I see Elon Musk pivoting from pretending he’s going to physically fight Mark Zuckerberg to pretending he’s going to sue the Anti-Defamation League. It’s okay. There are people who are still serious about Musk, and I wish them well on their journey. This blog is for the rest of us.
Obviously there is a level of attention seeking behavior at play. Some of it is financially motivated: Musk is perhaps the most important influencer in the world. His tweets move the markets. And he faces the same problem as other influencers. The danger of being famous is overexposure – people get sick of you.
Why make this a threat in the first place?
Musk’s public persona is an important marketing tool. Consider his appearance at Saturday Night Live: Tesla doesn’t need to run ads because Musk is so closely associated with the brand that the entire episode functions as a car commercial. Meanwhile, every other EV maker does bought ad time. You can think of Musk as the last state of being an influencer, where the person and the advertising are completely inseparable. She is the ultimate form of Kim Kardashian.
So, the ADL thing: Musk blamed the group for declining Twitter ad sales and threatened to sue the group. If you’re wondering about the merits of such a suit, Mike Masnick runs it – but me, I want to talk about the optics. Why make this a threat in the first place?
Well, for attention. The threat generated headlines and put Musk in the news! Besides that, blaming the ADL for Twitter’s ad woes lets Musk off the hook, which is the kind of thing he wants. Musk taps into something we’ve already seen from Kanye West and former president Donald Trump: extreme language gets attention. People are very motivated to condemn antisemitism, which in turn means that Musk’s message is spreading more. This is the bait for a quote-tweet dunk writ large.
Musk’s media strategy of no ads means Musk has to do what every low-influencer does: get attention. It is, of course, much easier to get attention by invoking anger and resentment than by evoking joy – not a new observation by any means. Nor is Musk the first to tap into the so-called Culture Wars to achieve power, political or otherwise.
For an influencer like Musk, attention works like golden handcuffs
I’ve been covering Elon Musk for the better part of a decade now, and the part of my brain that experiences emotions about him was fried around 2018. SICK they are Elon Musk. I don’t just mean our comments, of course (hi there!) — I mean actual humans I meet in real life. People ask me if I think it’s Musk Granted a genius. Now they are just moaning.
This is called overexposure. For an influencer like Musk, attention works like golden handcuffs. If he’s going to go full Howard Hughes and hide from the public eye, Tesla will have to find another way to get attention. Currently, it has a new product to launch. Whatever psychic damage Musk gets by staying in every conversation will also sell Cybertrucks. Besides that, if he stops using Twitter regularly, that might be a problem for the platform he owns.
As for Musk’s forays into politics, there is business logic there, too. As someone with significant business interests in Texas, he has one important constituency to keep happy: Texas politicians. And even if he tells his stenographer that his drift to the right is the result of a personal grudge against one of his children, I doubt that – the donations started earlier.
Regardless, Musk’s attempts to make the king failed. Ron DeSantis’ campaign launch on Twitter was a bad joke, the kind that would deter any future candidate from doing something similar on the platform. Trump still beat DeSantis.
Musk has to keep doing more extreme things to get attention
There may be many reasons for that, but there is one big political constant: Twitter is not real life. The things that attract attention on social media, that drive conversation on online platforms — those things are not necessarily the things that people actually care about. And as more people stop posting, Musk’s social media celebrity may be in jeopardy.
Musk has to keep doing more extreme things to get attention – that’s how the social media treadmill works, even if you own the platform. I’ve wondered for a long time if overexposure matters in any meaningful way. With so many people complaining about Musk’s behavior, this seems like an opportunity to find out.
Twitter itself isn’t necessarily the best test case. Part of that is that Twitter was already in trouble before Musk took over. His stewardship hasn’t helped, obviously: there are real concerns for advertisers about brand safety. Things that used to work are busted; there are also some problems with the ad revenue sharing program. This is to say nothing to light the Twitter brand on fire for X. I think Musk is very hands-on to destroy Twitter to measure its indirect effects.
SpaceX’s biggest customers are government agencies. It’s also not a good test case.
Tesla, though, that’s interesting. Musk and Tesla are so closely associated that they are interchangeable. And Tesla has real competition now – something that hasn’t been true for years. It has to cut its prices to get its profits; which cuts into profits. The Cybertruck is scheduled to begin mass production next year. This is not a good time for Musk’s reputation to take a beating.
The more Musk seeks attention with an extreme demeanor, the less trustworthy he looks. Musk’s reputation has, for a long time, been an intangible asset that has benefited his companies. I wonder what will happen to Tesla if more people decide they are sick of Musk. He was the reason the company survived the financial crisis of 2008 and continued to sell cars. Is he also the reason people stop buying it?