“Please ignore prior tweets, as that was someone pretending to be me :),” Elon Musk wrote on Twitter in June 2010. “This is actually me.”
Since that first tweet, there have been many questions about the @elonmusk account: Is he actually going to use his tunnel-digging company to sell flamethrowers? (Yes.) Did he really just call one of the men who rescued the Thai soccer kids from that cave a pedophile? (Yup.) Is he truly trying to take Tesla private? (Since lying about business plans to influence your own company’s stock price is super illegal … yes, definitely yes.) The only thing that’s always been clear is Musk is writing the tweets himself (except these two tweets, which were probably written by his girlfriend, Grimes). He’s risking his reputation and the stock price of his multibillion-dollar corporations for the LOLs.
Things started out innocently enough, as they always do on Twitter. Musk began tweeting regularly in December 2011, focusing on the minutiae of his eccentric life. He invited fellow online renegade Kanye West to one of his factories after the two had a phone conversation about shoes and Moses. He dressed up as Art Garfunkel for reasons never fully disclosed. He woke up on New Year’s Day hungover after headbanging to the Red Hot Chili Peppers all night. He kept things blessedly light. “Not sure I can handle just doing 140 [character] missives,” he wrote that month. “Will put longer thoughts on G+.”
Despite the fact Google+ still technically exists, Musk kept tweeting. Twitter was an easy way to offer people an inside look at SpaceX and Tesla, his two futuristic companies whose success he has cast as critical to the long-term survival of the human race (Tesla’s electric vehicles will slow the effects of climate change; SpaceX’s rocket ships will give us an escape route off of Earth when it inevitably becomes uninhabitable). He live-tweeted SpaceX’s rocket launches and basked in the glowing press coverage of Tesla’s first mainstream vehicle, the Model S sedan. He also told lots and lots of jokes, usually of the dad variety. “Mountain lions eat cats, which means we *actually* live in a cat eat cat world ... an apology is owed to dogkind!” If only this groaner could have been the last tweet in history, and the past six years of digital chaos could have been averted.
But Twitter did not shut down, and Musk continued to tweet. The platform became a place for him to work through big ideas, personal grudges, and late-night material simultaneously. In 2013, he mentioned climate change 11 times, arguing for the necessity of a carbon tax. He briefly waded into political waters by espousing his admiration for both conservative and liberal presidents (“At the risk of losing more ‘cool points’, I like Reagan too!”), then thought better of it (“No more political comments for me now that I’ve shot off both my feet”). He got into a weeklong battle with The New York Times over a questionable Model S review, a back-and-forth that stretched from the Tesla blog to the Times’ website to a truce negotiated on Musk’s Twitter account (“Faith in @nytimes restored”). He also tweeted about how much he loved flamethrowers, foreshadowing the foolishness to come.
As Musk’s Twitter use increased, his different personas—Musk the CEO, Musk the Comedian, and Musk the Regular Dude—started to converge. “Traffic is driving me nuts,” he tweeted in December 2016. “Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging.” And so the Boring Company was born, both to revolutionize transportation in cities nationwide and provide Musk with an endless well of bad puns (and one very good one). In late 2017, Musk started selling Boring Company hats “because it’s stupid.” Then he sold 20,000 $500 flamethrowers to his fans as a reward for selling so many hats. He has also proposed selling short shorts and launching a candy company, which sound like jokes, but also would not rate high on the scale of American absurdities in 2018 should they come to fruition.
Musk’s boyish shenanigans have increased proportionally with the growing scrutiny of Tesla. The company’s Model 3, the sedan that’s supposed to transform electric vehicles into mass-market products, has regularly missed production targets. The Guardian and Reveal have reported in depth on dangerous working conditions on Tesla’s factory floor. In June, Tesla cut 9 percent of its workforce as Wall Street analysts wondered whether the company would run out of cash before the year was out. It’s an odd time to be hawking flamethrowers.
Perhaps the stunts are just Musk’s way of letting off steam during a high-pressure year. He likes to be seen as a guy who’s saving the world and having the best time ever doing it. “The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress,” he tweeted after a follower praised the “amazing” life he seems to lead on Instagram. “Don’t think people want to hear about the last two.” But the stress has clearly curdled into a more antagonistic relationship with his perceived enemies, who now include Tesla short-sellers, the United Automobile Workers union, and the mainstream media. “The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them,” he tweeted in May, before implying that negative Tesla coverage was the result of media outlets being in the pocket of big oil companies. He proposed creating a website called Pravduh, where the public would rate the credibility of individual artists and journalists. Is it a joke? We’ll have to wait and see, and be careful not to confuse this endeavor with his other “intergalactic media empire,” which may be called “Thud!” and does have at least a skeleton staff.
In the past year Musk has called his detractors “sanctimonious idiot,” “boring” (but not in the punny way), “rich kids in Berkeley who took their political science prof too seriously,” “despots,” and “a docile puppet of the UAW.” He has watched his 22 million followers grow increasingly vicious in lockstep with him, but also implied that online harassment is a gender-neutral issue. He has discarded the false modesty that many CEOs adopt to avoid the ire of the proletariat. “I created jobs for 50,000 people directly and, through parts suppliers & supporting professions, ~250,000 people indirectly, thus supporting half a million families,” he tweeted to one critic in July. “What have you done?”
It’s not a great look for Elon. But what is Twitter today if not a series of increasingly egregious, cruel, and entirely unnecessary bad looks? The devolution of Musk’s online presence dovetails neatly with the pollution of the platform itself. Structurally, the site’s endless stream of short missives hurtle across timelines without context or explanation, allowing outrage to blossom rather than understanding. And culturally, Twitter users have deemed themselves self-appointed experts on whatever topic happens to be trending. Everyone should have a pithy but cutting opinion about everything, and an insult to win the inevitable argument that opinion sparks. Twitter is an impulsive game of provocation rather than a tool for communication.
Two of Musk’s most recent tweets illustrate the problem. In July, he found a huge number of both haters and admirers when he set about trying to build a mini-submarine to help rescue the children trapped in a cave in Thailand (his device was never used in the successful rescue mission). In response to a tweet by New York Times columnist Zeynep Tufekci criticizing him, Musk called one of the rescuers a pedophile. It was not exactly a joke and not exactly an accusation either. It was a troll, the truest one in Musk’s thousands of messages, and the only one he’s acknowledged crossed a line. He later deleted the tweet and apologized.
Three weeks later, Musk tweeted, “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” Thanks to his erratic online history, and the conspicuously weed-centric share price, many people thought the tweet might be a joke. It wasn’t—or if it was, when Musk wrote “funding secured” and caused Tesla’s stock price to jump 11 percent on the huge news, it couldn’t be anymore. Lying about securing funding for a change in corporate ownership is a form of securities fraud. Musk has since explained the source of this funding in followup tweets and a Tesla blog post, but the Securities and Exchange Commission is still investigating the matter. And Tesla’s board of directors, frustrated with Musk’s Twitter habit, have issued some salient advice that we all should try to follow: never tweet.