clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Twitter’s CEO had a wild, combative appearance at the Code conference

Linda Yaccarino used to sell TV advertising. Selling Elon Musk is a whole different deal.

Linda Yaccarino, wearing a light gray suit and glasses, sits in a large black armchair on a stage.
Twitter/X CEO Linda Yaccarino, onstage at the 2023 Code Conference.
Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Vox Media
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Linda Yaccarino is angry.

Not at Elon Musk, the man who hired her to be the CEO of Twitter, the company he subsequently renamed X. Yaccarino says he’s a brilliant leader who is turning his company into something that has more ambition than “any other company likely on earth.”

Instead, Yaccarino is furious that my colleagues at Vox Media announced a last-minute programming update before her onstage interview at the company’s Code conference: They would also host a session featuring Yoel Roth, the former head of trust and safety at Twitter who resigned shortly after Musk bought the company last year.

In his interview with Code co-founder Kara Swisher, Roth recounted the story of his departure from Twitter — focusing on a tweet Musk wrote that wrongly accused him of pedophilia — and how that forced him to leave his home and fear for his safety.

He also questioned Twitter/X’s claims that hate speech had dramatically declined at the company under Musk’s ownership, and warned Yaccarino that she could one day face Musk’s wrath: “Look at what your boss did to me,” he said, when Swisher asked him to offer advice to Yaccarino. “It happened to me. It happened after he sung my praises publicly.”

Apologies for the long meta-backstory. (While we are at it, I’ll disclose that I conducted two interviews at Code this year but wasn’t involved in any other speaker bookings.) But you need it to understand the set-up for the combative tone Yaccarino brought to the stage. It’s also a little embarrassing for a writer to write this but: You’ll want to watch the video of this to get the whole gestalt. Here you go:

The reason any of this matters is that Yaccarino, a veteran TV advertising executive, long accustomed to making persuasive pitches on behalf of her clients, is now trying to do the same for Musk. But convincing the world that Elon Musk — or at least the version of Elon Musk who owns Twitter — is someone they should invest in, financially, emotionally, and otherwise, is a much different task than getting them to buy NBC’s fall TV line-up. And Wednesday’s appearance suggests just how different that task will be. In Yaccarino’s previous life, for starters, she’s never had to represent someone who is feuding with a Jewish anti-hate group.

On to the substance of the interview: You may be under the impression, in part because of reporting about the company and in part because of Musk’s own commentary on his platform, that since Musk bought Twitter, users and advertisers have fled and that the site has seen a spike in hateful content. You may also believe that, although Musk hired Yaccarino to be CEO of the company — a move he essentially leaked while she was preparing to give a major advertising presentation at NBCUniversal, her last employer, and before she had told NBCU execs about her plans — it’s not a real CEO job because Musk still controls major parts of the company. And also because Musk doesn’t seem capable of restraining himself from tweeting things like his belief that the Anti-Defamation League has a vendetta against him.

None of these things are true, Yaccarino explained to interviewer Julia Boorstin of CNBC at the Code conference. Some excerpts from her interview:

On the health of Twitter’s platform under Musk: She repeated earlier claims that the company now has more than 540 million users — more than double than the user base Musk cited last November. “When you look at the length of time spent, engagement on X, the key metrics are trending very, very positively,” she said.

On Twitter’s financial status: While Musk has previously said more than 60 percent of Twitter’s US advertising had vanished since he bought the company, Yaccarino said large and small advertisers are now returning since she arrived on the job. “Why are they returning? They are returning because of the power and significance of the platform,” she said.

Yaccarino also said that contrary to Musk’s previous suggestions that Twitter was in danger of bankruptcy, things had bounced back. “From an operating cash flow perspective, we are just about break-even,” she said, and projected that the company would be profitable early next year.

On Yaccarino’s position in the company and in Musk’s eyes: She said that she and Musk “talk about everything,” including his recently floated plan to convert Twitter from a free service to one that would require all users to pay, and that it was only right for him to tweet the way he’d like. “The foundation of X is based on free expression and freedom of speech,” Yaccarino explained. “Everyone has the opportunity to speak their opinion. Including Elon.”

Yaccarino also dismissed the idea that her power was diminished by Musk’s control of the tech company’s product. “Who wouldn’t want Elon Musk sitting by their side running product?” she asked the audience.

And in reference to Musk’s erratic nature and tendency to slip into “demon mode” — a phrase that surfaced in the new Musk biography by Walter Isaacson — she said she has yet to see that. “When you get inspired and pushed by Elon Musk, you do the things that you’d think were never normally possible,” she said. “I’ve been there 12 weeks. I am still somewhat in awe of his availability to me.”

On Twitter prior to Musk’s ownership: Yaccarino, like Musk, said that while she liked Twitter and had previously partnered with the company when she ran advertising at NBCUniversal, it was a deeply flawed company. “Twitter at the time was operating on a different set of rules ... different philosophies and different ideologies, [it was] creeping down the road of censorship,” she said. Musk’s new company, she repeated a few times, “is a new company, building a foundation based on free expression and free speech.”

Again, you’ll want to watch the video above for this one. It’s quite something.

Does any of this matter when it comes to the future of Twitter under Musk, and Yaccarino’s tenure there? There’s no way of knowing. Yaccarino has deep ties with the advertising business, and there are still many people in the industry hoping she can return Twitter to something they can spend (some) money on. Maybe that will happen. Note, for example, this recent public hug from the head of the NFL’s media operation, a very important Twitter partner:

But watching Yaccarino’s appearance onstage also reminded me of the Trump administration, when members of Trump’s circle would go on TV knowing that their primary mission was to please the president, who was famously glued to TV news. If Elon Musk sees Wednesday’s event, he’ll see, at a minimum, that his CEO is happy to share her displeasure with a media company in a public forum. Maybe he’ll like that?