.

“So you’re saying I can’t incite violence against this person? Fine. I will just quote-tweet them with something disapproving and my followers will take care of the rest. What?! What did I do?! I’m just exercising my freedom of speech!”

Imagine being a researcher who tweets out a link to a study you’ve worked on for a year, only to be bombarded by thousands of hateful attacks, wishing death upon you. Imagine because of this attack, and the doxxing that might come with it, you need to not just worry about your security on Twitter, but in your own home as well. Your free speech has been effectively silenced by free bullying. To be clear, these things already happen on Twitter, and they are terrible, but the only thing keeping them from happening a lot more often is the care and consideration of the Trust & Safety team at the company.

So in short: More callousness at the company, bad. More callousness on the service, bad.

I’m not sure why we would expect a man who has shown zero ability to empathize with anyone to improve either of those situations. In fact, I think we should expect both to get much, much worse if this transaction ends up going through (which I’m not yet convinced it will).

One other distinction I think is important is that I don’t think Musk’s callousness crosses over into hate or nihilism. No nihilist would work as hard as he has over the course of his lifetime. I actually believe the guy wants to do some flavor of good. I just think his definition of “doing good” is measured only by the accomplishments and not the damage; especially the emotional damage, which again he has openly admitted to not being able to detect or understand. It’s similar to the way I have heard certain Facebook executives describe their service: it’s a “net positive” to society. As if that distinction only requires helping 100 people after you hurt 99.

Anyway, we’ll return to Musk later, but back to Twitter the company. The reason we are in this situation to begin with is that the business has not shown the ability to grow itself at an adequate clip for a while now. If Twitter’s board truly believed significant growth was right around the corner, they’d have resisted this offer a lot harder than they did. As popular as Twitter is, it’s not dramatically more popular than it was 5 years ago.

Why not?

I have always believed there are three straightforward reasons Twitter is not as widely used as either Facebook or Instagram:

  1. The blunt truth is that very few people care what the average person has to say. Who does care? That person’s friends and family. Anybody with over 1000 followers on Twitter is blind to this effect. If you are one of the tiny percentage of people in the world who has, for whatever reason, commanded attention outside your immediate friends and family, Twitter can be an excellent interactive medium for you. But for your average carpenter, accountant, or retail worker, you’re going to be yelling into the wind on Twitter… and yelling into the wind gets lonely quickly. On Facebook, however, you have dozens of IRL acquaintances right there to Like every one of your thoughts. This is why Facebook “wins” for the average person. Again, not everyone, but I’m talking about the masses. This is the difference between 300m people and 3b people using your product.
  2. Photos are easier in every single way than words. They are easier to consume and easier to produce. Take any random person, give them a phone, drop them into a park, and they can pretty easily find something that qualifies as an interesting photo. A flower, an old street sign, a human face. Anything. And you don’t even need fancy filters anymore. Instagram’s single best quality is that it makes you look talented immediately. Contrast that to Twitter and its pesky literary environment. Ever read someone’s first tweet? This man is an incredibly funny stand-up comedian, a writer for Silicon Valley, and the eventual CEO OF Twitter, and yep, that’s it… that’s the tweet. Dick knows I love him, so I can use him as an example here, but it’s the same for everyone. It takes anywhere from a month to infinity months to “get good at Tweeting” and most people skew towards infinity. On the consumption side, it’s more about stress vs. delight. It turns out a lot more people want to absorb photos of hot summer bods on vacay than doomscroll through arguments about which Congresspeople should burn the hottest in hell. Can you blame them?
  3. Abuse drives people away. This is what all of the disingenuous “free speech” people either willfully ignore or just don’t understand. If y’all saw all the things that get removed from Twitter either automatically or after abuse reports, you’d be appalled. This is true of all popular social networks. We used to call ourselves “the free speech wing of the free speech party” so believe me, most people working at Twitter are vehemently free speech, but you just have no idea the damage some people try to cause until you see how the whole system works. This was a great thread on how this stuff goes awry and how the operators of social networks are not trying to censor anyone… they’re just trying to prevent damage caused by disingenuous and harmful actors. I am not sure if Twitter has ever quantified the number of users they’ve lost to abuse, but I’m sure it’s substantial.

That’s really it. Those three things. The peanut gallery loves to bloviate about a million other things they blame Twitter for — slow execution, incrementalism, censorship, whatever — but in my mind, everything else is minor compared to the three dynamics above. Take the Edit Button for example. An Edit Button will increase Twitter usage by 0.00%.

If you agree with me about those three factors, there are a few things you can do about it. You can try and solve them, you can leave them alone and make your service more popular in other ways, or you can just be cool with the idea that Twitter doesn’t need to be as big as its contemporaries.

The company has actually tried versions of all of the above. They’ve made a TON of progress on curbing abuse (although it’s never enough unless you hit zero), they’ve made the service more visual (although there is a limit before the nature of the service changes), and they’ve made it a bit easier to connect with friends. If you ask me, it’s always been that last one that holds the most promise. Twitter — like many things in life — is just so much better when your friends are there.

So what would Twitter look like under Musk? I think this is really important: there are no “logical, easy ways” to improve the service to any meaningful degree. All of that stuff has already been tried. Some of it has even worked… just not well enough to bend the growth curve much. So every time you hear someone say “if Twitter would simply do ___”, that person does not understand the depth of the problem they think they have magically solved.

Where does that leave Musk? Well, he can either go Regular Mode and try really hard stuff that is going to take a long time, or he can just go Maniac Mode and make reckless changes without regard for the effects they may have on people and just “see what happens”.

Regular Mode probably looks a lot like Twitter’s existing roadmap. Musk’s people get in there and realize that the employees at the company in fact aren’t stupid and are just working within the confines of a delicate piece of equipment that requires carefulness and human judgement every minute of every day. He makes some changes along the edges, and claims small victories whenever anything is launched, but for the most part Twitter’s anti-fragility shields it from too much disruption. It’s very, very hard to change usage patterns on Twitter, and without anything dramatic, it’s quite reasonable to assume the status quo remains. As a private company, Twitter will be required to release zero metrics, so any ones we see may be cherrypicked. This may lead to a narrative on the outside that Twitter is doing much, much better when in fact it is not. Best case in this scenario is that the company has bought itself another 5 or 10 years to figure out a way to grow again. It will probably be a painful journey, but it could work.

Maniac Mode affords a different set of possibilities, good and bad. Because the sole owner of the company appears ready to risk enterprise value, there are a bunch of things he could try:

  • Make Twitter subscription only. Usage might drop 90%, but maybe you’re ok with that? This is one of those possibilities that only exists if you’re willing to risk it all. Obvious downsides here, but again, if you don’t care, you can do whatever you want.
  • Make everyone verify their accounts with KYC (Know Your Customer). Again, obvious downsides of losing what is an important shield to some vulnerable parts of the population, but you can do it if you want.
  • Eliminate almost all content moderation. You’re going to see some terrible, terrible things and real physical harm if this happens, but if he stays true to the way he is speaking right now, this is on the menu. The biggest concern that people like me have about this deal is not that Twitter will get slightly more conservative. It’s that reckless ideas like this will turn Twitter into a machine that causes violence and war.
  • Use the platform to explicitly and implicitly attack his rivals. Unions, politicians, advocacy groups, and anyone else he decided he doesn’t like. I’m not just talking about “mean Tweets”. I mean actually turning the platform itself against them. If there’s one thing I know with near certainty, it’s that Elon Musk doesn’t actually swing right or left. He swings to whoever will help him do exactly what he wants and say exactly what he wants. Sort of a “fuck your feelings, unless they are also my feelings” political philosophy. Owning Twitter may turn into a way to induce more kowtowing by politicians than we’ve ever seen. In fairness though, it could turn out just the opposite, with officials from both sides targeting him for perceived sleights.
  • Cryptofy the entire platform. Create a currency that can be earned and spent on the platform by doing various things, and also exchangeable in the real world.
  • And finally… a controlled fission explosion of Twitter. Once in charge, Musk realizes all of the things he wants actually aren’t possible, so he essentially gives up and puts all energy behind creating a bunch of distributed, decentralized Twitters. We actually already know Jack wants something like this, so maybe the only way to do it was to have the richest guy in the world essentially sit on the bomb, take the short-term financial damage, and then cross his fingers that what follows is better than what came before.

I don’t know which of the above scenarios is most likely, but if living through 2016-2020 taught us anything, it’s that nothing should shock us anymore. I think it’s quite likely that as the closing date approaches, this deal could fall apart in any number of ways. A $1b “walkaway fee” is unnoticeable to someone worth over $250b. Twitter can also walk away for the same amount, or even zero under some conditions. The only money spent so far is akin to a small security deposit.

If this does goes through though, I don’t think we’ll see visible progress for quite awhile. If great people leave en masse, we could see the service degrade pretty quickly, but any significant improvements will take time. Likely years. Maniac Mode might be able to pull that forward, but everything in that bucket could also end in disaster.

As much this sharp turn in Twitter’s voyage makes me want to lurch and vomit, thinking about things that way isn’t helpful. This isn’t some perfect institution that has been taken over by Genghis Khan. It’s a deeply imperfect institution potentially being taken over by a deeply imperfect person. My fears come from the fact that the only reason Twitter has been able to remain — just barely at times — a net positive to the world is the deep care and consideration of people who work there.

The dedication to understanding all of the complex ways that social media can amplify the worst in us.

The dedication to working on a problem that is not solvable, but only steerable.

The dedication to waking up every single morning and bailing seawater off the deck when the world throws wave after wave of criticism at you.

I wouldn’t trade my time at Twitter for all the money in the world, but I also don’t envy my fellow shipmates who are still there. The logical thing to do right now is probably to leave, and I congratulate everyone who decides to close this chapter of their lives and move on. But to those who stay, now is a great time to tattoo Dick’s words on your arm.

Things are never as good or as bad as they seem.


Update (November 15, 2022): We are only three weeks into this acquisition, and it seems to be going as poorly as it possibly could have. I tried to give a level of grace here based on the possibility that this transition would happen more thoughtfully, but things seem headed for a worst-case scenario. I fear for Twitter the service, but I am even more disappointed by how the people who have kept it operating for many years of their lives are being treated. Callous was exactly the right description for what’s to come.
One comment on “Anchors Away”. Leave your own?
  1. Kathy says:

    Thanks for this, Mike. I was hoping you had written something more recently, but I think this was what I needed to see.

    I found the Nilay Patel / @reckless piece in The Verge helpful. I had not thought about the international aspects. I spent too much time wishing for a miracle.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe by Email

... or use RSS