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Friday, June 21, 2024

Twitter Has Entered the Elon Musk Twilight Zone

Elon Musk’s troubled $44 billion deal to buy Twitter has inspired many tweets chewing over the drama. One of the most perceptive came in the form of a cartoon posted last week by one of the company’s own software engineers.

Manu Cornet joined Twitter last year after 14 years at Google, where he used his hobby of drawing cartoons to poke fun at his employer’s culture and scandals. His latest three-panel drawing depicts an anthropomorphized version of Twitter’s bird logo delivering a monologue. “Your strategy is a model of hypocrisy and bad faith,” it says, seemingly addressing Musk. “You’ve trashed me, disrupted my operations, and destroyed shareholder value.” The angry bird then pivots to a plaintive question: “Will you now finally agree to adopt me?”

Cornet’s cartoon gets to the heart of the illogical situation that has ensnared Twitter. In April, Musk signed a deal to buy the company, but this month he announced he was pulling out, claiming the company had withheld information needed to count the number of bots on the platform. Twitter fired back with a lawsuit saying Musk made false claims in a strategy “of hypocrisy” that showed he considered the company “an elaborate joke”—and should be forced to become the owner of Twitter.

Only in the Elon Musk Twilight Zone does it make sense to demand your untrustworthy adversary become your boss. Twitter’s strategy may be storing up trouble for the company. After the insults thrown by both sides, things will be awkward if Twitter’s leaders succeed in forcing Musk to take over.

“From a negotiating perspective, relationships tend to be the cornerstone of durable, sustainable agreements,” says Paul Fisher, who teaches negotiation at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. He advises negotiators to try to separate the substance of a discussion from any personal feelings about the people they’re negotiating with. “In this case, this doesn’t seem to have happened and that doesn’t augur well for a strong future relationship,” Fisher says.

Michele Williams, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa, agrees. “They are not in any way negotiating for implementation,” she says. “After this sale goes through, they have to work together—and they have not created on either side a situation that will make that easy.” Late last week, Musk said in a court filing that Twitter’s request for a trial in September was unfair because of the case’s complexity, and repeated his claims that Twitter has obscured the true number of bots on its service. Twitter has repeatedly defended its bot-counting methodology.

Twitter’s deal with Musk would not be the first to be complicated by interpersonal drama. Williams points to Disney’s purchase of Pixar, which stalled for years because of bad blood between Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Apple’s Steve Jobs, but went through in 2006 after Eisner was replaced by Bob Iger.

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Dan Ives, principal analyst at Los Angeles investment firm Wedbush Securities, believes that there are four possible outcomes to Twitter’s dispute with Musk. He estimates there is a 20 percent chance that Musk escapes the deal he signed by either paying the $1 billion breakup fee written into its terms, or winning in Delaware’s Chancery Court without paying Twitter a cent.

The other two outcomes, which are together much more likely, Ives says, would see Musk either buy Twitter for the agreed $44 billion, or walk away after reaching a settlement in which he pays the company damages of between $5 billion and $10 billion. “The stock is factoring in some significant chance that Musk will ultimately have to pay Twitter a major settlement well north of $1 billion, and possibly still have to buy the company at the agreed upon price,” Ives says.

The prospect of Twitter’s upside-down logic prevailing and Musk ending up owning the social network he now appears to disdain has some employees and users worried. “There is no one to pump the brakes on this deal even when it’s clear Musk is the last thing in the world Twitter needs,” says Brianna Wu, a former video game developer and founder of progressive political action group Rebellion PAC. “The investors want it to go through. The board stands to make billions, and they’ll go to court to force the issue.”

How does a business deal agreed by both sides and backed by some of the world’s largest banks turn into such a mess? Javier Marcos Cuevas, associate professor at Cranfield School of Management, describes the process that got Twitter here as an “escalation of commitment,” which forced both Musk and Twitter to flip their initial positions.

Musk initially had to offer a relatively high price to be considered a credible purchaser, Marcos Cuevas says. “What may have happened then is that he realized, having seen what the analysts believed of the price, he’d paid too much,” he says. That feeling would have been sharpened by the broad slump across financial markets not long after the deal closed. Twitter’s lawsuit alleges it was a primary driver of Musk’s claims about a bot problem.

On Twitter’s side, Marcos Cuevas believes the company’s leadership went from believing the company merited a high price, to no longer believing it can sell the company at all. That reversal makes it worth trying to force Musk to complete the deal, securing the high price offered or forcing payment of significant damages. “There has been a complete reframing of expectations from both parties,” Marcos Cuevas says, “resulting in a lack of trust and confidence, and a fundamental review of their initial positions.”

Many Twitter employees are fearful that Musk would be a poor steward of the company and its service. They have been told by managers not to discuss the purchase or Musk on Slack, says one employee, who suspects executives have a more favorable view of the deal. “I think a lot of senior leaders are more pro-Elon than staff,” the employee says. “They own Teslas, have stock, and like the Musk mindset.”

If Musk does end up in charge, Williams suggests he might deescalate tensions by appointing someone else to run the company. “It could smooth over the ruffled feathers,” she says.

For now, life in the Twilight Zone is wearing on Twitter’s workers. Cornet, the cartoonist who captured the company’s predicament, can sense it among his coworkers. “There’s probably some amount of fatigue.” he says, “New twists keep piling up.”

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