Depending on which New York Times columnist you’re reading today, you either think that Elon Musk is a wonderful guy that’s “hard to love” or that he was able to buy Twitter because he “gets it.” The latter, a piece by Ultra-Wonk Ezra Klein, is a meandering piece that only someone who doesn’t really use Twitter that much could write:
I’m not accusing Musk of being a sleeper agent. The man loves Twitter. He tweets as if he had been raised by the blue bird and the fail whale. Three days before locking in his purchase of the platform, Musk blasted out an unflattering photograph of Bill Gates and, next to it, an illustration of a pregnant man. “In case u need to lose a boner fast,” Musk, Time’s 2021 person of the year, told his more than 80 million followers. He believed Gates was shorting Tesla’s stock, and this was his response. It got over 165,000 retweets and 1.3 million likes. That’s a man who understands what Twitter truly is.
Every time a Big Brain Columnist tries to describe Twitter, they try and make it this ultra-complex nightmare, which naturally requires speaking to some sort of…wait, a philosopher?
So what is Twitter built to do? It’s built to gamify conversation. As C. Thi Nguyen, a philosopher at the University of Utah, has written, it does that “by offering immediate, vivid and quantified evaluations of one’s conversational success. Twitter offers us points for discourse; it scores our communication. And these gamelike features are responsible for much of Twitter’s psychological wallop. Twitter is addictive, in part, because it feels so good to watch those numbers go up and up.”
I will concede that watching numbers such as likes and retweets going up is satisfying, but what about this makes Twitter unique? How is this any different from any other platform that rewards you with engagement metrics? I guess one could say it’s “scoring our communication,” but, again, one could compellingly argue there are many networks that do this.
Twitter takes the rich, numerous and subtle values that we bring to communication and quantifies our success through follower counts, likes and retweets. Slowly, what Twitter rewards becomes what we do. If we don’t, then no matter — no one sees what we’re saying anyway. We become what the game wants us to be, or we lose. And that’s what’s happening to some of the most important people and industries and conversations on the planet right now.
I am repeating myself, but this is quite literally any engagement-driven social platform! I know that nobody actually fact-checks these stories, but I cannot think of a single editor that I’ve worked for that wouldn’t leave a big Google Documents comment that says, “couldn’t this be applied to any other social network with engagement numbers?”
This piece is meandering in a very Ezra Klein way - constantly hedging his bets without really making any thorough consideration of anything other than what Ezra thinks or remembers at any given time.
Nor am I surprised that a résumé like Musk’s coexists with a tendency toward manias, obsessions, grudges, union-busting and vindictiveness. Extreme personalities are rarely on the edge of the bell curve only because of benevolence. But Twitter unleashes his worst instincts and rewards him, with attention and fandom and money — so much money — for indulging them. That Musk has so capably bent Twitter to his own purposes doesn’t absolve him of his behavior there, any more than it absolved Trump. A platform that heaps rewards on those who behave cruelly, or even just recklessly, is a dangerous thing.
But far too often, that’s what Twitter does. Twitter rewards decent people for acting indecently. The mechanism by which this happens is no mystery. Engagement follows slashing ripostes and bold statements and vicious dunks. “I’m frustrated that Bill Gates would bet against Tesla, a company aligned with his values,” is a lame tweet. “Bill Gates = boner killer” is a viral hit. The easiest way to rack up points is to worsen the discourse.
Here’s an idea, Ezra - have you considered that Elon Musk has 88 million followers? Have you considered that Twitter does not inherently reward people who act indecently but has rewarded Elon Musk for doing literally anything using such a big platform?
My point isn’t that Klein is totally wrong - yes, if you are a big piece of shit that appeals to other big pieces of shit, you potentially can get rewarded with attention from said pieces of shit - but that he is missing the most obvious point here: Elon Musk does not “get” Twitter, he just happens to have a lot of people that follow him.
Musk’s old tweets used to be dorky and boring, and they’d still get tons of engagement. If you have millions of real people following you - something that happens when you’re a multi-billionaire that runs several companies, one of which (Tesla) had a completely complicit and docile press following for the best part of a decade - you can say anything, and they will react to it. If Elon Musk tweeted a link to an Amazon product and said, “I like this,” I would wager that said product would sell many, many units. If Elon said “take a look at this” and linked to something, said the link would get lots of clicks. If Elon said, “we should all start saying Bongus,” hundreds of thousands of guys with profile pics that have a statue would start saying Bongus.
Elon Musk may have joined Twitter in 2010, but his experience was not like the average user’s. He has not meaningfully participated in any niche community or friend group - partly because the nature of having such a large natural following makes doing so difficult (but not impossible!), and he has not shown any real interest in actually using the website for anything other than a one-way bully pulpit. If we are crediting Musk with “getting” Twitter simply because he realizes that he has a large, responsive following, then we are - as the media regularly has - giving Elon Musk a great deal of credit that could be given to literally anyone with that size following.
The size of his following might be something to credit him with, but at the same time, is he really responsible for it? Musk doesn’t do anything particularly novel or interesting with Twitter other than sending hordes of awful people to harass journalists or call a guy saving children from a cave a “pedo” to 22 million people (at the time). He has not pulled any specific levers other than those one can pull with such a large following - and now that he’s adopted right-wing rhetoric to go with his generally loathsome approach to everything, he has recruited a chunk of Twitter that is genuinely excited to make someone’s time on Twitter absolutely intolerable.
I’d actually argue that Jack Dorsey may have nailed a succinct expression of what Twitter really is:
While “global consciousness” feels a little galaxy-brained, it does nail the general sense that Twitter is about “now” or “recently” more than any other social network. With Twitter, you can see (or feel like you see) everybody’s live reactions to everything. You can talk to (and read) the live reactions of everyone, from your friends to celebrities, or just see what they’re thinking about or what they’re doing at any particular moment.
Twitter’s magic comes from how raw it is - or, at least, how raw it can be. You can type and post anything on Twitter, and anyone can type and post anything in response (within the boundaries of the Terms of Service). This rawness - and the ease with which one can reply to anybody - gives users the illusion of close proximity to anybody and the sense that Twitter is some sort of grand leveller of social boundaries, allowing you to reach anyone throughout the world at any given time.
This naturally creates parasocial relationships because of the feeling that you’re inches away from, say, Elon Musk. When someone defends Elon Musk on Twitter, they’re doing so because they believe that Elon can see what they’re saying and, because you’re all in the same place (a website), that he both knows and appreciates your efforts. Twitter also creates the illusion that everybody is constantly glued to their accounts, ready and waiting to respond to every single post - because, for the average power user, that’s actually the case.
However, someone like Elon Musk is not a power user. He does not sit on the site responding to everyone, nor does he particularly seem to enjoy anything beyond throwing big rocks in a tiny pond to see how many ripples he can get. He uses his big following in the least-interesting, most-predictable way, pushing far-right nonsense and retweeting his companies’ accounts. He posts low-resolution memes cribbed from Reddit and makes the kind of statements that are only profound to cannabis entrepreneurs experiencing multiple midlife crises. It’s trite to call anyone’s posts on Twitter a “contribution to the community,” but I think the easiest way to evaluate Elon Musk’s presence is that he very rarely interacts with Twitter.
When he does, it’s usually to send his poisonous fanbase to harass someone who said something he doesn’t like. Musk genuinely has the opportunity to do a great deal of good with such a large following - including, but not limited to, posting “don’t attack people in my name, I do not want you to do so, stop doing it, it’s harassment" - but has decided that the only part of Twitter he cares about (the ability to flood someone’s messages with horrible freaks) is one that hurts people. And it’s not as if anything he’s doing is unique - the same thing would happen to anyone targeted by any right-wing demagogue, as proven by the continual harassment of Taylor Lorenz.
Anyone - quite literally anyone - could do what Musk has done on Twitter with the following he has. He hypes his companies, pushes also-ran ideologies and philosophies, and uses the force of his following to attack critics in a way that is totally indistinguishable from those of any and all conservative influencers. There is nothing fun nor original, nothing that makes Elon Musk particularly interesting other than the sheer size of his following.
Mind Master: The Genius Saga
The problem with Elon Musk is that it’s so hard for some people to just accept that, yes, someone with a big following and a lot of money can do a lot of different things, many of them ranging from annoying to extremely harmful. They must see him as a visionary, a genius, a trailblazer, and an inventor (despite Musk never actually inventing anything) to understand why he has such an outsized influence because the more depressing truth - that he is a big asshole with a lot of money - is a stark reminder of how unfair the world actually is.
What’s confusing to me is the urge by many to lionize Musk himself - especially in the media. Musk continually misleads and outright lies about what he or Tesla or SpaceX might do and has shown nothing but loathing for the media itself. While Musk is undoubtedly book smart, he did not invent Tesla, SpaceX, or any of the many things he’s given credit for. He is apparently an awful person to work for. And yet so many people want to frame him as a Jobs-esque genius - another man who didn’t invent anything - and yet Musk’s attempts to redefine several industries have failed to have the impact of iTunes, or the iPhone, or even the Mac.
To be fair, Tesla absolutely has a big place in the auto industry (for now) and accelerated the growth of the electric car industry. I am not saying he has done nothing. I am simply saying that he is not Steve Jobs, and for better or for worse, he will likely have less of an effect on society than Mark Zuckerberg.
Kara Swisher, ever-defensive of anything that might harm Elon Musk, has claimed that you can’t judge him by just his tweets, and that he “is quite complex and you can’t pin him down.” Farhad Manjoo insists that he can’t be that bad, in part because “[Musk’s] bluster is excusable because underneath the big talk he has repeatedly delivered on his far-out promises,” a thing that makes sense if you ignore the many, many far-out promises he’s made and failed to keep, and also the fact that autopilot has led to people dying. Manjoo’s piece is as equally insidious as Swisher’s defense, because it makes statements about Tesla owners being “loyal” based on “brand loyalty” and not, say, the fact that they invested in a charger that can only charge Teslas.
In fact, the common thread of almost all Elon Musk apologists is the sense that Elon is an inventor (he is not) and an innovator. Unlike Jobs’ fairly linear path of delivering new, interesting and innovative products over his life, Musk’s innovations have included making the steering wheel weird and being able to play The Witcher in your car. The Tesla Model 3 requires you to look at the center of your car to check the speed, and the new Model Y - which has a similarly strange setup - is brutally hampered by the inconsistency of the autopilot and safety features. Despite Musk’s reputation as a master innovator, intellectual and inventor, his vehicles consistently seem to be getting worse.
Manjoo’s critique, somehow, gets worse:
Musk’s detractors often paint him as motivated by little more than money and politics. But Musk is at best a fair-weather ideologue. His politics are all over the place — he has lobbed silly attacks at Democrats (“Please don’t call the manager on me, Senator Karen,” he tweeted at Senator Elizabeth Warren after she called for him to pay more taxes), but he also criticized Trump’s immigration policies and resigned from presidential advisory councils after Trump quit the Paris climate agreement.
Farhad, of course, has ignored Musk’s obvious shift to the right - partly because it gnaws at his narrative that there is some sort of “balance” in his political ideologies. I suppose it’s hard to do any meaningful research and find when Musk made fun of pronouns, the classic hat-tip of the lazy, stupid conservative. Or maybe he missed the entire list of all the dumb and nasty things he’s said, like comparing Canadian prime minister Trudeau to Hitler (during the conservative “Freedom Convoy” situation), or when Musk posted anti-vax rhetoric around “quite a few negative reactions” to the COVID-19 vaccine. It is exceedingly easy to research this stuff, especially when it’s stuff said by one of the world's most popular social media accounts.
That is, of course, if you are trying to actually understand and explain what Elon Musk is doing to the world at large, versus trying to create a version of the world where things aren’t quite as bad as they seem.
The problem with Elon Musk is that it’s far more likely that he isn’t a genius or an innovator - he’s an operator. He is clearly smart and charming enough to have continually been able to make deals happen and convince people to invest money in ideas - even if said ideas weren’t his - and then slap his name on top of it.
He is also very much aware of how lax the media can be once it has decided somebody is a hero - the resistance against much of Musk’s criticism comes from the Swishers and Manjoos of the world that want to believe that things are more sophisticated and fair than they really are. They want Musk to be this vast, complex ideologue, someone that cannot be understood by the things they say or do unless you have some sort of “insider knowledge” - because if Musk isn’t that, he’s just a rich asshole with a huge platform that intentionally uses his money and power to cater to whatever pleasure or grievance is on his mind at any given time.
The Twitter acquisition is also objectively very stupid. It’s a deal collateralized in part by a stock that is known for its volatility and disconnection from reality, and Musk himself has not really said why he wants to do it beyond some vague statements about free speech. Musk is desperate to prove he’s the business genius, and thus has already promised he’s going to make money by doing things like charging to embed tweets (?), and plans to replace the CEO…but…what else? Why are you buying the site, Elon? What do you actually want to change? Do you know how Twitter works? What issues of free speech does Twitter have, and do you have any examples that don’t involve a conservative that got banned for spreading lies about the election or vaccinations?
You see, the real answer here may be far more simple and brutal than many want it to be:
Elon Musk may not be a genius - he’s just smart, rich and exceedingly emotional. The Twitter acquisition is so weird and confusing because he is doing it because he can, rather than for any given reason or with any particular plan or idea behind it. Elon has succeeded a businessman not by creating things, but by funding and promoting things, which (while a legally valid a way of making money) makes him more like a venture capitalist than an inventor. Musk did not invent or design any of Tesla’s vehicles - that’s Franz von Holzhausen - nor did he invent SolarCity (his cousins Lyndon and Peter Rive did). While he invented the Boring Company, it has failed to make any impact on anything other than making holes in stuff.
And yet it’s hard to digest someone who has so much money and so much power - both through the use of that money and via his Twitter presence - as someone who is not an innovator and inventor. It’s painful to understand someone with a net worth of over a quarter of a trillion dollars as anything other than an innovative genius. The only other answer is that the world sometimes rewards people arbitrarily, even people who repeatedly prove themselves to be unreliable, cruel and petty. Musk may be a very intelligent man and a canny operator, but he is not - as much as people want him to be - Tony Stark.
As a sidenote - has anyone that’s compared Musk to Tony Stark ever read Iron Man? A great deal of Iron Man stories are about Tony’s hubris because he believes that he’s the smartest man in the world, and many of them result in people he loves getting hurt. His arrogance regularly leads him to doing things too fast
What’s sad is that Musk could do so much good. He has a massive platform that delivers instant engagement, and he could use it to do literally anything - pointing to good causes, posting his lunch, or, indeed, for nothing at all - and he chooses to make fun of marginalized groups and push the faux-victimization of the conservative movement.
Musk has so much money that he could repeatedly give hospitals millions of dollars, but chooses to do very little with it other than increase his wealth and influence.
And yet members of the media regularly defend his darkness and cruelty as the necessary cost of receiving the boons of his innovations. Seeing Musk as a complex puzzle that has delivered innovation to the world is just that bit easier than accepting that he may be a confused, noxious and malicious man, hell-bent on pushing whatever ideology he’s adhered himself to at any given time.
The only difference between Musk and any other right-wing VC or tech founder is the sheer size of his wealth.