One of the reasons I never have a good answer to “How do you feel about Elon Musk” is because I spend so much time trying to figure out what the fuck is even happening that I rarely get around to deciding how I feel about it. This year in Elon was like watching a reality TV show where there are no rules. As pure spectacle, Musk in 2018 was basically unbeatable.
Musk’s companies had a big year: Tesla mostly resolved its Model 3 production problems and posted a profit in the third quarter. SpaceX shot a Tesla Roadster into space on the launch of its Falcon Heavy, upgraded the Falcon 9 for better reusability, announced its first space tourism passenger, and received approval to launch its Starlink internet system, which could be the biggest satellite constellation in the world.. The Boring Company sold a bunch of Not-A-Flamethrowers before landing contracts with several municipalities to try out new systems of transit and ended the year with a party celebrating the opening of its test tunnel.
That’s just the good news. It was also a big year for bad news. SpaceX delayed its test launches for the Commercial Crew program and is being reviewed by NASA after Musk smoked weed on the Joe Rogan podcast. SpaceX engineers designed a submarine to help rescue children trapped in a Thai cave, and a fight about how feasible it was as a solution culminated in Musk calling a rescuer a “pedo” on Twitter. Tesla had production problems, then delivery problems, and a tremendous headache about Musk tweeting he might take it private at $420 a share, then quickly reversing course — launching an SEC lawsuit that the company and Musk ultimately settled. Other Tesla probes from the SEC and DOJ were disclosed by the company in its third quarter filing, and the company nearly ran out of cash. Oh, and there are some lawsuits (whistleblowers, shareholders) and a case that union activity was being illegally suppressed. Also, a lot of key people exited the company. The Boring Company was sued into submission on its plans to build a tunnel system on the Westside of LA, and a California representative introduced an ultimately unsuccessful bill to ban Not-A-Flamethrowers.
Musk himself wound up in several spats with, variously, Donald Trump, media outlets, Azealia Banks, and investors who short Tesla.
There’s the news that’s neither good nor bad, just… extant, like the incorporation of Pravda (or Pravduh), along with Musk’s idea to create his own version of The Onion, called Thud!
But maybe the spectacle is the point. Think about the other tech moguls. There’s Jeff Bezos, his billionaire space rival, Washington Post owner and Amazon CEO; Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, a company Tesla is frequently compared to; Mark Zuckerberg, who has been taking a beating for Facebook’s missteps; Marc Benioff, who bought a news magazine and inserted himself into a San Francisco business tax fight; and Larry Ellison, who trimmed his supervillain beard and otherwise stayed out of the spotlight. In terms of spectacle and flamboyance, you can stack them all together and they’re still less interesting than Musk. They are certainly less available.
Which might explain why so many people are invested in Musk’s success. Unlike his peers, Musk is very available — especially on Twitter, as this year has demonstrated. It’s possible to see Musk make decisions, revamp decisions, and either charge ahead or backtrack in real time. (It’s possible that a lot of other companies experience the things that Musk shows us — without any of us ever the wiser.) That accessibility may make him the very first Influencer CEO, who has a lot more in common with the rising crop of YouTube stars than any kind of previous celebrity CEO.
This isn’t an accident. It’s strategy.
The Boring Company is the clearest and most recent example. As a random human with no personal connection to Musk or his clique, you could still see him found a company in real time, seemingly off-the-cuff. Then you could watch him figure out some monetization through merch: hats, flamethrowers. You could even see people playing with the flamethrowers, either at the launch party or on the internet. There’s an air of DIY around the whole project, including the tunnel being built in the SpaceX parking lot because it was the place where the company could dig without having to ask for permission. And because the updates happened sporadically, and there was no way of predicting when or how you’d have more information, you were essentially required to stay tuned in to Musk’s Twitter account, where most of the action happened.
And while Musk deleted Facebook accounts for his companies and his own personal Instagram account, he stayed in places where he could encourage engagement: Twitter and YouTube, where he streamed the Roadster flying through space so anyone could watch.
A lot of people are paying attention for different reasons: hope, schadenfreude, the possibility of making money, basic voyeurism. But the net result is that Musk’s ideas punch harder than their weight — simply because they receive so much attention.
As it happens, I read some of the wrong books at a formative age and now am an epistemic anarchist: when it comes to science or progress, there’s no fuckin’ rules, dude. So watching Musk bounce his ideas off the public in real time is probably the best example of how that works. Musk has an idea; people engage. The exchange of information hones the ideas, creates hype for selling them, and bypasses some of the gatekeeping systems that are familiar to most people in STEM fields.
When thinking about Musk’s ideas across the companies he runs, I find it useful to have a horse race mentality: what are the odds this succeeds? Rather than saying “Oh, this will certainly fail” or “Oh, this will certainly succeed,” you can give some of his ideas handicaps. Odds are, this one won’t work, though who knows, maybe that horse will have a very good day; odds are, this one will — unless the horse gets sick or the jockey has to be replaced.
This isn’t isolated to 2018: Musk’s hyperloop white paper spawned a cottage industry of companies attempting to make it, as well as a science-fair-like educational opportunity for engineering students. Making one’s ideas as public as possible and as accessible as possible makes it likelier people will pick them up and run with them.
But it also subjects Musk and his companies to the risks that come with life as an influencer. Burnout is probably the biggest risk that influencers face — constant public scrutiny, as any celebrity can tell you, is exhausting. For influencers, authenticity is their hallmark, which means letting more people into the uncontrolled setting of their actual lives and shrinking the places where they’re private people. No matter how rich or powerful Musk becomes, in order to continue to place his ideas in the public eye, he has to subject himself and his psyche to public scrutiny. That seems hard to sustain, in the long-term; we’ve already seen his celebrity beefs blossom into entire news cycles.
Then there’s the hangers-on. Britney Spears was once so famous that she could make other people famous by hanging out with them (see: Federline, Kevin). By being an enormous public figure, Musk has created ecosystems based entirely on himself: his fans, of course; a community of shorts; several whistleblowers; various publicity-hungry public servants. There’s an entire Elon Musk extended universe — if there weren’t, I’m not sure there would even be an appetite for this newsletter.
Having a huge public platform is a problem every influencer eventually has to reckon with. It’s possible to say the wrong thing — inadvertently dog-whistling, for instance, or musing about taking a company private using the magic words that get the government involved — and have it be a much bigger deal because so many people are paying attention. It also means you’ll be held responsible for the things people with whom you publicly associate say or do, even if you have nothing to do with the controversy around that person.
Traditional celebrities are glamorous — a word that, at the root, points to the illusion involved in public life: its archaic meaning is magic. Musk, on the other hand, is real. Instead of seeing inaccessible or remote, gracing the public only with highly choreographed moments meant to bolster Musk’s image, Musk turned himself into an influencer by offering everyone an unvarnished look into his successes and failures. (Can you think of another CEO who routinely replies to randos on Twitter?)
That accessibility is a double-edged sword. It makes him easier to identify with than the Cooks, Zuckerbergs, and Bezoses — like, who hasn’t said some dumb shit occasionally? Who doesn’t have weird ideas? But it can also create a clique of megafans, who see no wrong in any of Musk’s actions. What happens in the Musk show in 2019? You’ll have to tune in to find out.