Twitter Inc. is discovering that the only thing worse than having Elon Musk on your board is not having Elon Musk on your board. This maxim also works as a logical palindrome — on/off or off/on, Twitter’s left in the same limbo. Which is why, after it emerged on Sunday that Musk had rejected the offer of a board seat, CEO Parag Agrawal issued (and tweeted) a plaintive non-explanation of what had happened, tucking in at the end this Hail Mary: Let’s tune out the noise, and stay focused on the work and what we’re building.
“Good luck with that” doesn’t begin to cover it. Twitter is noise; a ready contender for being the apotheosis of the stuff. What has gone wrong in the past week is that its arch-noisemaker broke through the fourth wall separating the bedlam from the boardroom. Or, rather, he hammered loudly on that wall and was then invited in, only to say no.
Much has been tweeted this past week as to why Musk quietly bought a 9% stake in Twitter and then seemed poised to become a director. This is, on some level, a bit pointless. Musk is a person who just sometimes does things and those things are magnified because (a) he built the biggest car company in the world by market cap and (b) that made him a gazillionaire.
I assumed it reflected the symbiosis between Musk’s broadcast persona and his long-running need, until recently, to constantly replenish his car company’s funds by selling more shares. On this reading, every online poll, puzzle and outrage is part of a never-ending roadshow to keep the factory humming. Buying a big stake in Twitter was merely securing the memes of production.
To a large degree, board seat or no, Musk has secured Twitter. The stock soared when his stake was disclosed and whipsawed in overnight trading as the market digested the news that he wouldn’t join the board. Over the past week, takeover fever gave way to speculation about Musk bringing his magic to the popular but struggling platform — egged on by Musk’s own tweets. Perhaps he really does want to take over Twitter and therefore couldn’t sign the standstill agreement that came with the board seat. Or maybe, given his perpetual battle with the Securities and Exchange Commission over tweets made as Tesla Inc.’s chief executive officer, he thinks it prudent not to open a second front from another boardroom. Possibly, he got bored?
The possibilities are endless, and Twitter provides an endless forum for perpetuating them — as the company will be forced to address on every future earnings call until Musk withdraws or does something else. Like one of those cartoon snowballs that gathers mass as it speeds over the landscape, the Muskplex has rolled over Twitter the company, and it is now along for the ride, limbs flailing as it turns over and over.
Wherever that hurdy-gurdy journey takes Twitter, much damage has already been done in the space of a week. Musk’s very arrival on the scene was tainted by his use of passive-investor status to build the stake, prior to switching gears and agreeing to join the board. He then, as responsible board member-elects so often do, threw out proposals for strategy changes to the tweeting masses, along with a proposal to turn the corporate headquarters into a homeless shelter. His suggestion (via a poll, since deleted) that Twitter remove the “w” from its name can be plausibly denied as an innocent titter — but recall that he also tweeted this thread late last year. Twitter, by the way, has a stated goal of having women make up half its workforce by 2025.
If Musk isn’t finished — and his amended 13D filing Monday morning suggests he isn’t — the ability of Twitter’s current leadership to deal with him looks weakened. Agrawal, at best, looks like walking wounded. Remarkably, he confirmed the problem with Musk’s un-passive approach by announcing — on Twitter, of course — that he had been speaking with him for weeks leading up to the announcement. He then gushed — you know where — about the tremendous benefits Musk would bring to the boardroom. Now that the “passionate believer and intense critic of the service” isn’t coming, Agrawal is reduced to portraying this as also being a good thing and pleading with employees to just put it all out of their minds.
But how can they do that? Mute @elonmusk? That might offer some semblance of peace, I suppose. On the other hand, if they tune out their most powerful non-director, how are Twitter’s staffers to know what’s going on? – Bloomberg.