There's something about Elon
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Elon Musk, the South African-born multi-billionaire owner of Tesla, is a frequent, if not great, source of dinner party chitchat in my social circles. He is divisive in a more satisfying way than, say, Donald Trump or the blue/gold dress. His form of megalomania is comparatively benign.
The question with Musk essentially boils down to: is the guy an idiot? I remember one particularly tedious and exhausting debate (fuelled, I believe, by Red Stripe and off-license whiskey) about whether a friend of mine is cleverer than Elon Musk. That’s Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, founder of SpaceX, CEO of Tesla, versus my mate, who at the time, possibly, worked in recruitment.
This seems like a delusion of grandeur, and yet Musk is one of those people who courts the idea of their own idiocy. I don’t doubt that had the Great British public been polled on the matter in the early 2000s, more than 50% of respondents would’ve considered themselves more intelligent than American president George W Bush – that in spite of Bush’s necessarily enormous command of domestic and geopolitics. Musk is rather the same: Ivy League degrees and billions of dollars don’t stop people thinking, “maybe, just maybe, this guy is a huge schmuck.”
Musk is in the news currently on two fronts. Firstly, his mad reverse ferret on his decision to unbuy Twitter (a lot of negatives in there; sorry). This U-turn was, I suspect, catalysed by the near certain knowledge that he was heading for lawsuit disaster in his battle with the current Twitter hierarchy. This is not unlike my tendency to feign injury when losing sack races in primary school. The second front he’s fighting on is a semi-literal one: his foray into geopolitics courtesy of some public speculation about appeasement policies in Ukraine and Taiwan. His ideas are very much not within the purview of this newsletter, but the point is that we have an incredibly high profile man (arguably, after the death of HM the Queen, the most recognisable person on earth) who believes in direct-to-consumer broadcasting. Whether it’s pissing of the Securities and Exchange Commission by claiming you’re taking Tesla private, or running a poll on the annexation of Crimea, this is a man who believes, to his core, in a new form of self-publishing.
So it was interesting to see him sit down this weekend with a very old form of publishing. He joined Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf for dinner in Austin, Texas, as part of the FT’s legendary “Lunch with the FT” series.
My personal take on Musk is that he’s a) a freak, and b) a dilettante. But, ultimately, you can only found so many game-changing technology firms before you have to be taken fairly seriously. And while a lot of people saw SpaceX, for example, as a deranged vanity project, several years later it’s a key NASA contractor and, long-term, will probably outstrip Tesla in value. Musk has a very rare ability to reset the dial on a sector with mere evangelism – his enthusiasm for space exploration and colonisation has turned it into an extremely profitable sector.
Whether it’s digital payments, electric vehicles or meme coins, Musk tends to be right about where things are headed. I think this is often a self-fulfilling thing: Musk now has enough acolytes that he can fairly guarantee the success of dogecoin, should he seek to endorse it. But there’s also something about watching Musk that allows you to better understand the currents of the internet. Musk is a hero to people who cannot afford a Tesla, who were born long after the advent of PayPal, who would never have the nerve to travel to Mars. He represents something of the wilderness of the internet.
This paragraph, from his Lunch with the FT, sums up something of the strange dichotomy:
Why does a serious guy with serious ideas indulge in silly Twitter games that could also cost his followers dearly? “Aren’t you entertained?” Musk roars with laughter. “I play the fool on Twitter and often shoot myself in the foot and cause myself all sorts of trouble… I don’t know, I find it vaguely therapeutic to express myself on TwItter. It’s a way to get messages out to the public.”
If and when Musk takes control of, not just his own Twitter account, but the broader company and its corporate direction, what can we expect to see? To Khalaf, Musk rails against the echo-chamber of right-wing alternates to Twitter, envisaging the future of his microblogging platform as “a maximally trusted and inclusive means of exchanging ideas… that should be as trusted and transparent as possible.”
Behind this word salad (full of contradictions, because “trusted” and “inclusive” rarely go well together) is a foundational idea for Musk. Like so much of politics today, he is anti-regulator. He doesn’t want to be called out for tanking Tesla stock through prolific tweeting, and he doesn’t want to be regulated in terms of what he can publish. Twitter has become a haven for citizen journalists who don’t want to work with editors, people who believe their ideas are oven-ready, as our former Prime Minister might have said. In short, it is a safe space for dilettantism.
All of this is an explanation of why Musk likes Twitter, even though I imagine right now he is regretting loose-lipped offers. But Musk isn’t alone in preferring this more direct means of communication. Look at all the media tech that has sprung up (or grown) in the last few years: Substack, Medium, Clubhouse, Twitch, live integration on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, TikTok etc. All these technologies have one thing in common: they allow people to self-publish, direct-to-consumer. How different would Twitch be if gaming streamers had to be approved by Amazon in advance of using the service? How different would Substack be if I’d had to apply to HQ in order to be approved to launch this newsletter? Basically every platform launched over the past decade has been a twist on self-publishing.
And technologies like, say, Luminary (the Netflix of podcasting!) or GB News (a new cable news channel for the British right!) have struggled with being the antithesis of that. It’s why podcasting has been so successful in the last 15 years – there have been no barriers to distribution and no regulation of the content. This has made it attractive to all sorts of disparate groups: art students who want to create avant-garde pieces that would never fit in a radio slot, Tim and Bob who want to chug some brewskis and talk about the NFL, deranged right-wingers who want to yell anti-vaxx propaganda into a Blue Yeti. All sorts of people have profited from the lack of regulation in podcasting – the fact you hit publish and, seconds later, your work is out there in the world – just as millions of people have profited from the Wild West that is YouTube.
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