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Twitter CEO Elon Musk gives staff an ultimatum, and many people are choosing to go

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Twitter is flapping. The new boss, Elon Musk, gave staff an ultimatum to stay or go, and it seems many employees chose the latter. All over the world, people are gawking at the drama and tweeting about it. NPR's Shannon Bond has been talking with people in and outside of the company. And Shannon, catch us up on the latest. What's going on?

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: It's chaotic, Ari. So most people who worked at Twitter just a month ago are now gone. A whole new wave left on Thursday after that deadline passed on Musk's ultimatum. And for those who remain at the company, you know, there's questions. What's the vision? What's the plan? It needs to make money to service all the debt Musk took on, right? Our colleague Camila Domonoske spoke with Ross Gerber, an investor in Musk's Twitter and a big Tesla shareholder. He says he thinks Musk can pull off a win at Twitter, but...

ROSS GERBER: I think none of this has gone as planned, 0% of it. And that's how Elon works. That's just the way he is.

BOND: The way he is - right? - erratic, impulsive. But if you're a true believer like Gerber is, you keep betting on Musk.

SHAPIRO: I mean, he's got money on the line, so I (laughter)...

BOND: (Laughter) Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Should expect he would hope he'll pull it out. But with an exodus of so many staff, can Twitter even continue to function without the people who make it run?

BOND: Yeah. I mean, the service is still functioning for now. And people we've been talking to say it's unlikely to just fully collapse. But there is concern that, over time, it degrades, that minor problems snowball or that during a big event that drives a lot of traffic, like the World Cup that's about to start, there could be outages. And there's just not institutional knowledge anymore. And there's just so much uncertainty, right? Musk is calling the shots by tweet. That's how employees are learning about what he wants. It seems scattershot.

Today he announced by tweet that Twitter will make negative or hate tweets, as he called them, harder to see on the platform. You won't be able to pay to promote them. And there are so many questions about this. I mean, for one, that's something Twitter has actually already done for years, with some tweets that violate its policies. Second, what Musk didn't say is how he's defining negative or hate tweets or if this is a change to Twitter's existing policies on hate speech or if he even knows what those policies are. And I should also note a lot of the people who set those policies, who review tweets, are now gone.

Musk has also said he's reinstating some accounts that had been banned. Comedian Kathy Griffin - she was banned for parodying Musk, as well as the right-wing author Jordan Peterson, the Babylon Bee, a conservative satire site. Musk has said he's not yet deciding whether to let Donald Trump back. You'll remember he was banned after the Capitol insurrection.

SHAPIRO: I remember that, yeah. Well, for ordinary people who use Twitter, the vibe lately has been kind of like a New Orleans second line, people getting drunk at a funeral. What does this mean for those of us who just kind of like to tweet every now and then?

BOND: Yeah. I mean, definitely on my feed - you know, Twitter often gets weird at night in general. But Thursday night felt like...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) After-hours Twitter.

BOND: Yeah. It felt like this weird, like, last night of summer camp/wake. Like, people were swapping ways to contact each other, making all these absurd jokes and writing really heartfelt tweets about what their Twitter community has meant to them. The top trends, you know, were R.I.P. Twitter, goodbye Twitter and a bunch of other social networks and apps like Mastodon, Tumblr, Discord, even Myspace.

SHAPIRO: That still exists?

BOND: (Laughter) It's still around, Ari. Musk has bragged about Twitter being really - traffic to Twitter being really high. And it's true. It kind of weirdly feels more alive now. Because if one thing is true about Twitter, we love talking about Twitter on Twitter.

SHAPIRO: As evidenced by this conversation.

BOND: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: How long can that actually last, though?

BOND: I mean, that's the question, right? Even if the site is still working, I think it does feel like something has changed. There are many people who are now wondering how much they can trust Twitter. There's concerns about privacy for journalists and activists, you know, where - for whom it's an important place to communicate. Is it safe to send direct messages?

Then there was the whole debacle of last week, when Twitter started selling blue check badges for this $8-a-month subscription. Previously, those were supposed to indicate that an account was who it claimed to be, right? And that was important for companies and politicians, news outlets, celebrities. But of course, it led to immediate impersonation. Twitter suspended sign-ups. Musk says the feature will be available again after Thanksgiving with some guardrails, but it's all contributing to this sense the platform that's so important for communication is now much less reliable.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Shannon Bond. Thank you.

BOND: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.