The singular cruelty of the Twitter layoffs

While Twitter employees were getting locked out of their accounts, their former boss was — literally — shitposting.

Elon and Twitter

Elon Musk has yet to personally express — or even feign — any remorse at all about his decision.

Illustration: Getty Images; Protocol

Nearly three years into a pandemic and several months into an economic downturn, corporate layoffs have all started to borrow from the same flawed playbook: the earnest, if impersonal layoffs over Zoom. The blog posts, written by CEOs, who claim to be heartbroken by their decisions. The cringey crying CEO videos.

Each of these approaches is flawed in its own way. Layoffs are never anything but brutal. But few examples have compared to the singular cruelty of Twitter’s overnight purge.

Unlike so many of his industry peers, Twitter’s new chief, Elon Musk, has yet to personally express — or even feign — any remorse at all about his decision. There was no tortured thread about how difficult the cuts would be, no public blog post laying out the company’s reasoning or the benefits fired workers would receive going forward.

Instead, as Twitter employees found themselves suddenly locked out of company accounts Thursday night, after receiving a companywide email that said layoffs were about to begin, Musk spent the wee hours reacting to shitposts about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and literally posting about shit.

“Why is small talk even legal!?” Musk tweeted at nearly 1 a.m. ET, as one-time Twitter employees around the world tweeted salute emojis and emotional goodbyes.

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Even the email that Twitter’s new leadership sent to staff was uniquely cold. It acknowledged that this is “an incredibly challenging experience to go through,” but immediately followed up by reminding the thousands of people who were about to be canned “to adhere to Twitter policies that prohibit you from discussing confidential company information on social media, with the press or elsewhere.” The brief memo — the first communication employees had received from their new boss — wasn’t even signed by Musk. Instead, the email was signed simply “Twitter,” a reminder to the thousands of people who have built Twitter for years that it now belongs to people who have been with the company about a week.

This was never going to end well. Musk has said almost nothing but lousy things about Twitter since he first tried to buy it, and that was before an ugly court fight where he tried to back out of the deal. He had barely stepped foot in the place before he fired the top brass, without so much as a word of warning to the staff, and has reportedly ruled with an iron fist ever since in a desperate bid to ship more paid products to offset the $13 billion in debt Twitter is now saddled with.

Musk was never going to give Twitter employees a warm and fuzzy goodbye — or, apparently, even a hello — but the suddenness and scale of the layoffs, the utter lack of communication leading up to it, and Musk’s complete failure to even address it in the midst of his gleeful overnight emoji spree smacked of a particular kind of vengeance. “Layoffs are a fact of life — this isn’t the only one today and it’s far from the first at Twitter,” tweeted Twitch Chief Product Officer Tom Verrilli. “But it’s the inhumanity of this one that strikes such a chord.”

The question now: Did Musk’s harsh approach violate labor laws? Attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan filed a lawsuit Thursday in San Francisco federal court claiming Musk did not give employees enough notice before layoffs. “Look Ma I’m suing Twitter,” tweeted former Twitter software engineer Manu Cornet, who is one of five named plaintiffs in the suit.

The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act requires employers with 100 or more workers to provide at least 60 days of notice before laying off 50 or more employees at a single site of employment. The federal and California versions of the law are similar, though the California law is slightly more friendly to employees.

According to the suit, Cornet was fired from Twitter “effective immediately” on Nov. 1 and received no severance. Musk’s other company, Tesla, has been fighting a separate WARN Act suit filed by former factory workers.

Proving that Twitter violated the WARN Act would force Musk to offer affected employees benefits and backpay for up to 60 days, but it can only go so far. “The WARN Act doesn’t have many protections,” Lee Adler, an employment law professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said. “It can’t restore employment.”

Bloomberg reported that Musk planned to eliminate around 3,700 jobs, but it’s still unclear exactly how many Twitter employees were actually affected, where they’re based, and what Twitter is offering them as severance. Depending on those details, there may be ways for Musk to avoid another court battle. If Twitter were to offer two months’ severance, it would void any lawsuits claiming a WARN Act violation, employment attorney Jack Raisner of New York firm Raisner Roupenian told Protocol.

Twitter might also use the “single site of employment” required under the law to its advantage. Though the company is based in California, Twitter employees work from around the world. “Everything [has] to be looked at through the prism of: What is the location in which these layoffs have occurred?” Raisner said.

Even if Twitter and Musk don’t suffer legal consequences, it seems inevitable that the brutality of the layoffs will leave a stain on the company’s reputation and internal culture, which has been singled out in the tech world as being notably inclusive and open — characteristics that are rarely, if ever, attributed to Musk’s other companies.

On Thursday night and throughout Friday morning, Twitter employees past and present mourned the end of that chapter. “Quitting Twitter Inc earlier this year is like graduating high school and feeling a bit sad but like, nostalgic,” one former Tweep wrote, “and then a few months later your high school explodes.”


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories