“This App Makes Zero Fucking Sense”
On February 12, 2023, Elon Musk sat on his private jet, fuming. He was flying home from the Super Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, but his mind wasn’t on the game. Earlier that day, both
he and President Joe Biden had tweeted their support for the Philadelphia Eagles. But according to Twitter’s engagement metrics, Biden’s tweet had three times the number of views. What the hell?
Four months earlier, Musk had acquired Twitter, making him not just the social media platform’s most powerful figure, but also its most ubiquitous. He posted constantly—recycled memes, missives about free speech, promises about upcoming features. Day in and day out, he was the indisputable main character of Twitter.
Then, in early 2023, Musk’s engagement started tanking. The richest man on Earth simply couldn’t fathom why. His photos of rockets were awesome. His jokes were never not
funny. Plus, he had more followers than anyone else—and nearly a hundred million more than @POTUS. How could he lose to a damp sock puppet in human form who happened to be president of the United States? Musk had already called multiple meetings to demand answers from Twitter employees. “Jesus H. Christ,” they’d heard him muttering. “This app makes zero fucking sense.”
As the Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs traded touchdowns at State Farm Stadium, the engineering team at Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco scrambled to come up with an answer. Musk suspected foul play. Had a spiteful employee planted a bug in the algorithm to suppress the Like count on his posts?
One week earlier, one of Twitter’s highest-ranking engineers had dared to say what many understood to be obvious: that the drop in engagement was organic. “If you look at Google Trends, interest in your name is on the decline,” the engineer, Yang, told Musk. He showed Musk a graph with an impressive spike in April—when he’d first announced his plans to buy the platform. It was followed by a jagged downward slope. Interest had gone from a score of one hundred to a score of just eight.
“You’re fired, you’re fired,” Musk hissed. Yang walked out. Then Musk turned to the rest of the team. “This is ridiculous. I have more than a hundred million followers, and I’m only getting tens of thousands of impressions,” he said, according to three employees who were present. No one said a word.
“Why is nobody else here speaking?” Musk said, sounding exasperated. He told the group they’d reconvene the next day. If he didn’t get a straight answer, they’d all be fired.
After that, no one else tried to challenge Musk’s reality.
Musk’s fraught takeover of Twitter had captivated the country for months. The genius behind Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company, and Neuralink had grandly declared that his next mission was to restore free speech to the public town square. “This is a battle for the future of civ ilization,” Musk tweeted in November 2022. “If free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead.” But now, in early 2023, after months of firing staffers, banning journalists, and twisting content policies into pretzels, the acquisition increasingly looked like a vanity project. Twitter had never been profitable on the scale of its competitors (it made a modest $5.08 billion in 2021), but now its revenues were collapsing, down 40 percent from the year before. Advertisers had fled the platform. The circle of people who saw the billionaire as a visionary was shrinking—not that the billionaire seemed to realize it.
After Musk’s jet touched down in Oakland, his cousin, James Musk, jumped into action. The Tesla Autopilot engineer had joined Twitter the previous October to help usher the company into its new era. “@here we are debugging an issue with engagement across the platform,” James wrote cryptically on Slack at 2:36 a.m. “Any people who can make dashboards and write software please can you help solve this problem. This is super high urgency. If you are willing to help out please thumbs up this post.”
One of Twitter’s core values had been “defend and respect the user’s voice.” Now, the only voice that mattered was Elon Musk’s.
Many employees viewed the late-night demand as a desperate attempt to placate an insatiable ruler. But Randall Lin, a machine-learning engineer, knew it was also an opportunity. Lin’s job was to make Twitter’s home timeline as relevant and engaging as possible. He didn’t have to drop everything to prioritize Musk’s urgent project—he wanted
to. Musk was mercurial; a high achiever like Lin could easily rise up the ranks if he played his cards right. “Everything else you are focusing on is great,” James had told him before the Super Bowl, “but there is nothing else on Elon’s mind but the engagement issue.”
Lin and around eighty colleagues worked through the night rewriting the Twitter algorithm. First, they applied a special signature to Musk’s profile to ensure he showed up in almost every user’s feed, whether they followed him or not. Then they applied a “power user multiplier” to arti ficially boost his tweets by a factor of one thousand.
The next day, a Monday morning, Twitter users logged on to see an entire feed of Elon Musk. His replies to obscure right-wing accounts were showing up at the top of the app. People were furious. “why the absolute fuck is elon musk all over my for you on twitter?” asked Twitter user @kenminkim. “My ‘For You’ page is literally just Elon Musk replies and ads lmao,” wrote @TayInLA_. “Is Twitter literally just his personal mouth piece now?” asked @johnjsills.
The outrage made Musk more ecstatic. He roamed the halls of Twitter HQ, thumbing through his feed, delighted. “It’s just like that meme of that girl pouring milk down her friend’s throat,” he told employees happily, shaking his head. “That’s like me with the tweets.” Moments later, he tweeted the meme, labeling the blond girl pouring milk as “Elon’s tweets” and the brunette being force-fed “Twitter.”
Just fourteen months earlier, Time
named Elon Musk the Person of the Year. “This is the man who aspires to save our planet and get us a new one to inhabit: clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad; a madcap hybrid of Thomas Edison, P. T. Barnum, An drew Carnegie and Watchmen
’s Doctor Manhattan, the brooding, blue skinned man-god who invents electric cars and moves to Mars,” the magazine wrote.
Musk had recently asked his 62.8 million Twitter followers whether he should sell 10 percent of his Tesla stock (and raise his taxable income). The richest man in the world had grown tired of getting criticized for not paying enough taxes. His followers thought it was a good idea: 57.9 percent voted yes.
The sale left Musk with $10 billion in ready cash. He could have bought fifteen private islands. He didn’t. He started buying up Twitter shares.
Musk offered to buy the company and take it private in April 2022, then changed his mind as the stock market tanked, then changed it back. By the time the deal closed in October 2022 for $44 billion, including a $24 billion investment from Musk himself, he’d overpaid by roughly $19 billion, according to one credible analysis.
Many commentators were excited to see what Musk would do. “Elon Musk is an amazing entrepreneur, an extraordinary innovator. He’s the Henry Ford of our time,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti Defamation League. “He’s taken on big huge complex tasks that no one thought could be solved like rocketry or mobility or solar . . . And to think what he can do with the public square.”
Musk galloped into Twitter’s sleepy headquarters like a conquering general, wasting no time in cutting costs and employees. “Going forward, to build a breakthrough Twitter 2.0 and succeed in an increasingly competitive world, we will need to be extremely hardcore,” he wrote in an in ternal email on November 16, 2022. “This will mean working long hours at high intensity. Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”
If there was a unifying philosophy at play, it was rage against the “woke mind virus.” Anything that was “antimeritocratic and anything that results in the suppression of free speech” was a menace. In April 2022, when Netflix shares cratered, Musk blamed wokeness for making the streaming service unwatchable. The stakes were even higher at Twitter. To Musk, the future of democracy was on the line. Leftist content moderation, office lattes, twenty-week parental leave, conservative “shadowbanning,” holiday breaks, regular janitorial services: all artifacts of Twitter’s woke culture that needed to be uprooted.
Other tech leaders were watching.
“I guess the times of complaining to the CEO of a large tech company at an all hands in front of thousands of people about the quality of toilet paper have come to an end. (True story. This really happened.),” former Meta executive David Marcus tweeted shortly after Musk bought Twitter. Three months after the deal closed, Mark Zuckerberg announced Meta was in its “year of efficiency,” after shutting down experimental projects and laying off 13 percent of its workforce. He later credited Musk’s example with giving him license to ruthlessly fire middle managers.
At first, it seemed obvious to many that Musk would succeed. “Watching @elonmusk + Co take over Twitter is like watching a business school case study on how to make money on the internet,” tweeted The Information
founder Jessica Lessin.
Except that’s not how it played out. The attributes that made Musk good at tweeting—a combination of recklessness and shamelessness— made him exceedingly bad at running Twitter. His impulsiveness did not play well with advertisers. His thirst for speed alarmed regulators. And his opposition to content moderation alienated regular users. Six months after the deal closed, Twitter had lost two thirds of its value and found itself in hot water with lawmakers in the United States and Europe.
As Twitter’s business went into free fall, Musk’s reputation took a hit. To many, he’d become more edgelord, less visionary. “Content moderation is really hard and apparently harder than rocket science,” noted Evelyn Douek, an assistant professor at Stanford Law School, who studies online speech regulation.
This book charts Musk’s journey to acquire Twitter from January 2022, when he began quietly buying shares, to October 2023, one year after the deal closed. By this time, Twitter had rebranded to X, and the bird app was a piece of tech history. You’ll meet a machine-learning sa vant who went all in on Twitter 2.0, a father trapped in his job because his kids needed his health care, a venerated infrastructure engineer who was fired after standing up to her boss on Twitter
, a trust and safety advocate who became the subject of a life-threatening harassment campaign, and dozens of employees who lost their jobs trying to save the company they helped build.
This is another way of telling you, right up front, that this book isn’t a biography of Elon Musk. Nor is it a story about his version of events, which he’s been live-tweeting since the saga began. It is, instead, the story of what happens when the world’s richest man walks into the lobby of your workplace holding a kitchen sink. It is about the collapse of morale after he lays off the majority of the workforce. It is a cautionary tale about the ripple effects on politics and culture when a billionaire provocateur meddles with a massively influential institution he doesn’t care to understand. And it is a chronicle of workers who tried to stop a renegade billionaire from upending online speech in one of the greatest unforced errors in Silicon Valley history.
The following chapters are the result of hundreds of hours of interviews with more than sixty employees at all levels of the company, from the C-suite to the front lines, as well as dozens of outside experts, over the course of fourteen months of reporting, along with hundreds of pages of internal memos, whistleblower complaints, and court documents. Some sources worked alongside Musk for months; others never met him but felt the collateral damage of his leadership. Dialogue has been recreated from recordings and the recollections of multiple sources. The reporting draws from years of work between me and my colleague and mentor Casey Newton, who founded the investigative tech newsletter Platformer
, and my time as managing editor at Platformer
and as a senior reporter at The Verge
. While I contacted Musk multiple times to ask for interviews, he responded only once, with a cry-laughing emoji.
Many sources agreed to use their real names—at great personal risk to their jobs and families. Others remain anonymous out of fear of professional retribution. For a story like this, where the balance of power lies squarely with upper management, I believe this anonymity is warranted. It’s a business case study, a labor investigation, and a murder mystery.
The body count is still being tallied. And if there’s one thing Musk is right about, it’s this: the story is extremely hardcore
THE BIRD APP
“This Is Actually Me”
Elon Musk’s first tweet, sent on June 4, 2010, established that he was the real thing. “Please ignore prior tweets, as that was some one pretending to be me :),” he wrote. “This is actually me.” Like many celebrities, he’d been impersonated by parody accounts on Twitter. But thanks to the company’s verification system, users would now know that this Elon Musk, with the handle @elonmusk, was the genuine artifact. Not that there was much to follow in the early days of Musk’s time on the platform. Like many people new to Twitter, it took him a while to find his footing. His early posts were mostly banal—things he was reading, recommendations of stuff he liked. Once he got going, he was hooked. Social media gave him a way to talk to his audience, circumventing traditional media outlets. Now, if Musk wanted to hype the accomplishments of his visionary rocket company SpaceX, or his pioneering electric vehicle company Tesla, he wouldn’t need to do it through a gatekeeping journalist. He could just pull out his phone and speak directly to his followers.
Musk made his first millions in 1999, when Compaq bought his startup Zip2, a yellow pages–like local directory and guide. (His father, Errol Musk, had provided the company with $28,000 in start-up money.) After the sale, he purchased a million-dollar sports car, the McLaren F1. CNN was at Musk’s house to film its arrival. “Some could interpret purchasing this car as behavior characteristic of an imperialist brat,” Musk, a white South African, said matter-of-factly. He was wearing an ill-fitting brown sport coat, his hair noticeably thinner than it is today. “Just three years ago, I was showering at the [YMCA] and sleeping on the office floor, and now obviously I’ve got a million-dollar car and quite a few creature comforts,” he added.
Musk poured more than half his earnings into an ambitious enterprise called X.com, an online financial services startup. In 2000, X.com merged with Confinity, a rival payments company cofounded by Peter Thiel. Musk became the CEO of the company that would later be known as PayPal.
That March, Musk took Thiel for a ride in the McLaren. “So what can this do?” Thiel asked, as they drove up Sand Hill Road in the heart of Silicon Valley. “Watch this,” Musk replied. He rammed his foot onto the gas, changed lanes, and hit an embankment. The car shot up in the air and started spinning. When the McLaren landed, fortuitously pointing in the right direction, the impact less fortuitously shattered the windows. “This isn’t insured,” Musk told Thiel. He repaired the car and said he sold it for a profit years later, cementing the story as a beloved part of his personal mythology. Musk was a renegade, but things always worked out for him in the end.
That same year, Musk was pushed out by the board of the newly combined company. One of the major disputes was his insistence on calling the entity X. As he stepped on a flight for his longpostponed Australian honeymoon with his first wife, Justine Wilson, executives delivered a letter of no confidence to the board. The coup had been partially orchestrated by Thiel, who would later become a venture capitalist and a shadowy power broker in a right-wing war against journalists.
Musk had no choice but to exit. In the years to come, as the internet became ubiquitous and mobile, he mused about his vision for X.com. He didn’t just want to revolutionize banking—he wanted to create an everything app. He would cling to this idea for two more decades, nursing his obsession with the letter X.
His experience at PayPal humbled him. But it also made him even richer. In 2002 the company was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in stock—with Musk, its largest shareholder, netting between $160 million and $180 million. Musk put that money into an even more challenging idea: spaceflight. More specifically, he believed that human beings should colonize Mars. He would start with rockets, picking up the work that NASA was no longer funding with the imagination it had in his youth. Lucrative government contracts were there for the taking. Eventually, Musk planned to make those rockets reusable—a feat never accomplished by any space program.
Though the dream of X never died, it was easy to move on after his ousting. After all, the concerns of PayPal were absolutely terrestrial. Musk was headed to space.
This ambition set Musk apart. Silicon Valley was filthy with founders developing websites, software, and services. But how many people wanted to build rockets?
“He was just another tech boy,” veteran tech journalist Kara Swisher tells me. “But then when he started doing the space stuff and the car stuff, that was really interesting, that’s substantive. He could’ve done a lot of other things, and he didn’t.”
Just ten years after its founding, SpaceX had made great progress. “Splashdown successful!! Sending fast boat to Dragon lat/long provided by P3 tracking planes #Dragon,” Musk tweeted on May 31, 2012. Behind the jargon was a historic announcement: SpaceX had successfully delivered cargo to the International Space Station, making it the first private company to ever do so.
The post garnered only 340 retweets, a number that would pale in comparison to the attention he would later command on Twitter. But at the time, it was enough for Musk. The press was coming to him for comment. Now he was the gatekeeper—the one in control of the story. By the time he acquired Twitter, Musk had tweeted more than nineteen thousand times over thirteen years, roughly four times a day.
The electric car manufacturer Tesla is so strongly associated with Elon Musk that it’s easy to forget that he didn’t start it. Like SpaceX, it was an ambitious company, attempting to combat climate change—save the planet, and thus, the human race—by shifting the world from its reliance on fossil-fuel-chugging vehicles. It would also do it by making sports cars. Musk was involved early on as an investor, pumping tens of millions of dollars into the startup. By 2009, of the $187 million Tesla had raised in venture funding, Musk had contributed over a third. At that point, he had already ousted one of Tesla’s original founders, Martin Eberhard, who later sued and settled with Musk. But the drama didn’t matter. This time,
Musk was the ouster, not the ousted.
If people were curious about SpaceX, they were rabid about Tesla. And the best place to stay upto-date on the company? The CEO’s Twitter feed. By 2018, eight years into his tweeting career, Musk knew how to wield the platform. Eventually, he dissolved Tesla’s entire PR team in North America. In SEC filings, Tesla’s board of directors urged investors to check Musk and Tesla’s Twitter feeds for information about the company.
Musk stood out from other CEOs and celebrities on Twitter by personally replying to his followers. Beyoncé’s fans could tweet at her all day and she’d never acknowledge their existence. Tweet at one of the richest men in the world and he might actually tweet back. Musk replied to a lot of people, enough to make him relatable, even likable. For a guy worth $19.9 billion, Musk was a man of the people.
The relationship between Musk and his fans was mutually beneficial. In 2020, Tesla was the fifteenth most-held stock on Robinhood, the favored app of retail investors, with more than a hundred fifty thousand individual shareholders.
“If you look at the history of Tesla, I think most people think of Tesla as a pretty good business now,” said finance journalist Matt Levine in an interview with Kara Swisher in October 2022. “But for a long time, the stock price was way
ahead of the business, it would not make money year after year, and the typical reason that people give for that is there’s an army of Elon Musk fans who will buy the stock and push up the price of the stock.”
Musk eschewed traditional forms of advertising for his car company— an avenue where his biggest competitors, like Ford, Chevy, and Toyota, spent collectively tens of billions of dollars a year. In 2020, Tesla became the world’s most valuable automaker. Over the next two years, Musk’s net worth shot up from $24.6 billion to $219 billion, vaulting him ahead of Jeff Bezos to become the richest man in the world.
While you could attribute some of the company’s success to Musk’s Twitter presence, his tweets had gotten him into an awful lot of trouble, too.
In 2018, a group of Thai boys and their soccer coach went exploring in Chiang Rai province and got trapped by a flash flood in a cave deep underground. The mission to save them stretched on for nearly two weeks, captivating the world as the kids’ lives hung in the balance.
The saga had nothing to do with Musk or his companies, but when a Twitter user asked if Musk could help, the CEO couldn’t help but to accept. “I suspect that the Thai govt has this under control, but I’m happy to help if there is a way to do so,” he tweeted, a week after the boys disappeared.
Musk offered to build a mini-submarine to help navigate the caves, and an escape pod to transport the children to safety. He started tweeting out updates. “Construction complete in about 8 hours, then 17 hour flight to Thailand,” he wrote on July 7. He even directed employees to pressure Thai government officials “to make complimentary public statements about him and the technology his engineers were developing to aid in the cave rescue,” according to CNBC’s Lora Kolodny.
On July 8, 2018, the kids were rescued by professional divers, with no help from Musk.
Vernon Unsworth, one of the experts involved in the rescue mission, went on CNN and called Musk’s efforts a PR stunt. “It had absolutely no chance of working,” he said. “He can stick his submarine where it hurts.” Musk was furious. “We will make one of the mini-sub/pod going all the way to Cave 5 no problemo. Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it,” he shot back in a since-deleted tweet.
It was behavior unbecoming of anyone, let alone the CEO of multiple companies. After another Silicon Valley investor asked what he meant by “pedo guy,” Musk doubled down, replying, “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.” Unsworth sued for defamation, but lost in court. (Musk’s defense was that “pedo guy” was a generic insult—“I also did not literally mean that he was a pedophile,” he said on the stand. “I meant he was a creep.”) Unsworth’s lawyer on the case was L. Lin Wood, one of the attorneys who tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election and was later permanently banned from Twitter.
As embarrassing as the submarine incident was, many of Musk’s fans brushed it off. This didn’t have anything to do with Tesla.
Then, in 2018, Musk’s tweets got him in trouble again. “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured,” he said. He didn’t have funding secured. Setting the share price at the number associated with marijuana made the tweet seem like an inside joke. The Securities and Exchange Commission wasn’t laughing and sued him for allegedly misleading investors. Musk settled, but it cost him and Tesla $20 million each in fines. He could remain CEO, but he would be ineligible to be elected chairman of the board for three years. Arguably, it was the single most monetarily damaging tweet of all time. (Four months after the infamous funding tweet, in a rare on-camera interview on 60 Minutes
, Musk said, through tears, that he did not respect the SEC.) As a result of the settlement, Musk was also required to have his tweets approved by a “Twitter sitter,” a securities lawyer at Tesla, if they contained material business information about the automaker.
If there were lessons to be learned from tweeting indiscriminately, Musk did not care to learn them. In fact, his posts soon became even more inflammatory. In 2020, he denied the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic (“The coronavirus panic is dumb”), and shared transphobic beliefs (“Pronouns suck”), cultivating fandoms on right-wing corners of the internet. The successes of SpaceX and Tesla buoyed his reputation. Sure, he was posting in a manner that would get most other CEOs ousted, but his companies were innovative—and Tesla’s share price continued to reflect that. SpaceX was pushing the United States forward in an industry known for groundbreaking science and technology; Tesla had made electric cars a commercial reality. This brilliant technologist, innovator, and business man could tweet whatever and whenever he wanted—“At least 50% of my tweets were made on a porcelain throne,” he claimed—as long as his companies continued to satisfy investors.
If the stock didn’t sink, then neither would Musk.
Copyright © 2024 by Zoë Schiffer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.