the old Twitter was an idealist’s workplace and a naive business

nIn the early ’10s, Twitter was at the height of its power. The company had yet to turn a profit, but it had played a crucial role in the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, which was nearly as effective for recruiting. While it would never reach the scale of its competitors, the platform dominated in terms of cultural and political relevance. Twitter was fast, its reach was far, and its influence was shaping the world in ways that seemed progressive. 

Menotti Minutillo, an engineer from Long Island with dark hair and a warm smile, was working as an analyst at Goldman Sachs when he decided to apply for a job at Twitter. At Goldman, there was no illusion about what employees were there to do. The company’s mission was to make money. Minutillo worked punishing hours with a near-constant fear of losing his job. During the financial crisis, as banks raced to cut costs, employees joked that executives were shrinking the size of the coffee cups to save a few cents on amenities. 

Minutillo was struck by the relaxed, collegiate atmosphere that greeted him at Twitter’s headquarters when he flew to San Francisco for an interview. There, cold brew ran freely and granola bars tumbled off the kitchenette shelves. Employees worked hard, but they didn’t work all the time. “It wasn’t like laziness, it was more laissez-faire,” Minutillo said. As summer 2012 drew to a close, Twitter offered Minutillo a job as a program manager on the information security team, and he accepted. 

“Twitter took the happiness of its employees seriously, almost to a fault,” said a former engineer who joined nearly a decade after Minutillo. “And that appealed to me, frankly. I didn’t want to work 80 hours a week. I liked the idea of spending time with my kids.”

While much has been made of Twitter’s tangible amenities — the salad bar, the yoga rooms, the Eames chairs — what set Twitter apart was always the intangibles: the accessibility of its executives, the cultural influence of the platform, and the overwhelming sense that, for better or worse, money wasn’t the focus. 

(“We weren’t communists,” a former executive told me. “We had houses and mortgages like everyone else.”) 

Still, many employees appreciated the fact that, particularly in recent years, Twitter focused on improving the health of online conversations rather than growth at all costs. That might sound naive for a business, but at least for a time, the company embodied the idealistic promise of Silicon Valley: that you could get paid to make the world a better place.

“We were at Twitter because of the mission.”

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haunaShauna Wright was a Twitter power user. As @goldengateblond, she had well over 300,000 followers, which she’d amassed from tweeting constantly (and, in the eyes of some Republicans, controversially) about politics. 

In 2018, she direct messaged one of her followers, Twitter’s chief marketing officer and head of people, Leslie Berland. “Hi Leslie!” she wrote. “I hope you’ll excuse me getting all up in your DMs when we’ve never actually met…But damn, WHAT DOES A GIRL WHO LOVES YOUR COMPANY and REALLY REALLY WANTS TO WORK THERE need to do?”

“Shauna!” Berland replied. “I’m so, so glad you DMed me…”

The following month, Twitter hired Wright as a content strategist. 

Wright wasn’t sure if her following would be an asset or a liability at Twitter. CEO Jack Dorsey seemed increasingly sensitive to accusations of political bias. A few years earlier, Wright had been interviewing for a job at a utility company when they asked if she’d take her Twitter account private. “Any place that isn’t comfortable with me tweeting is a place I don’t want to be,” she said. 

Luckily for Wright, one of Twitter’s core values was to communicate fearlessly to build trust. Employees were given lots of latitude to speak their minds both inside and outside the office. While Facebook had an employee-only version of the app, Twitter’s employee-only version was the same public Twitter everyone saw. 

“They gave me absolute carte blanche to do whatever I wanted to do on Twitter,” Wright said. 

Like many Twitter employees, Wright didn’t take the job for the money. Twitter didn’t pay as well as Apple or Netflix. But for workers like Wright who used (and loved) the service, there was no comparison. “Don’t get me wrong, we were spoiled. You could choose between six to seven different cuisines at lunch,” she explained. “But salary-wise, we could’ve gone somewhere else and made more money. We were at Twitter because of the mission.”

Around the time Wright joined, Twitter’s culture was changing. The company was in the middle of a heated debate about content moderation. Despite all evidence to the contrary, conservatives were convinced that Twitter was “shadowbanning” their accounts. The Bay Area’s tech workforce was famously left-leaning and outspoken about politics. It was easy to see how the right wing had become paranoid. 

Meanwhile, the other side of the aisle was unsatisfied, too. Democrats were equally appalled, arguing that the platform wasn’t doing enough to combat misinformation, including from then-President Donald Trump. The vibe inside Twitter grew more tense as employees disagreed about how and when to intervene. 

“We became a simulacrum of our platform,” said a former high-ranking employee. “We became the public. People were exaggerating their views, not listening, and forgetting that our role was to facilitate the conversation. We didn’t have a good sense of where our work begins and ends.”

“People were like, ‘Why aren’t you pulling Trump’s account?’” Wright recalled. “On the inside, we were like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? We’re pulling our hair out; we agree with you.’”

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ackJack Dorsey sat onstage at the TED2019 conference in Vancouver. The Twitter CEO was sporting a black beanie, a nose ring, and a long beard the approximate texture and weight of a tumbleweed. The event had all the trappings of a fireside chat — Dorsey perched casually on a modern couch across from TED CEO Chris Anderson and current affairs curator Whitney Pennington Rodgers — but in reality, it was the culmination of a monthslong apology tour. In interviews, in tweets, and now onstage, Dorsey reached for an earnest mea culpa and landed on a series of meandering excuses. 

Jack appeared to be miserable, like he needed a friend in the worst way

“What would be your top worry about where things are right now?” asked Anderson. “The health of the conversation,” Dorsey responded without hesitation. “Our purpose is to serve the public conversation, and we have seen a number of attacks on it. We’ve seen abuse, we’ve seen harassment, we’ve seen manipulation, automatic and human coordination, misinformation … What worries me most is our ability to address it in a systematic way that is scalable.” 

Roger McNamee, a tech investor who attended the conference, thought Dorsey’s speech fell spectacularly flat. “Jack appeared to be miserable, like he needed a friend in the worst way.” 

But some tech workers were inspired. Many still wanted to believe that social media could be a force for good. Facebook’s reputation had been spoiled since 2018’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, one of the largest data controversies in history, fueling Trump’s presidential campaign. Mark Zuckerberg might be willing to move fast and break things, but here was Dorsey, publicly committing to going slow and getting things right. The attributes that later made Twitter an easy target for Elon Musk made it an attractive workplace in 2019. What Dorsey had built felt thoughtful and idealistic, even as the CEO mumbled through his TED interview with vague promises and broad pronouncements.

“That was the moment that convinced many of us to come work at Twitter,” a former health researcher told me.

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nIn January 2020, more than 4,000 Twitter employees converged on Houston, Texas, for a space-themed offsite event. Over the course of three days, there was a party at the space center, drinks at the Houston Astros stadium, and a panel discussion with Jameela Jamil and writer Shea Serrano.

“The work you do directly contributes to our ability to reach our followers in a very personal way,” said astronaut Jessica Meir on the opening day, her image projected on a giant screen from her location inside the International Space Station, 250 miles above Earth’s orbit. She let go of the mic, which disconcertedly floated toward a colleague. “From all of us at the International Space Station, thanks for what you do, and have a great night,” another astronaut said. Twitter employees cheered.  

In 2017, Houston was devastated by catastrophic floods caused by Hurricane Harvey. Twitter was critical to the relief efforts. If the offsite seemed ostentatious, even wasteful, Leslie Berland promised the company was offsetting its carbon footprint and eschewing single-use water bottles and plastic straws. 

Dorsey closed out the festivities by FaceTiming a special guest onstage. “Give us some direct feedback, critique, what are we doing poorly, what could we be doing better, and what’s your hope for our potential as a service?” he asked his friend Elon Musk. “If you were running Twitter — by the way, do you want to run Twitter? — what would you do?” Musk suggested differentiating between bots and real users. 

It was the last time Twitter’s global teams would ever meet in person. During the pandemic, Twitter went all in on remote work. The offsite was a pre-pandemic phenomenon, a zero-interest-rate phenomenon, and certainly a pre-Musk phenomenon. 

We all know what happened next. In 2021, Dorsey stepped down, and the following year, Musk bought the company for $44 billion. 

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anyMany recall Musk’s arrival at Twitter with the top of a porcelain sink in tow, likely because it was a stunt designed to be a viral joke. But less remembered is that he brought his son X Æ A-Xii to the office that day, too. In fact, the toddler was around Twitter headquarters frequently during the early months of the acquisition. Tweeps knew Musk had arrived to make Twitter a more aggressive business and realign the company around protecting free speech. That would mean upending a lot of Twitter’s existing culture. But did it mean the benefits would go away? The perks?

It seemed deliberate that Musk was bringing his kid to the office. Employees relayed to me a scene of him sitting in a conference room at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters talking to a group of engineers, X Æ A-Xii perched contentedly on his knee. The toddler was watching something on an iPad. Then he started to fuss — he needed help with the volume. Musk complied. X Æ A-Xii settled down again, satisfied. It was a small moment, a nonevent compared to the chaos of the next few months, and yet, to those present, it was humanizing. Whatever else Musk was — an erratic boss, a Twitter troll, a visionary — he was also a parent.

I was in a vulnerable moment when I heard this story, having recently had a child of my own. I looked up videos of Musk at a conference carrying X Æ A-Xii. “He seems like a good dad,” I mused.

Twitter executives snapped me back to reality. “We were in meetings at like 11, 12 at night, and X Æ A-Xii would just be there…” one told me, noting that, while the situation might have been ideal for Musk, who dislikes being alone, it was probably less ideal for a toddler.

Later, Musk would slash the company’s parental leave policy from 20 weeks to the legal minimum plus a two-week top-off.

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fIf Menotti Minutillo was drawn in by Twitter’s inclusive atmosphere, Musk had the opposite response. The term “psychological safety” made him recoil, according to his biographer, Walter Isaacson. 

“We realized we worked under capitalism.”

In November, he was looking around the office when he came across a supply closet that housed stacks of shirts branded with the phrase “#StayWoke.” The swag dated back to 2016, two years after police shot and killed Michael Brown. In 2014, Dorsey flew to Ferguson, Missouri, to join the protests. The platform had been instrumental in exposing police violence and allowing organizers to spread the word, helping turn Black Lives Matter into a national movement. 

When Musk discovered the T-shirts, he was ecstatic. To him, the tees weren’t artifacts of Twitter’s cultural and political influence. They were proof of the company’s left-wing bias. “Found in closet at Twitter HQ [for real] ” he tweeted triumphantly, alongside a video of the shirts. 

Nine days later, Musk laid off Shauna Wright, along with roughly half the company. She wasn’t sure if the CEO knew that she was @goldengateblond, but it seemed clear that his views on free speech didn’t extend to his own workforce. Dozens of employees would soon be fired after criticizing Musk, either internally on Slack or publicly on Twitter. “I knew my days as an employee were numbered,” Wright said.

Less than two weeks later, Musk sent his first companywide email as CEO, ending remote work. “The road ahead is arduous and will require intense work to succeed,” he wrote. Soon after, he gave his remaining staffers an ultimatum: commit to being “extremely hardcore” or leave. Minutillo chose the latter. “I’m not going to fight for my job in a Google Form,” he told me. 

Wright now posts on Meta’s Twitter rival, Threads, where she’s trying to rebuild her following. “​​It’s been so hard to watch all the work we did to keep people safer and keep the conversation healthier be systematically destroyed in such a short period of time,” she said. 

It’s hard to imagine the platform reaching the political and cultural relevance it once had, and it’s even harder to see how it could be the same force for progressive social movements, especially as its new owner touts a free speech policy that boils down to his retweeting antisemitic conspiracies. Dorsey had deluded himself into thinking Twitter could be the utopian ideal of a tech company. Employees wanted to believe it could last. 

“When Elon Musk took over, it was like the mask slipped,” said an engineer who left just before the billionaire’s arrival. “We realized we worked under capitalism.”

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