Most of the 2023 Code Conference went as expected. But in the final hours on Wednesday, things got tense.
X CEO Linda Yaccarino, who leads the platform formerly known as Twitter, had long been scheduled to speak at Code. However, on the day of, a surprise speaker showed up on the schedule: former Twitter head of trust and safety Yoel Roth, who quit just weeks after Elon Musk's October takeover of the social media platform.
Since then, Roth has criticized Musk's decision making around content moderation while Musk has targeted Roth, going so far as to groundlessly suggest that the former trust and safety executive condones pedophilia. Yaccarino, meanwhile, is Musk's hand-picked successor who hadn't said much — if anything — about Roth, until Wednesday.
When both took the stage within a two-hour span, the conference morphed into a boxing match of words, where punches were thrown, only to be countered an hour later. It was a bizarre spectacle, unlike any tech conference I've attended before.
Roth spoke first, in the same black chair that Yaccarino would shortly occupy.
"I imagine one of the things that you'll hear a little bit later on is about all of the work that's been done to make Twitter safer," he told the audience. "I would encourage Twitter to take a look at the death threats targeting me — death threats that were inspired by the company's leader — they're all still there. Twitter didn't take them down, thousands of them. They're still on the platform today."
Roth swung again when moderator Kara Swisher asked if he thought Yaccarino would be able to lead X forward.
"Advertisers aren't stupid," he said. "They demand data, they demand evidence, and it can't just be cherry-picked evidence that the platform hands out in an unaccountable way. ... For advertisers to come back to Twitter — and, to be clear, that's where the money comes from — I think they're going to need evidence of progress on safety that Twitter can't provide, and they can't provide it, because Twitter is less safe now than it used to be."
Before Yaccarino took the stage next, the Q&A microphones disappeared. Yaccarino's would be the only headlining session of the conference in which the speaker didn't take audience questions. It seemed like a change of plans.
In her talk, Yaccarino responded by distancing her company, X, from Roth's Twitter.
"Yoel and I don’t know each other," Yaccarino told the audience. "He doesn’t know me and I don’t know him. I work at X. He worked at Twitter. X is a new company building a foundation based on free expression and freedom of speech. Twitter at the time was operating on different sets of rules. ... It’s a new day at X and I’ll leave it at that."
In another strained exchange, moderator Julia Boorstin asked Yaccarino if Musk had spoken to her prior to his September announcement that X would begin charging all its users monthly.
"Did he say we were moving to it specifically, or is thinking about it?" Yaccarino asked. Boorstin clarified: "He said that was the plan. So did he consult you before he announced that?"
"We talk about everything," she answered, a little affronted. In the background, there were chuckles from the audience.
Throughout the session, something else became clear. Even amid the turmoil that X is going through as it battles concerns about losing advertisers, Yaccarino only speaks about Musk in glowing terms.
"Who wouldn’t want Elon Musk sitting by their side running product?" she asked rhetorically. But a few audience members raised their hands.
In discussing the state of X's business, Yaccarino confirmed that the platform has between 200 million and 250 million daily active users.
She added, "from an operating cash flow perspective, we’re just about breakeven." That would be a massive step forward for the company. In July 2022, Twitter clocked an operating loss of $344 million.
"The velocity of change, the scope of the ambition at X really does not exist anywhere else — forget the other platforms," Yaccarino said. "The company that was described about an hour ago [by Roth] no longer exists."
At the end of nine rounds, and well over time, Yaccarino ended the conversation before the moderator could. It was a swift exit, suggesting she isn't likely to return to Code any time soon.