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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Elon Musk says Apple has ‘threatened to withhold Twitter’ from the App Store

Elon Musk says Apple has ‘threatened to withhold Twitter’ from the App Store

Image of Elon Musk with red flourishes in the background.

Elon Musk is speaking out against Apple.
Kristen Radtke / The Verge; Getty Imagesnone

“Elon Musk claims that Apple has threatened to “withhold” Twitter from the iOS App Store for unknown reasons. The news follows a tweet where Musk said Apple had “mostly stopped advertising” on the platform and a poll asking whether Apple should “publish all censorship actions it has taken that affect its customers.” Apple did not immediately comment on Musk’s claim.

The news follows much more subtle signs of mounting tension between Apple and Musk-owned Twitter. Musk has criticized Apple’s App Store fee for in-app purchases, dubbing it a “hidden 30% tax” on the internet. And Apple App Store boss Phil Schiller deleted his Twitter account following Musk’s takeover, shortly after Donald Trump’s account was reinstated. 

In a November 15th interview with CBS News, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that “they say that they are going to continue to moderate. I’m counting on them to continue to do that.” Musk, however, has pledged to loosen Twitter’s moderation guidelines and floated the idea of a mass unbanning of suspended accounts

Twitter has long tested the boundaries of Apple’s App Store moderation — which has successfully pushed DiscordTumblr, and other services to either hide potentially offensive content (typically adult content) or ban it altogether. Twitter remains one of the only large platforms to still allow adult content on its app, and a recent editorial by former Twitter executive Yoel Roth revealed that it’s sparred periodically with Apple over content like racial slurs and the hashtag #boobs.

If Musk’s statement is accurate, “withhold” could mean temporarily rejecting an update to the Twitter app or could involve a more serious threat to boot Twitter from the iOS App Store — a devastating potential outcome for Twitter.“

Friday, November 25, 2022

How Ralph Ellison’s World Became Visible - The New York Times

How Ralph Ellison’s World Became Visible

"Before he became a writer, Ralph Ellison was an emerging photographer. Rarely-seen documentary images, gathered in a forthcoming book, reveal his lifelong engagement with the camera.

Five men in hats stand outside an apartment building in Harlem, in a black and white photograph by the writer Ralph Ellison.
“Untitled” (New York City), a photograph of men on a Harlem street corner in the 1940s by Ralph Ellison, the author of the 1952 landmark novel, “Invisible Man.”The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust

Judging the photographs of an artist who is not primarily a photographer raises a prickly question. Are you assessing the photos on their own merits or examining them to better understand the artist’s main work? With an artist like Degas, his photos can be regarded as preparatory sketches for paintings. But what happens when the artist is not a painter but a writer?

Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man,” an eye-opening dissection of the Black experience in America, follows the unnamed narrator on a painful trail of disillusionment, from a small town in the South to a college resembling Tuskegee Institute (which Ellison attended) and then north to Harlem, where he finds employment with a doctrinaire left-wing organization much like the Communist Party.

The book is so searing and vivid that it’s hard to imagine its equivalent in still images. Ellison, who considered a career in photography before finding his vocation as a writer, operated in a different register when he was looking at the world through a viewfinder. His tenor was naturalistic rather than hallucinatory. A new monograph arriving next month, “Ralph Ellison: Photographer,” a collaboration of the Gordon Parks Foundation and the Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust, reveals for the first time his half-century’s engagement with the camera, beginning in the 1940s.

Parks and Ellison were good friends, and Parks, who was far more experienced, acted as Ellison’s photography mentor, just as Ellison guided him in writing. Working in black and white early on, Ellison later took up color Polaroids with diaristic profusion after a catastrophic fire in 1967 at his country home in Plainfield, Mass., destroyed much of the manuscript of his second, never-to-be-completed novel. Until his death in 1994, he took the Polaroids mostly from within the apartment he and his wife, Fanny, shared at 730 Riverside Drive in Hamilton Heights, in the northwest corner of Harlem. One of a potted orchid on a windowsill overlooking a blurry view of the Hudson poignantly suggests a retreat from the hurly-burly of life.

But the thrust of Ellison’s black-and-white photography is documentary, much like Parks’s. He took shots of men in hats gathered in Harlem, children playing in schoolyards, a woman street preacher and laundry hanging on clotheslines above a garbage-strewn courtyard. They seem like sketches in an artist’s pad. Or, for that matter, like photos by Degas, which would come to life only when the artist, taking a picture of a woman toweling her back as a jumping-off point, compressed and simplified her form, and colored it with red and ocher to create what he saw in his mind’s eye.

What is so revolutionary about Ellison’s novel — a milestone of American literature — is that it spins off from the mundane and ascends to an incendiary, phantasmagoric plane that reproduces the surreal world of African American life as the author experienced it. Perusing these photographs, one feels an irresistible temptation to seek prototypes for his characters. A fine portrait of a young Black man with a troubled downward gaze inevitably recalls the character of Tod Clifton, a charismatic leader who, to the narrator’s shock and disgust, descends to peddling Sambo dolls on the street. Described as “very black and very handsome” with a “square, smooth chin,” whose “head of Persian lamb’s wool had never known a straightener,” Clifton succumbs to a policeman’s bullet, leading to the apocalyptic riots in Harlem that close the book. And because Clifton falls morally before physically, what seems to be self-doubt in the photograph resonates with the fictional narrative.

As I examined Ellison’s pictures, however, I wondered whether his documentary photography functioned simply as a supply of source material, or whether it was capable of transmitting the febrile power of his prose.

It’s not easy to do, and it happens rarely. But when it does, it’s thrilling. A boy is lying on a concrete ledge in a schoolyard. One of his arms is being held by a little girl, and the other arm is also restrained, by the hand of someone outside the frame. The child’s eyes and mouth are open in what appears to be not fun but terror. Which is it? In another photograph, a woman is being taken into custody by policemen. She is missing a few teeth. She could be inebriated. A blast of light has overexposed the upper right of the picture. The violence of the scene seems to have leached into the photograph itself, because there is a tear across the left side of the print. What makes these pictures remarkable is that they raise the unsettling question that reverberates through “Invisible Man.” In this crazy world, how can we tell what is going on?

The difficulty in capturing the sustained frenzy of “Invisible Man” in photographs is something that Ellison and Parks well knew. The friends collaborated on two photo essays about Harlem, which were the subject of a 2016 show, “Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem,” at the Art Institute of Chicago. (The curator of that exhibition was Michal Raz-Russo, the Parks Foundation program director, who produced “Ralph Ellison: Photographer” with John F. Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor.)

Initially, the team of Ellison as writer and Parks as photographer investigated the first nonsegregated mental-health clinic in New York; because the magazine that commissioned it went bankrupt, the piece was never published. The second and more relevant photo essay was “A Man Becomes Invisible,” a Life story celebrating the publication of “Invisible Man” in 1952. The images in which Parks (with Ellison’s guidance on staging and captions) attempts to recreate scenes from the book fall far short of his best work. Photos of a Black man with his head poking above a manhole are hokey. Parks was a street photographer, not a creator of staged effects. His shots that attempt to reproduce the novel’s prologue, in which the narrator describes how he has illegally tapped electrical current to light 1,369 bulbs in his underground lair, look like the circuit wall of a lighting store and completely fail to capture the unnervingly logical reasoning of the narrator’s Dostoevskyan monologue.

Far more successful in translating Ellison’s words into an image is Jeff Wall’s “After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue,” 1999-2000, a monumental and masterful recreation of a mind-blowing (and perhaps fuse-blowing) underground domicile illuminated by hundreds of tightly clustered lights. This cluttered burrow is inhabited by a solitary Black man wearing a white undershirt with trousers held up by suspenders. He is surrounded by books, records, clothing on hangers, dirty pots and dishes, electrical outlets, cardboard cartons and old furniture. In its evocation of stillness and madness, it captures the flavor of Ellison’s prologue perfectly.

Documentary photography is well suited to depict the look of a time and place. Parks, along with such peers as Roy DeCarava and Aaron Siskind, gave us defining portraits of Harlem. Ellison’s photographs add to the record. “Invisible Man” goes far deeper. It is a lacerating look at how the poison of racism has permeated American culture. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, it conveys better than any other work of art I know the tragicomedy of not being recognized for who you are on account of the color of your skin. Ellison’s photographs are eloquent, and in a few instances startling. They provide welcome new information on how he observed the society he inhabited. But don’t expect to find in his pictures the equivalent of his book, one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. If the photographic version of “Invisible Man” were to exist, the pictures would most likely need to be staged, hovering between naturalism and surrealism, by an artist as sublimely gifted at creating images as Ellison was with words."

How Ralph Ellison’s World Became Visible - The New York Times

Saturday, November 19, 2022

I Was the Head of Trust and Safety at Twitter. This Is What Could Become of It.

I Was the Head of Trust and Safety at Twitter. This Is What Could Become of It.

Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock

By Yoel Roth

Mr. Roth is a former head of trust and safety at Twitter.

Sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter  Get expert analysis of the news and a guide to the big ideas shaping the world every weekday morning. 

“This month, I chose to leave my position leading trust and safety at Elon Musk’s Twitter.

My teams were responsible for drafting Twitter’s rules and figuring out how to apply them consistently to hundreds of millions of tweets per day. In my more than seven years at the company, we exposed government-backed troll farms meddling in elections, introduced tools for contextualizing dangerous misinformation and, yes, banned President Donald Trump from the service. The Cornell professor Tarleton Gillespie called teams like mine the “custodians of the internet.” The work of online sanitation is unrelenting and contentious.

Enter Mr. Musk.

In a news release announcing his agreement to acquire the company, Mr. Musk laid out a simple thesis: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” He said he planned to revitalize Twitter by eliminating spam and drastically altering its policies to remove only illegal speech.

Since the deal closed on Oct‌. 27‌‌, many of the changes made by Mr. Musk and his team have been sudden and alarming for employees and users alike, including rapid-fire layoffs and an ill-fated foray into reinventing Twitter’s verification system. A wave of employee resignations caused the hashtag #RIPTwitter to trend on the site on Thursday — not for the first time — alongside questions about whether a skeleton crew of remaining staff members can keep the service, now 16 years old, afloat.

And yet when it comes to content moderation, much has stayed the same since Mr. Musk’s acquisition. Twitter’s rules continue to ban a wide range of lawful but awful speech. Mr. Musk has insisted publicly that the company’s practices and policies are unchanged. Are we just in the early days — or has the self-declared free speech absolutist had a change of heart?

The truth is that even Elon Musk’s brand of radical transformation has unavoidable limits.

Advertisers have played the most direct role thus far in moderating Mr. Musk’s free speech ambitions. As long as 90 percent of the company’s revenue comes from ads (as was the case when Mr. Musk bought the company), Twitter has little choice but to operate in a way that won’t imperil the revenue streams that keep the lights on. This has already proved to be challenging.

Almost immediately upon the acquisition’s close, a wave of racist and antisemitic trolling emerged on Twitter. Wary marketers, including those at General Mills, Audi and Pfizer, slowed down or paused ad spending on the platform, kicking off a crisis within the company to protect precious ad revenue.

In response, Mr. Musk empowered my team to move more aggressively to remove hate speech across the platform — censoring more content, not less. Our actions worked: Before my departure, I shared data about Twitter’s enforcement of hateful conduct, showing that by some measures, Twitter was actually safer under Mr. Musk than it was before.

Marketers have not shied away from using the power of the purse: In the days following Mr. Musk’s acquisition, the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, a key ad industry trade group, published an open call to Twitter to adhere to existing commitments to “brand safety.” It’s perhaps for this reason that Mr. Musk has said he wants to move away from ads as Twitter’s primary revenue source: His ability to make decisions unilaterally about the site’s future is constrained by a marketing industry he neither controls nor has managed to win over.

But even if Mr. Musk is able to free Twitter from the influence of powerful advertisers, his path to unfettered speech is still not clear. Twitter remains bound by the laws and regulations of the countries in which it operates. Amid the spike in racial slurs on Twitter in the days after the acquisition, the European Union’s chief platform regulator posted on the site to remind Mr. Musk that in Europe, an unmoderated free-for-all won’t fly. In the United States, members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have raised concerns about the company’s recent actions. And outside the United States and the European Union, the situation becomes even more complex: Mr. Musk’s principle of keying Twitter’s policies on local laws could push the company to censor speech it was loath to restrict in the past, including political dissent.

Regulators have significant tools at their disposal to enforce their will on Twitter and on Mr. Musk. Penalties for noncompliance with Europe’s Digital Services Act could total as much as 6 percent of the company’s annual revenue. In the United States, the F.T.C. has shown an increasing willingness to exact significant fines for noncompliance with its orders (like a blockbuster $5 billion fine imposed on Facebook in 2019). In other key markets for Twitter, such as India, in-country staff members work with the looming threat of personal intimidation and arrest if their employers fail to comply with local directives. Even a Musk-led Twitter will struggle to shrug off these constraints.

There is one more source of power on the web — one that most people don’t think much about but may be the most significant check on unrestrained speech on the mainstream internet: the app stores operated by Google and Apple.

While Twitter has been publicly tight-lipped about how many people use the company’s mobile apps (rather than visit Twitter on a web browser), its 2021 annual report didn’t mince words: The company’s release of new products “is dependent upon and can be impacted by digital storefront operators” that decide the guidelines and enforce them, it reads. “Such review processes can be difficult to predict, and certain decisions may harm our business.”

“May harm our business” is an understatement. Failure to adhere to Apple’s and Google’s guidelines would be catastrophic, risking Twitter’s expulsion from their app stores and making it more difficult for billions of potential users to get Twitter’s services. This gives Apple and Google enormous power to shape the decisions Twitter makes.

Apple’s guidelines for developers are reasonable and plainly stated: They emphasize creating “a safe experience for users” and stress the importance of protecting children. The guidelines quote Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” quip, saying the company will ban apps that are “over the line.”

In practice, the enforcement of these rules is fraught.

In my time at Twitter, representatives of the app stores regularly raised concerns about content available on our platform. On one occasion, a member of an app review team contacted Twitter, saying with consternation that he had searched for “#boobs” in the Twitter app and was presented with … exactly what you’d expect. Another time, on the eve of a major feature release, a reviewer sent screenshots of several days-old tweets containing an English-language racial slur, asking Twitter representatives whether they should be permitted to appear on the service.

Reviewers hint that app approval could be delayed or perhaps even withheld entirely if issues are not resolved to their satisfaction — although the standards for resolution are often implied. Even as they appear to be driven largely by manual checks and anecdotes, these review procedures have the power to derail company plans and trigger all-hands-on-deck crises for weeks or months at a time.

Whose values are these companies defending when they enforce their policies? While the wide array of often conflicting global laws no doubt plays a part, the most direct explanation is that platform policies are shaped by the preferences of a small group of predominantly American tech executives. Steve Jobs didn’t believe porn should be allowed in the App Store, and so it isn’t allowed. Stripped bare, the decisions have a dismaying lack of legitimacy.

It’s this very lack of legitimacy that Mr. Musk, correctly, points to when he calls for greater free speech and for the establishment of a “content moderation council” to guide the company’s policies — an idea Google and Apple would be right to borrow for the governance of their app stores. But even as he criticizes the capriciousness of platform policies, he perpetuates the same lack of legitimacy through his impulsive changes and tweet-length pronouncements about Twitter’s rules. In appointing himself “chief twit,” Mr. Musk has made clear that at the end of the day, he’ll be the one calling the shots.

It was for this reason that I chose to leave the company: A Twitter whose policies are defined by edict has little need for a trust and safety function dedicated to its principled development.

So where will Twitter go from here? Some of the company’s decisions in the weeks and months to come, like the near certainty of allowing Mr. Trump’s account back on the service, will have an immediate, perceptible impact. But to truly understand the shape of Twitter going forward, I’d encourage looking not just at the choices the company makes but also at how Mr. Musk makes them. Should the moderation council materialize, will it represent more than just the loudest, predominantly American voices complaining about censorship — including, critically, the approximately 80 percent of Twitter users who reside outside the United States? Will the company continue to invest in features like Community Notes, which brings Twitter users into the work of platform governance? Will Mr. Musk’s tweets announcing policy changes become less frequent and abrupt?

In the longer term, the moderating influences of advertisers, regulators and, most critically of all, app stores may be welcome for those of us hoping to avoid an escalation in the volume of dangerous speech online. Twitter will have to balance its new owner’s goals against the practical realities of life on Apple’s and Google’s internet — no easy task for the employees who have chosen to remain. And as I departed the company, the calls from the app review teams had already begun.”

Friday, November 18, 2022

Apple Watch Ultra - One Month later!?

Elon Musk’s Twitter Teeters on the Edge After Another 1,200 Leave

Elon Musk’s Twitter Teeters on the Edge After Another 1,200 Leave

“Mr. Musk sent emails on Friday asking to learn about Twitter’s underlying technology as key infrastructure teams have been decimated.

Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco. So many workers have left that Twitter users have questioned whether the site would survive.
Jason Henry for The New York Times

Elon Musk sent a flurry of emails to Twitter employees on Friday morning with a plea.

“Anyone who actually writes software, please report to the 10th floor at 2 p.m. today,” he wrote in a two-paragraph message, which was viewed by The New York Times. “Thanks, Elon.”

About 30 minutes later, Mr. Musk sent another email saying he wanted to learn about Twitter’s “tech stack,” a term used to describe a company’s software and related systems. Then in another email, he asked some people to fly to Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco to meet in person.

Twitter is teetering on the edge as Mr. Musk remakes the company after buying it for $44 billion last month. The billionaire has pushed relentlessly to put his imprint on the social media service, slashing 50 percent of its work force, firing dissenterspursuing new subscription products and delivering a harsh message that the company needs to shape up or it will face bankruptcy.

Now the question is whether Mr. Musk, 51, has gone too far. On Thursday, hundreds of Twitter employees resigned after Mr. Musk gave them a deadline to decide whether to leave or stay. So many workers chose to depart that Twitter users began questioning whether the site would survive, tweeting farewell messages to the service and turning hashtags like #TwitterMigration and #TwitterTakeover into trending topics.

Some internal estimates showed that at least 1,200 full-time employees resigned on Thursday, three people close to the company said. Twitter had 7,500 full-time employees at the end of October, which dropped to about 3,700 after mass layoffs this month.

The employee numbers are likely to remain fluid as the dust settles on the exits, with confusion abounding over who is keeping a tally of workers and running other workplace systems. Some employees who quit said they were separating themselves from the company by disconnecting from email and logging out of the internal messaging system Slack because human resources representatives were not available.

Mr. Musk and representatives for Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.

Elon Musk pushed relentlessly to put his imprint on the social media service, slashing 50 percent of its work force.
Ryan Lash/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images

But the billionaire tweeted on Friday what he said would be changes to Twitter’s content policy. Hateful tweets will no longer be promoted algorithmically in users’ feeds, he said, but they will not be taken down. He also reinstated several previously banned accounts, including those of the comedian Kathy Griffin and the author Jordan Peterson.

Perhaps the most crucial question now is how Twitter can keep running after the giant reduction to its work force in such a short time. The effects of the cuts and resignations have played out across the company’s technology teams, people with knowledge of the matter said.

One team known as Twitter Command Center, a 20-person organization crucial to preventing outages and technology failures during high-traffic events, had multiple people from around the world resign, two former employees said. The “core services” team, which handles computing architecture, was cut to four people from more than 100. Other teams that deal with how media appears in tweets or how profiles show follower counts were down to zero people.

Changes at Elon Musk’s Twitter

A swift overhaul. Elon Musk has moved quickly to revamp Twitter since he completed his $44 billion buyout of the social media company in October, warning of a bleak financial picture and a need for new products. Here’s a look at some of the changes so far:

“Wednesday offered a clean exit and 80 percent of the remaining were gone,” Peter Clowes, a senior software engineer, tweeted on Thursday about the departures on his team. “3/75 engineers stayed.” He said on Twitter that he quit on Thursday.

Mr. Musk is also considering shuttering one of Twitter’s three main U.S. data centers, a location known as SMF1 in Sacramento, which is used to store information needed to run the social media site, four people with knowledge of the effort said. If the data center in Sacramento is taken offline, it will leave the company with data centers in Atlanta and Portland, Ore., with potentially less backup computing capacity in case something fails.

Twitter is still operating, but it may become harder for the company to fix serious issues when they come up, former employees said. One former Twitter engineer likened the service’s current state to Wile E. Coyote, the Looney Tunes cartoon character, as he runs off the edge of a cliff. Though he may still be running in midair for some time, once he looks down, he drops like a stone.

“The larger and more prominent a platform is, the more care and feeding is needed to keep it running and maintain the expectations of the users,” said Richard Forno, the assistant director of the Center for Cybersecurity at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “It’s a huge challenge.”

Mr. Musk sent a flurry of emails to Twitter employees on Friday morning with a plea: “Anyone who actually writes software, please report to the 10th floor at 2 p.m. today.”
Jason Henry for The New York Times

The employee reductions are coinciding with Twitter’s entering one of its busiest periods in terms of visitors to the site. The World Cup, which begins on Sunday, is expected to bring a deluge of traffic to Twitter, which is the world’s fourth most visited website, according to Similarweb, a digital intelligence platform that tracks web traffic. Twitter gets 6.9 billion visits each month, slightly more than Instagram’s 6.4 billion, though far fewer than Google, YouTube or Facebook, according to Similarweb estimates.

On Twitter late Thursday, Mr. Musk professed confidence that the service would be fine.

“The best people are staying, so I’m not super worried,” he tweeted.

Fortune reported earlier that 1,000 to 1,200 Twitter employees had resigned. The Information earlier reported on some of Twitter’s infrastructure issues. The Verge earlier reported on departures from the Twitter Command Center.

Keeping a site like Twitter online is typically a task for senior engineers, who must constantly guard against cyberattacks and monitor web traffic to ensure servers are not overloaded, Dr. Forno said. If too many veteran employees depart, leaving Twitter without the expertise or manpower to monitor or quickly fix issues, problems could start, he said.

Many tech issues can be fixed remotely, but some may require workers at Twitter’s data centers around the country, Dr. Forno added. If issues fall through the cracks, Twitter users are not likely to see the site disappear all at once, at least at first. But timelines could start refreshing more slowly, the site might struggle to load and users would find Twitter to be full of glitches.

“It’s like putting a car on the road, hitting the accelerator and then the driver jumps out,” he said. “How far is it going to go before it crashes?”

Inside Twitter on Friday, remaining employees said they were bewildered by Mr. Musk’s changing directives. The company had said on Thursday afternoon that it was closing “our office buildings” and disabling employee badge access until Monday. But in his emails on Friday, Mr. Musk appeared to want to talk to people in person at the company’s San Francisco offices.

Employees were also having difficulties figuring out who was still on staff, and what areas of infrastructure needed more support to keep things up and running.

One worker who wanted to resign said she had spent two days looking for her manager, whose identity she no longer knew because so many people had quit in the days beforehand. After finally finding her direct supervisor, she tendered her resignation. The next day, her supervisor also quit.

Others were spending hours trying to track down which teams they were on. Some said they were asked to oversee duties they had never handled before.

The changes were occurring in a near total information vacuum internally, employees said. Twitter’s internal communications staff has been laid off or left, and workers said they were looking outward for information from media articles. Mr. Musk has increasingly downplayed the role of traditional media over the past few months, citing Twitter as one of the best platforms for the rise in “citizen journalism,” as he put it.

Kate Conger contributed reporting.“

iPad Pro M2: What Does "Pro" Even Mean?

Hundreds said to have opted to leave Twitter over Elon Musk ultimatum - The Washington Post

Hundreds said to have opted to leave Twitter over Musk ultimatum

The number of likely departures prompted Musk to ease his return-to-office edict and managers to meet to decide which engineers to ask back

Elon Musk eased off a return-to-office mandate he had issued a week ago, now telling employees that they would be allowed to work remotely if their managers assert they are making “an excellent contribution.” (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg News)
Elon Musk eased off a return-to-office mandate he had issued a week ago, now telling employees that they would be allowed to work remotely if their managers assert they are making “an excellent contribution.” (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg News)

SAN FRANCISCO — Hundreds of Twitter employees refused Thursday to sign a pledge to work longer hours, threatening the site’s ability to keep operating and prompting hurried debates among managers over who should be asked to return, current and former employees said.

The number of engineers tending to multiple critical systems had been reduced to two, one or even zero, according to people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

The crisis came in response to an ultimatum new owner Elon Musk issued Wednesday demanding that employees sign a pledge to work harder by 5 p.m. Eastern time Thursday or accept three months’ severance pay.

In an early sign that the number of those declining to sign was greater than anticipated, Musk eased off a return-to-office mandate he had issued a week ago, telling employees Thursday they would be allowed to work remotely if their managers assert they are making “an excellent contribution.”

But it was too late to keep Twitter from a precarious position, several workers said.

Elon Musk emailed an ultimatum to Twitter employees on Nov. 16, asking staff to commit to "working long hours at high intensity" or resign. (Video: Reuters)

“I know of six critical systems (like ‘serving tweets’ levels of critical) which no longer have any engineers,” a former employee said. “There is no longer even a skeleton crew manning the system. It will continue to coast until it runs into something, and then it will stop.”

Workers offered varying estimates of how many people remained employed at Twitter, ranging from 2,000 to 2,500, down from the 3,500 or so believed to have remained after an initial round of layoffs affecting roughly half the staff this month. Access cutoffs have been delayed, because they are not sure who is gone, because most of human resources left, according to one of the employees.

Among those who were said to have declined to sign the pledge was half the trust and safety policy team, including a majority of those who work on spotting misinformation, spam, fake accounts and impersonation, according to one employee familiar with the team.

Meanwhile, several critical engineering teams were reported to have been hollowed out. The team that runs the service Gizmoduck, which powers and stores all information in user profiles across the site, was entirely gone, according to a recent department head who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to detail the departures.

“Every mistake in code and operations is now deadly” said a former engineer who departed the company this week. Those left “are going to be overwhelmed, overworked, and because of that more likely to make mistakes.”

Departing employees filled the Twitter hashtag #LoveWhereYouWorked with public farewells.

“I thought my soul was already fully crushed after the last two weeks. I was so wrong. Today has been rough,” one tweeted. “There will never be a better culture than what we had. We know it. Every other tech company knows it.”

“Wow, this is a lot of people saying goodbye,” one current employee said Thursday, referring to internal posts on the company’s Slack channels.

Twitter employees weren’t the only ones saying goodbye Thursday night. As news of the depleted engineering teams spread across the site, Twitter users began preparing for the worst — exchanging contact information, trying to download their Twitter data, and posting potential “final posts” in case the site were to go down permanently.

As of 9 p.m. Eastern time, the top trend on Twitter in the United States was “#RIPTwitter,” followed by the names of alternative social networks such as Tumblr, Discord, and Mastodon as users mulled life after tweets.

Thursday evening there were scattered reports of Twitter not working for some users. Downdetector.com, a site that collects reports of websites not working, showed a spike in issues for Twitter.

Musk tweeted later that evening that the site “hit another all-time high in Twitter usage lol.”

Meanwhile, words were projected onto the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, calling Musk a “worthless billionaire” and a “bankruptcy baby,” among other names. It was unclear who the organizers of the demonstration were.

Elon Musk was called “worthless billionaire” in a projection on the wall of the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on Nov. 17. (Video: Linda Chong/The Washington Post)

Musk’s return-to-office order had been a source of tension since it was issued on Nov. 9. In an email, he told employees they were expected back at their desks the next day. At a follow-up staff meeting on Nov. 10, Musk said that “exceptional” employees could continue to work from home, as many have since the pandemic began. But the return-to-office order remained a source of grumbling for Twitter staffers who had remained at the company after Musk-ordered layoffs Nov. 4 eliminated approximately half of Twitter’s jobs.

Musk did not say why he revised his return-to-office order. One Twitter staff member said the numbers of employees seeking to leave had alarmed many of Twitter’s managers, who had formed “war rooms” to determine which employees should be asked to stay on.

Resignations and departures were already taking a toll on Twitter’s service, employees said. “Breakages are already happening slowly and accumulating,” one said. “If you want to export your tweets, do it now.”

Hate speech and other abuse was also likely to spike, employees said. About half of Twitter’s Trust and Safety team, declined to sign the pledge, a co-worker said.

The easing of the return-to-office order was the latest change in Musk’s decisions as head of Twitter. Musk also has halted his initiative imposing an $8 monthly subscription fee on accounts labeled with Twitter’s blue check mark.

Musk, who purchased the company for $44 billion late last month, has said he wants to increase the platform’s ability to make money, focusing on ways to drive revenue and slashing costs. Musk, who is also chief executive of SpaceX and Tesla, is known for his companies’ hard-charging cultures and has famously described spending nights in a sleeping bag on the factory floor.

On Wednesday, Musk took the stand in Delaware Chancery Court in a trial over a shareholder lawsuit stemming from a compensation package he received as Tesla CEO. He also defended some of his actions at Twitter, including bringing in Tesla engineers to evaluate Twitter’s engineering staff.

Musk said in a Wednesday email outlining the severance offer that Twitter would be more of an engineering-focused 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.”

Gerrit De Vynck, Will Oremus and Linda Chong contributed to this report."


Hundreds said to have opted to leave Twitter over Elon Musk ultimatum - The Washington Post