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.
Anyone who did not sign the pledge by 5 p.m. Eastern time Thursday was told they would receive three months of severance pay, the message said.
In the midnight email, which was shared with The Washington Post, Musk said Twitter “will need to be extremely hardcore” going forward. “This will mean working long hours at high intensity,” he said. “Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”
The pledge email, paired with a new policy mandating a return to the office, is expected to lead to even more attrition at a company whose staff Musk had already reduced by half. Musk said Twitter would be more of an engineer-driven 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.”
It also comes as Musk says he is tabling Twitter’s Blue Verified, his first major product since taking over as Twitter’s owner and CEO, while the company sorts out issues with the feature following a botched rollout.
A week ago, Twitter debuted the product, which gives users a blue check-mark icon next to their name for a fee of $7.99 a month, and promises to reduce the number of ads they see by half as well as giving their posts additional visibility. By Friday, the option disappeared amid a rash of fake accounts impersonating everyone from President Biden to basketball star LeBron James.
Sign-ups were paused Thursday night and the service wouldn’t “relaunch” until Nov. 29 “to make sure that it is rock solid,” Musk announced via a tweet late Tuesday.
But inside Twitter, staff were using the additional two weeks to conduct a postmortem on the launch, trying to understand why the impersonations 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.
Punting relaunch of Blue Verified to November 29th to make sure that it is rock solid
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 15, 2022
The launch — and its backtrack — was the culmination of a whirlwind couple weeks of ownership for Musk, who bought the company for $44 billion late last month. 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 Post, showed the new service failed to gain much traction during its brief stint — skewing toward just a few niche communities and threatening Twitter’s core advertising revenue.
Power users are 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 to recoup the advertising value generated by the top segment of U.S. power 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 and users hawking adult content such as pornography, a review of Twitter data compiled by a software developer showed.
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 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 who 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.”
Musk and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment on the Twitter Blue developments.
Musk purchased the site late last month and has since ousted Twitter’s leadership, made himself CEO and laid off half the workforce. He now needs to find ways to drive new revenue sources, as Twitter is expected to owe roughly $1 billion in annual interest — plus recoup the investments of Musk’s many equity partners.
Already advertisers are proving wary, something exacerbated last month when Musk tweeted a conspiracy-laden article about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul Pelosi. The Blue Verified debacle, where some major brands were impersonated, only added to their 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. Other companies including General Motors, Volkswagen and General Mills said they were pausing advertising after Musk took over — some brands acting in conjunction with calls from civil rights groups to do so.
While trying to appease advertisers, Musk has also turned his focus to subscription models and potential paywalls.
Twitter Blue — which previously allowed users to edit tweets, among other features — had around 100,000 subscribers before the new launch including paid verification, 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.)
Twitter, unlike many other social networks, allows sexually explicit imagery. 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 — though the site’s internal watchdog flagged the product as “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 to gain verification this way.