Musk says he wants a billion users on Twitter

SAN FRANCISCO — For weeks, Elon Musk has publicly trashed Twitter, even though he’s buying the company in a $44 billion deal. On Thursday, he finally acted like a landlord.

During an hour-long morning Q&A with Twitter’s roughly 8,000 employees – the first time Mr Musk has spoken to them since agreeing to buy the social media company in April – the richest man in the world opened up about his plans for the service. In an effusive and sometimes rambling speech, he touched on topics as varied as growth, potential layoffs, anonymity, Chinese apps, the existence of extraterrestrial life forms and even the cosmic nature of Twitter.

“I want Twitter to contribute to a better and sustainable civilization where we better understand the nature of reality,” Musk said at the meeting, which was streamed live to Twitter employees and listened to by The New York Times. .

The 50-year-old added that he hopes the service can help humanity “understand the nature of the universe better, as much as it is possible to understand it”.

The meeting, which Mr Musk attended from his mobile phone in what appeared to be a hotel room, suggested he was determined to complete the successful acquisition. His intentions had been questioned in recent weeks when the billionaire, who also runs electric car maker Tesla and rocket company SpaceX, repeatedly raised questions about fake Twitter accounts under an apparent pretext to potentially put terminate or renegotiate the agreement.

Since April, the notorious mercurial Mr. Musk has tweeted that the purchase was “pending” and accused Twitter of “actively resisting and thwarting” his rights. At another time, he had criticized some company executives. He made his incendiary comments as global markets fell and Tesla shares, which are his main source of wealth, fell.

The antics of Mr. Musk, who pays $54.20 a share to buy Twitter, had left investors, company employees and others guessing what he might do. Shares of Twitter are now trading around $37. Still, the company has insisted the deal remains on track and has shared information with Mr Musk, who will have to pay a $1bn severance package if he walks away .

Mr. Musk did not directly say on Thursday whether he would complete the deal with Twitter, but he made it clear to employees that he had big ambitions.

During the conversation, moderated by Twitter chief marketing officer Leslie Berland, Musk said he hoped to expand the service to more than a billion users worldwide. That would be nearly four times the number of current users. He added that he was active at Tesla and expected to be active on Twitter.

Even with such a performance, some have warned that Mr. Musk could still change his mind about closing the deal for Twitter.

“I guess it works on two tracks,” said Ann Lipton, 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, “Talking publicly to Twitter employees, trying to ease their concerns, maybe reassures potential investors. But I don’t know if that’s his plan B or his plan A.”

Twitter declined to comment on the meeting and Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr Musk was supposed to speak to Twitter 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, which was scheduled to start at 9 a.m. San Francisco time, started a few minutes late, with Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s chief executive, thanking Mr. Musk.

Afterwards, Mr. Musk started answering questions, including about remote work. This month he sent memos to Tesla and SpaceX workers saying he expected them to be in the office 40 hours a week. Twitter employees have largely worked remotely in the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Musk told Twitter employees he was open to working remotely, since developing software is different from showing up every day to build cars. But he said a broad lack of turnout in the office could be contributing to dwindling “esprit de corps” and hoped people would be willing to turn out more in the office in future.

Mr. Musk avoided directly answering whether there would be layoffs on Twitter, although his response was somewhat concerning.

“Right now, costs are exceeding revenues,” he said. “It’s not a good situation.”

At another point, he strayed into a discussion of the possibility of extraterrestrial life, though it was unclear where he had deduced. He also mentioned Chinese apps WeChat and TikTok as aspirations, since WeChat is so integrated into people’s daily lives in China and TikTok is “not boring”.

One improvement Mr. Musk said he wanted to make was adding payment technology to Twitter. Ideally, users could send money back and forth through the service, the same way products like Venmo or Square Cash work.

Mr Musk, a longtime Twitter user with more than 98 million followers, has long said he believes the company’s potential is underutilized. He added that he hopes to rejuvenate the service out of the public procurement eye by privatizing the company and making significant changes to how Twitter works.

Inside Twitter, some employees have mixed feelings about Mr. Musk. Some said they were concerned about his Twitter habits and murky politics.

On Thursday, SpaceX employees circulated a memo saying they were also concerned about their chief executive’s public behavior — particularly how he acted on Twitter — and that it was reflecting badly on employees.

“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us,” reads the letter, which was obtained by The Times and reported earlier by The Verge. “As CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is considered the face of SpaceX – every tweet sent by Elon is a de facto public statement by the company.”

Others on Twitter said they were worried about how Mr Musk wanted to take a laissez-faire approach to controlling the platform.

On Thursday, he stressed that he wanted to make Twitter as inclusive a platform as possible, primarily by gaining more users, adding that he would not allow criminal acts to be perpetrated on the network. He said he doesn’t want people to use their real names on Twitter either, and that it’s helpful to use pseudonyms to express political views on the service.

Some Twitter employees, who pointed to Mr. Musk’s reputation as an innovator, said they felt comforted after Thursday’s meeting. Mr. Musk was not hostile and seemed to have a vision for the product, even if he was sometimes unable to articulate it clearly, they said. Others said he didn’t answer their questions, with one employee writing in an internal Slack message, which was viewed by The Times, that “if you had a drink every time he answered one question, you’d be painfully sober by the end of this.”

Mr Musk was evasive when asked if he planned to take on the role of chief executive of Twitter when he took over the company. He said he was not 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 service evolution, and would share them with others within the company.

“I expect them to listen to me on this,” Musk said.

ryan mac and Lauren Hirsch contributed report.

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