How Elon Musk Became the World’s Most Powerful Influencer

The Tesla CEO has a better command of social media — and online culture in general — than the head of any social media company

Elon Musk on the red carpet of the Axel Springer Award 2020 on December 1, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Britta Pedersen/Pool/Getty Images

“Underestimating Elon is not a good idea,” Bill Gates said on Kara Swisher’s podcast the other day. But really, at this point, who is underestimating Elon Musk? The man is everywhere, influencing everything (or trying to). In addition to hyping his own companies, he’s chiming in on cryptocurrency and “Gamestonk,” interrogating the CEO of Robinhood (and putting Clubhouse on the map in the process), separately inviting both Kanye West and Vladimir Putin for another Clubhouse appearance, and even slamming the operator of Texas’ power grid. And that’s just the past couple of weeks.

It’s tempting to believe that we have reached peak Musk. But I’m not convinced: To the contrary, Musk’s status as the business world’s most ridiculous and yet somehow most effective influencer is only solidifying. If anything, he’s increasingly transcending the business world, having become a cross between a public figure, a pop culture stalwart, and a living, breathing subreddit.

That last bit is crucial: Musk has a better command of social media — and online culture in general — than any actual social media company CEO. Sometimes this is calculated (particularly when it comes to hyping Tesla), sometimes it seems like pure, uncut id (the shameful “pedo guy” attack on the caver who helped rescue those Thai children in 2018), and sometimes it feels like mere trolling.

What it never feels like is an act. Online and off, Musk comes across as purely authentic — even when you can’t tell if he’s being serious and especially when he just seems flat-out reckless and weird. (Here’s the part where I mention him smoking weed on Joe Rogan’s show and that his son, with musician girlfriend Grimes, is named X Æ A-12 Musk.) At the same time, he’s not just some clown; whatever Tesla’s ultimate fate, it has helped change the entire conversation around the future of the automobile and against considerable odds. On a bad day for TSLA, Musk is still the second-richest person alive. Thus he seems to behave like someone who simultaneously has nothing to prove and nothing to lose.

To be clear, I’m not making an argument here about the value of Tesla or SpaceX or any other Musk-hyped enterprise. Those businesses are ultimately tethered to realities of profit and loss (and strike me as overvalued). But Musk as a freewheeling voice in the culture is tethered to no reality whatsoever. And perhaps particularly post-Donald Trump, there’s an audience for that. You could, of course, argue that Musk has jumped the shark with his series of outlandish stunts and off-hand remarks. But jumping the shark is what he does; he’s made an art of it. He’s looking back at us as he does so, again and again, and asking, “Don’t you wish you could do this, too?” And for better or worse, he’s not wrong.

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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