May 24, 2024

“Where am I going?,” Linda Yaccarino, the CEO of the company now known as X, asked as she wandered onto the stage at the Code 2023 conference Wednesday night. She seemed to feint toward the chair that her interviewer CNBC journalist Julia Boorstin had been sitting in, before finding her footing. It was a telling moment, and a bit of foreshadowing that might seem heavy-handed if written into a high-camp episode of “The Morning Show.” Over a bizarre and rambling 40 minutes, Yaccarino, a media executive hired away from NBCUniversal earlier this year, made very little clear, but for one thing. Those who hope that X, formerly known as Twitter, somehow has a bright future ahead of it have less reason to feel confident with Yaccarino in charge.

At this week’s Code 2023 — a prestigious Kara Swisher-led conference held by Vox Media in Dana Point, Calif. — Yaccarino’s performance made for a completely congruent match between substance and style. Which is to say: She said little of substance, and did so in a halting and seemingly confused style, swiveling her head from side to side and at one point saying “It’s all a blur” after misstating a fact. She was plainly rattled by the booking, earlier at the conference, of Yoel Roth. Swisher interviewed the former head of trust and safety at Twitter, who stepped down after Elon Musk acquired the company; she has said that Yaccarino was fully aware Roth would be present. (Yaccarino claimed to have been surprised to learn Roth was speaking before her; Swisher said on X that Yaccarino, in fact, knew.) When the audience responded with some nervous laughter to her visible discomfort, she muttered, “Chuckles, chuckles.” And when asked about Roth’s claim that Musk’s publicly stated untruths about Roth’s lack of concern about child exploitation on Twitter led to threats to his physical safety, Yaccarino told a bizarre stem-winder that managed to include both her philosophy on betting and her status as an identical twin before arriving at the conclusion that she, personally, feels safe. OK!

Yaccarino was personally hired by Musk, and is plainly a true believer in Musk’s philosophy of radical free speech — or at least willing to overlook the ways in which the site’s current boom in hate speech is eroding the user experience. Every time Musk announces, via X, that he’s found a whole new way to be prejudiced, Yaccarino will post something along the lines of “Sunday @NFL football is back. And there’s even more to like #Kickoff2023.” She’s oblivious, which can be read as being mission-driven, on a good day. But this was not a good day for Yaccarino. “I will leave you with that,” she said after describing a Twitter Spaces that Musk planned to hold to discuss antisemitism “and how X can help.” She spread her hands like a performer taking a bow after the performance of a lifetime — never mind that it was only glancingly responsive to the questions she’d been asked, about various anti-hate groups’ fears about the platform’s influence; she’d had her say. And that could be enough.

It was plain to see that her display, a shockingly poor one for a media executive, stemmed in some part from being rattled. Being confronted with Roth’s real concerns about the future of the platform and its current owner’s conduct plainly didn’t sit well. (It wasn’t just Roth: Yaccarino complained about the unfairness of only receiving negative questions without a focus on the positive. And she seemed at times truly wounded by simple questions, as when she said “Not nice” when asked if, given Musk’s influence, her role as CEO was a mere technicality.) When asked to provide hard data about daily active users to support her claim that X is stronger than ever, Yaccarino sputtered. “200, 250, something like that?,” she said. “Did Yoel leave his facts?”

But being responsive to criticism, and to a fast-moving and dynamic climate, is part of the job. Her snideness about Roth, lashing out at a former Twitter employee who had nothing to do with this moment, revealed how out of the loop Yaccarino may be. It also showed how much it may not matter — her personality seems a match for a boss who similarly loathes dissent and lashes out at his critics, after all. And soon enough, in a torrent of words, Yaccarino had moved beyond the question of how many monetizable users X now has and onto a more broadly philosophical jaunt about how X is a habit for its users. “You’re checking this, FOMO, morning, noon, and night.” Asked, again, to provide a number, Yaccarino responded with “almost, like, a more personal, specific number” to demonstrate the company’s strength: Engagement numbers and time spent, she said, were both up, though this claim did not actually come with a figure. 

In a moment of attempted Levity, Yaccarino said, of X, “You’ve got to admit, it’s not boring. It’s one of the funniest places on Earth.” This worked against an already-low batting average for poor Yaccarino, as neither claim seemed right. X’s spiral over the past months has been glum and dispiriting to watch, at least for this writer, whose career and social circle had been, to this point, largely intertwined with the social network. And Yaccarino’s performance, if one were to leave aside the very real implications of, say, her complete inability to respond to questions about concerns about hate speech on the platform, was funnier than anything I’ve seen on the former bird app in months. 

It was hard, in a sense, to believe it was real. And it called to mind, as it wore on, a work of fiction. There’s a scene in Noah Baumbach’s film “Margot at the Wedding” in which Nicole Kidman’s character, a famous and prickly writer, is confronted with a cutting but accurate assessment of her personality at a bookstore Q&A. Unable to respond the way she’d like, and uncertain of what that would even be, she begins to tell a long, strange, and unrelated story, convincing herself, throughout, that the next sentence will be the one that starts to make the story make sense. Maybe, someday, Baumbach can script a dark comedy about Yaccarino — that is, if her tenure lasts long enough to fill out a movie’s runtime. Based on this performance, though, it might work better as a short film.

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