Twitter’s tech rivals are mimicking Elon Musk’s playbook — even Mark Zuckerberg

Twitter’s tech rivals are mimicking Elon Musk’s playbook — even Mark Zuckerberg

Elon Musk has attracted plenty of criticism since he bought Twitter in late October and began overhauling its operations, but his influence on other social media moguls has been undeniable. 

These CEOs have been taking notes and mimicking parts of his strategy, from cost-cutting to paid verification. 

The latest CEO to acknowledge that influence is Reddit’s Steve Huffman. He told NBC News in an interview last week that Musk had demonstrated how a social media app can pursue profit without needing to grow to the enormous size of Instagram — specifically, by cutting operating costs without apology. 

“He’s affected us, but maybe in a way that’s not obvious to somebody who doesn’t work at a company like Reddit,” Huffman said. 

“We’ve chatted a handful of times, almost exclusively on this topic, on work, on internet platforms,” he said. 

Beginning in November, Musk laid off more than half of Twitter’s workforce, citing a need to cut costs and focus on rapid change. Reddit announced this month that it would lay off about 5% of its workforce. 

Reddit isn’t alone in following Musk’s lead. Other apps that are more or less rivals of Twitter have experimented with actions that Musk has taken at the company, suggesting that the mercurial billionaire, despite being a new entrant in the social media industry, is already making a mark.

“Every CEO in Silicon Valley has looked at what Elon Musk has done and has asked themselves, ‘Do they need to unleash their own Elon within them?’” Marc Benioff, CEO of the business software firm Salesforce, told Insider earlier this year. 

Benioff once sought to buy Twitter before Musk did, and like Musk, he has been cutting jobs. Salesforce announced it would lay off 10% of its staff in January. 

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said recently that Musk had given other tech executives permission to be more aggressive in cutting jobs and remaking their organizational charts. 

“A lot of the specific principles that he pushed on around, basically: trying to make the organization more technical; around decreasing the distance between engineers at the company and him; fewer layers of management — I think that those were generally good changes,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with podcaster Lex Fridman.  

He went on: “I also think it was probably good for the industry that he made those changes, because my sense is that there were a lot of other people who thought that those were good changes but who may have been a little shy about doing them.” 

It’s impossible to say how many layoffs in tech would have happened without Musk’s example at Twitter. Layoffs have been coming in waves in the industry recently, both before Musk’s purchase of Twitter and afterward

Zuckerberg, who has a long-running feud with Musk that has seemed both personal and professional, said Musk got him thinking beyond just cost-cutting. 

“Certainly, his actions led me and I think a lot of other folks in the industry to think about, ‘Hey, are we doing this as much as we should? Could we make our companies better by pushing on some of these same principles?’” Zuckerberg said on the Fridman podcast. 

Meta is expected to release a new app in the near future to compete directly with Twitter in the world of text-based social media — a sign of either Twitter’s perceived weakness or Musk’s influence in deciding to invest $44 billion in the same area. 

CEOs were praising Musk early in his tenure at Twitter when he appeared to rule with an iron fist and pushed back against the demands of workers. But now the admiration some of those CEOs had for his personality has turned into imitation of concrete examples. 

One area of Musk’s likely influence is more experimentation with nonadvertising sources of revenue, including fees and subscriptions. 

In February, Twitter announced it would end free access to its application programming interface (API), the software that people use to build tools and apps that integrate with Twitter. When it rolled out the fee structure, some people had sticker shock at the monthly price of $42,000, Wired magazine reported. The tech news site TechCrunch said it “seems like a money grab.” 

Weeks later, Reddit followed suit with an API pricing plan of its own, and Huffman has stood by the plan despite a user-led protest that has greatly disrupted Reddit’s operations this month. 

Despite the timing, Reddit spokesperson Tim Rathschmidt said that Twitter’s plans had no impact on Reddit’s. 

Then there are monthly subscriptions for ordinary users, an idea that Musk has championed with his $8-a-month Twitter Blue service. It comes with a blue badge and priority ranking on other people’s Twitter feeds. 

Over at Meta, Zuckerberg has toyed with offering a subscription premium service for years but has never moved forward with the idea, deciding that advertising was a better business. 

“We think offering people an ad-supported service is the most aligned with our mission of trying to connect everyone in the world, because we want to offer a free service that everyone can afford,” Zuckerberg said in congressional testimony in 2018. 

But he changed his strategy after Musk went ahead with Twitter Blue, announcing in February that he was rolling out a service called Meta Verified starting at $11.99 a month. Like Twitter Blue, it comes with a badge and increased visibility and reach, including in comments. 

Musk’s ongoing influence is surprising for at least one reason: Twitter, by all accounts, is drastically smaller as a business than it was when he bought it — which is the opposite of a CEO’s typical goal. Ads sales were down 59% during a recent five-week period compared to a year earlier, The New York Times reported this month. 

Musk’s failure to pay some bills has even put Twitter in danger of creditors seeking its involuntary bankruptcy, a columnist at the news site Puck wrote Sunday, laying out a potential scenario that other tech CEOs presumably would not want to imitate. 

Despite lingering questions about Musk’s overall influence on Twitter’s finances, perhaps his most contentious actions have been around its moderation practices.

Every social media platform has a rulebook for what people aren’t supposed to post, from exploitative material to harassment to, in most cases, hate speech. Musk has repealed some of the Twitter rules enacted by earlier management. 

Among the first content rules that Musk threw out was Twitter’s policy on false information about Covid-19. Musk has long embraced misinformation about Covid and vaccines, and within a month of his purchase, Twitter announced it would no longer enforce the policy. 

Meta had been weighing a similar move since at least July 2022, when it sought the opinion of its outside oversight board. It ended up following Musk’s lead this month, saying it was rolling back misinformation rules related to Covid-19 in places where there’s no longer a public health emergency declaration. 

One question that’s still outstanding is whether tech CEOs will emulate Musk’s most controversial stances related to online speech, such as allowing a ramp-up in hate speech, clearing the way for more bullying of transgender people or generally embracing far-right causes

In June YouTube announced that it would no longer remove 2020 election denialism, which Musk has himself shared on Twitter. But companies have yet to embrace the CEO’s recent targeting of trans people.