Musk says he wants a billion Twitter users

SAN FRANCISCO — For weeks, Elon Musk has publicly trashed Twitter. On Thursday, he acted as if he finally owned the company.

In an hour-long Q&A with some 8,000 Twitter employees — the first time Musk has spoken to them since he struck a $44 billion deal to buy the social media company in April — the man richest man in the world opened up about his plans for the service. In an effusive and sometimes incoherent speech, he addressed growth, potential layoffs, issues such as anonymity, Chinese apps and even the cosmic nature of Twitter.

“I want Twitter to contribute to a better, lasting civilization where we better understand the nature of reality,” Musk said at the virtual meeting, which was broadcast live to Twitter employees and which the New York Times heard. He added that he hoped the service could help humanity “better understand the nature of the universe, as far as it is possible to understand.”

The meeting, which Musk attended from his cell phone in what appeared to be a hotel room, suggested he was determined to close the highly successful deal. In recent weeks, his intentions towards Twitter have been in doubt. The billionaire, who also runs electric car maker Tesla and rocket company SpaceX, has repeatedly raised questions about the fake Twitter accounts. This month, his lawyers said the company was refusing to give him information, an apparent pretext for potentially trying to terminate or renegotiate the acquisition.

Musk, who offered $54.20 a share to buy Twitter, may have changed his mind after global markets tumbled. Twitter shares are now trading around $38. And Tesla shares, which are Musk’s main source of wealth, have also plummeted.

In April, Musk agreed to buy Twitter without doing any due diligence. He’s in jail for a $1 billion separation fee if he walks away. Under the terms of the deal, Twitter also has the right to sue him to force completion of the acquisition, if the debt financing for the purchase remains intact.

Twitter insisted the deal remains on track and that it has been sharing information with Musk.

In his comments on Thursday, Musk did not directly address whether he would close the deal with Twitter. But he said he had big plans for the service.

In the conversation, which was moderated by Twitter marketing director Leslie Berland, Musk said he hopes to expand the service to be used by more than a billion people worldwide. That would be almost four times the number of people using Twitter today. He added that he was hands-on at Tesla and hoped he would be on Twitter, and would be especially involved in the social media service’s features.

“I hope they listen to me on this one,” Musk said.

Musk responded to questions collected from Twitter employees on Slack’s internal messaging system last week.

Some of the questions were about workplace culture, including remote work. This month, Musk sent out memos to Tesla and SpaceX employees saying he expected them to be in the office 40 hours a week. Twitter employees have largely worked remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.

At the meeting, Musk said he was open to Twitter employees who worked remotely, as developing software was different from showing up daily to build cars. But he noted that a widespread lack of participation in the job could contribute to a dwindling “spirit of esprit” and said he hoped people would be willing to step into the job more in the future.

Musk shied away from directly answering whether there would be layoffs on Twitter under his watch, though his response was ominous.

“Right now, costs exceed revenue,” he said. “That’s not a great situation.”

Musk, a former 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 eyes of public markets by taking the company private and making significant changes to the way Twitter operates.

Inside Twitter, some employees have mixed feelings about Musk. Some said they were concerned about his Twitter habits and shady policies, and they are concerned about the way he said he would prefer to take a laissez-faire approach to policing the platform. This raised doubts, considering the years Twitter spent building its policy department.

Others point to Musk’s reputation as an innovator. After former Twitter executives set but failed to achieve high user and financial performance goals, some employees said Musk could reinvigorate the company.

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