Technology

Elon Musk is Elon Musk-pilled

Programming note: This will be the last This Week in Elon this year. In 2023, I will return with something delightful for you that is not just about Musk shenanigans — but we will have occasional chats when there is too much Elonning going on. 

Generally, I don’t think rich people believe anything besides: (1) they are basically good; (2) they deserve their money and no one should take it; and (3) anything that threatens ideas (1) and (2) is bad. Everything else is pretty flexible.

At this point, I think if Texas governor Greg Abbott called Musk and told him to jump, Musk would say, “How high?”

I am giving you my priors here because I am about to discuss Elon Musk and politics. I have seen some suggestions that Musk has been red-pilled, or whatever, based on his recent Twitter interactions. I am somewhat skeptical about that because — as I’ve noted above — I don’t think he really has political beliefs, only personal interests.

Those personal interests are disproportionately in Texas, just like his political donations, and at this point, I think if Texas governor Greg Abbott called Musk and told him to jump, Musk would say, “How high?” After all, between the state and local tax breaks on Giga Texas, Musk’s new Tesla factory, Musk saved about $64 million. SpaceX got $15 million from Texas in 2014 as well as laws tweaked to benefit the company.

This is to say nothing of Texas’ weird laws about content moderation or the threats SpaceX has received for road closures and shrapnel on the beaches near its Boca Chica facility.

So the future of Twitter, Tesla, and SpaceX is predicated on keeping Texas government officials happy, it seems. Which explains to me why Musk is busily kissing Republican ass — if we woke up tomorrow and Democrats ran Texas, the tenor of his tweets would abruptly change.

Many advertisers do not like to appear next to political content

There are a few other things in play. One is that Musk’s Republican allies have suddenly taken an interest in Apple’s App Store after Musk whined about it on Twitter. Another is that reinstating banned far-right accounts on Twitter annoys the people Musk thinks of as his enemies: that is to say, left-leaning journalists. Plus, doing outrageous shit spins the engagement flywheel, as right-wingers have known since the halcyon days of talk radio.

In other words, what Musk is doing makes business sense, except for one very important aspect: it is likely scaring advertisers even more. 

One truism of ad-supported platforms, journalistic or otherwise, is that many advertisers do not like to appear next to political content. After all, they want the maximum number of people to buy their products — engaging in the culture wars in anything but the most cursory way can mean a decline in sales. Brand safety über alles, etc. And ads were worth 89 percent of revenue last year, making Musk’s political turn a potential existential threat. Weekly bookings in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa have dropped by almost half, according to Platformer, and Musk is calling CEOs to berate them for not placing ads on Twitter, according to the Financial Times. Even Musk’s stupid slapfight with Apple began with Musk throwing a temper tantrum about advertising. Apple was once one of Twitter’s top advertisers, according to Bloomberg.

Twitter had $5 billion in revenue last year. I am now going to do some oversimplified math — please bear with me, I am a simple internet typist. To replace the $4.5 billion that came from ads, Musk needs to sell 563 million subscriptions in a year. Let’s assume that each person who buys a blue checkmark re-ups every month: that’s still more than 47 million accounts that need to pay $8 / month. Twitter has about 238 million daily active users. It’s not impossible to get 47 million of them to pay, but that does seem like a pretty difficult sales pitch, especially to the left-wing people Musk is currently irritating.

I don’t think it’s impossible to pull the company out of its current tailspin, but Musk seems to be making it harder every time he tweets

Did you notice what I didn’t include? What I just laid out here is the best-case scenario, in which no one subscribes through the Google or Apple app stores. Those stores, you may recall, take a 30 percent cut of sales. I don’t know what proportion of users will subscribe through those channels, but 47 million accounts buying 12 months of blue checks is the absolute floor for replacing advertisers entirely — and it is probably unrealistic. The real number of subscribers Musk needs is higher.

I dunno, man. We’re a hair over a month into Musk’s time as Chief Twit. I don’t think it’s impossible to pull the company out of its current tailspin, but Musk seems to be making it harder every time he tweets. And the more political stuff he says, the more I wonder if he’s just high on his own supply, tweeting to get his fix of sweet, sweet attention while the company burns.

But who knows! Maybe Texas wants to give Twitter a big tax break if Musk moves the headquarters. Personally, if I were a Texan, I would locate my wallet and hold onto it with both hands.

Musk’s main interest is money, though this is usually framed as being “entrepreneurial.” Think of the stories his family tells about him: selling his first computer program at 12, selling homemade Easter eggs door-to-door with his brother, trying to open his own arcade at 16. Then, you know, selling beer at parties in college at his own “unlicensed speakeasy.”

Musk is also ruthlessly organized around his own interests. One of those interests is being perceived as a visionary who will reshape human society. That’s what the promised Neuralink human trials are about. SpaceX is promising its first spacewalk and the commercial trip around the Moon on Starship as part of as many as 100 missions Musk says he’s planning. (Starship has not yet launched to orbit.) Tesla’s Cybertruck is due to start mass production by the end of the year. And then, you know, whatever is going on with Twitter.

I feel weird suggesting those things will happen next year because Musk is notoriously bad at deadlines. Probably he doesn’t believe they are important, or he’d make realistic ones. Which brings me to my basic theory of Musk: when it comes to what Elon Musk believes — if the conversation isn’t about money, you are having the wrong conversation. Musk blowing his deadlines doesn’t appear to have a financial impact, so the deadlines don’t matter.

But Musk, world’s richest man or not, is just a small part of the overall money in the tech industry and an even smaller part of the technology of money. There’s a lot more out there, and the way it shapes the apps, software, and hardware you touch every day? That’s a whole world to explore.

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