December 21, 2018
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.
Elon Musk is the first influencer CEO
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.
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