Elon Musk took over Twitter on Oct. 28, becoming its owner, “chief twit,” and emotional weather-maker. Within seven days, he’d gotten rid of half of the company’s 7,500 employees. Within a couple of weeks, he’d oust an estimated 1,000 more by urging anyone who was not “extremely hardcore” to go. As furious goodbyes, wistful reflections, and salute emojis filled the platform, a different type of tweet also emerged.
Though the language varied, the message was the same: I just applied for a job at Twitter!
Employees had long known that a Musk takeover meant layoffs. At one point he had told investors that he planned to cut 75 percent of Twitter’s workforce in order to push the company toward profitability. (The company had been hemorrhaging $4 million a day, he estimated in his layoff letter.) But somehow this was even more chaotic and insulting than many had imagined it would be. It wasn’t just that people were being asked to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week following the company’s sale, as CNBC reported, or that some laid-off employees were called back, as Platformer reported. Nor was it simply that racist, homophobic, and antisemitic commentary was proliferating on the site. It was that he was treating the whole thing like it was a hilarious game. When it became clear that two employees giving interviews about losing their jobs were pranksters who did not work at Twitter, he invited them in. During their meeting he offered one a job at Twitter, making a lying performance artist one of the first hires of Twitter 2.0.
Still, the ready-to-work-for-you tweets just kept coming. Together they helped reinforce the idea that no matter what Musk did, there would be people jumping to join him. I found myself wondering: Who were these people? Had they actually applied? And if so, were they just a bunch of Musk superfans or were they motivated by something else? The answer—at least in a few cases—was something else, I’d learn from talking to them. And yes, they really did apply.
Daniel Zhao, an economist at Glassdoor, the workplace review and job search website, was perhaps the first to try to quantify what you might call the Musk Effect on Twitter job applications. Once the Twitter board accepted Musk’s offer to buy Twitter in April, interest in working at the company surged by around 260 percent over typical Glassdoor levels, he observed in May.
On Twitter, Zhao offered a theory as to why: “Say what you will about Elon, he does have a large fanbase of ppl excited to work for him.”
It was a logical theory. Everyone knows the man has fans. On Twitter, they include lots of people with user names that feature long strings of numbers, and Limp Bizkit’s frontman:
On all platforms, they have a reputation for being not only uniquely loyal, but also uniquely irritating.
As one Oxford student, who attempted to quantitatively analyze just how insufferable they are, wrote, “Musk fans are the worst among all fandoms.” Stunts like delivering their hero a $600,000 statue of his head atop a goat straddling a rocket encourage this sentiment. So, too, does their willingness to defend him, even as he had done things like lob unfounded accusations of pedophilia at a cave diver and threaten to pull Tesla workers’ stock options if they unionized.
That said, loyalty from actual employees makes sense, according to Ben White, senior director of talent strategies at Titus Talent, a recruiting and coaching company. “He’s a pretty impressive person that is accomplishing a lot with amazing missions that are meaningful,” said White, who has interviewed many Tesla engineers in the process of making his YouTube video, “How to crush your Tesla interview.” (The video addresses how to answer the following question: “You are standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile north, one mile west and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?” Answer: North Pole.)
Tesla and SpaceX engineers have told White that part of what they love about their jobs, beyond the opportunity to work with the best and brightest anywhere, is that it feels so mission-driven. He questioned whether Twitter would have the same pull. “I don’t know if the free speech mission is as powerful a mission as let’s get to another planet or let’s save this planet by reducing emissions,” he said.
I reached out to Ben Price, 39, because halfway through the company’s employee purge, he shared that he had applied to Twitter, tagging @elonmusk.
Five days later, a similar tweet from one of the most famous hackers in the world would succeed in getting Musk’s attention. George Hotz, who made headlines as a teen for becoming the first person to jailbreak Apple’s iPhone, proposed taking an internship at Twitter.
Musk responded, “Sure, let’s talk.”
With Price, here was a man with no obvious history of public stunts, who was eager to share with the world that he wanted to join Twitter. Why?
What surprised me, when we spoke on the phone, was Price’s blasé attitude toward Musk. He didn’t adore the man. Nor did he abhor him.
“Honestly I don’t have strong feelings about him,” said Price, who is a fraud specialist focused on employment matters in Oregon. “He says crazy things. I think everyone says crazy stuff at a certain point,” said Price, who is a registered Democrat.
His decision to apply was not particularly personal: “Improving anything is fun and doing it with the greatest free speech platform to date” seemed exciting, he said.
So Price went to the Twitter careers site. There, just past a blown-up tweet by an employee raving about her colleagues, he found an information security engineer job to apply for. (As it turns out, the employee advertising the joy of working for Twitter had just been laid off. Her photo is yet to be removed from the site. )
Price is inclined to trust Musk’s ability to improve a place, he said. But ultimately Musk wasn’t the one who convinced him that improvements were needed. It was a Twitter whistleblower, former security chief Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, who accused the company of failing to protect the platform from exploitation by both employees and foreign agents in July. Reading Zatko’s Congressional testimony prompted White to want to help patch things up, he said.
Perhaps the next applicant would be more of a true fanboy, I thought. Nope. Jack Jacob of Chicago also applied in November amid the purge. His timing was mostly pragmatic, he told me: If employees were bailing on Twitter, then there was an opportunity to fill a gap. He’s sick of scraping together money from restaurant jobs and cryptocurrency startups.
“I’ve never had a job with benefits,” said Jacob, who is 27.
Musk’s companies are known for requiring people to go through every single item on their résumé during the interview process. Jacob never got there. And that was OK with him. Though in our initial interview he dismissed Musk’s inflammatory comments as “classic troll behavior,” a few days later he messaged me that he’d done more research and concluded he wouldn’t want to work for Musk after all. Part of what convinced him, he said, was learning that Musk had offered a $250,000 settlement to a flight attendant who accused him of exposing himself to her. (Musk has claimed that the accusations were politically motivated.)
He wasn’t the only one having a change of heart. On Tuesday, Hotz, the famous hacker, shared that he’d decided to quit his Twitter “internship.”
Where were the true loyalists? They’re surely out there. Musk’s initial Twitter team includes numerous people he brought over from his other companies, including 50 Tesla engineers, according to CNBC. But the speed at which Musk began violating his own supposed free speech principles—silencing journalists, among other hypocritical moves—has made it difficult to publicly defend him.
Even one of the most recent additions to Twitter’s leadership team—Dave Chen, who came from Google—has exhibited nonloyalist behavior, some sleuthing on LinkedIn reveals. Chen, who became the vice president of engineering at Twitter in October, according to his LinkedIn profile, liked a post criticizing Musk for failing to apologize for the layoffs. (Update, Dec. 31, 2022: As it turned out, Chen too was laid off in the first round of November layoffs, he said after publication of this story.)
Of course, one of the best ways to create loyalty is to dangle power in front of someone. On Wednesday, following a poll, Musk announced that he’d be willing to step down from his CEO role at Twitter if he found the right replacement. Among those who are suddenly eager to work at Twitter are rapper Juicy J and Lex Fridman, a popular podcaster and A.I. researcher at MIT.
It seems that neither will get the job. As of Wednesday afternoon, Juicy J was still trying to figure out how to get Musk to DM him.
And Musk’s response to Fridman was less than encouraging. ”One catch: you have to invest your life savings in Twitter and it has been in the fast lane to bankruptcy since May,” he wrote. “Still want the job?”