Reviews | With Elon Musk, drama is the point


Previously on “Elon,” our man rushed into a $44 billion deal to buy Twitter just before the bottom hit tech stocks, including his own. It’s not the best time, but don’t worry, because Elon still has an outing.

This time it’s bots. Rooting out the fraudulent and automated accounts plaguing Twitter had been one of his ideas for turning the company around: “Defeat the spambots or die trying! he had sworn.

Well, new war plan: Retreat! Twitter says bots make up less than 5% of its user base, but what if there are a lot more bots than we thought? For example, couldn’t 20% of Twitter users be bots? And maybe it’s even more! What if Twitter underreported its bot count in Securities and Exchange Commission filings? Hence Elon’s new plot: unless Twitter can prove who the bot is and who isn’t, the case is in.

But wait, wasn’t it Elon’s responsibility to ask for that kind of inside information when negotiating the acquisition — something he didn’t specifically do, according to Twitter? And hasn’t he signed a contract obliging him to pay $1 billion – and possibly several billion more – if the deal fails? How will he be able to get out of this?

Who knows? But I bet you’ll tune in tomorrow to find out. Or, more likely, Musk’s antics will be unmissable and you won’t have a chance to tune out. And maybe that’s just the idea.

Elon Musk’s whole thing is to ride it; he seems to act on impulse and emotion, often without apparent logic, consistency, or even an obvious goal. Still, whatever Musk does, there’s one thing you can count on: you’ll hear about it. It will appear in headlines, on your lock screen, in your feeds. Talking heads will pontificate over him; newspaper columnists will analyze it; presidents will joke about it.

Musk’s ability to capture the world’s attention may be as important to his empire as any innovation in batteries, solar panels, rocket engines and tunnel boring machines. Indeed, many of these advances are made possible by the media trick that Musk uses time and time again. First, make a big, sometimes impossible promise – the bolder, the more haphazardly planned, the more unlikely, the better. Then find a way to turn the resulting attention into new customers, investors, or fanboys. Then rinse and repeat. Sometimes his big talk unfolds, but that rarely feels important if the promises never come true. After all, failing to deliver only increases the drama, and with Elon Musk, drama is the point.

Musk pitched his individual marketing plan as a way to cut costs. Unlike almost every other automaker, Tesla doesn’t run ads. In 2020, Musk shut down the company’s public relations department. Tesla no longer responds to press inquiries. It’s not necessary; journalists and everyone else can just ask Musk questions on Twitter.

But I doubt it’s cost-cutting alone that’s driving Musk’s constant attention. His method continues to work. Consider how Musk promoted the affordable, mass-market electric vehicle he first promised in his 2006 “Secret Tesla Motors Blueprint.” For one thing, he made the promise in 2006 – years before Tesla had a possible way to build such a vehicle. No matter; fans were intrigued and waiting. It took eight years before Musk added any details: In 2014, he revealed the car would be called the Model 3 and said it would cost around $35,000. Two years later, it finally unveiled prototypes of the vehicle and, importantly, started taking pre-orders. Hundreds of thousands of people paid $1,000 each to secure a place in line for a car. Musk said he felt “pretty confident” would be released in 2017. He met that deadline, but barely. Tesla delivered less than 2,000 Model 3s in 2017 and none for the low price of $35,000. The first deliveries were for the high-end version at $49,000.

The $35,000 Tesla finally arrived in 2019. That’s 13 years after Musk first mentioned it, five years after he named it, and three years after he started talking about it. take command. At that time, some people canceled their orders. But most did not; throughout those years, Musk kept dropping bread crumbs about how hard Tesla worked on the car, chaining fans. He said he was spending sleepless nights, sleeping under his desk, battling “production hell”. The trick worked: customers stuck with the Model 3, which is now the world’s best-selling electric vehicle. It’s not $35,000 anymore either; Tesla has since raised the price to around $48,000.

Musk has done the same for the other Teslas. There’s a pickup truck in the works, there’s the big Tesla Semi truck, and still, there’s the self-driving car that it’s promised will arrive “next year” every year for about a decade. Will he actually do all of these things? Does it matter?

You might notice that Musk’s modus operandi is very similar to that of a certain former president. Like Donald Trump, you never quite know when Musk really means what he says or if he’s just looking for the attention he craves as surely as plants crave sunlight. Who knows what he wants to do with Twitter? Maybe he doesn’t even know. That’s why we continue to monitor.

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