The Fraudulent King
I have made mistakes in my life.
I have done very silly things for even sillier reasons, wrapped myself in very stupid justifications, and then executed again and again on a campaign of sheer idiocy. By the time I have been done making bad decisions, each one inspiring and enhancing the next, I have looked back and said “never again.” And then I have made another bad decision just for good measure, to ensure I am done.
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What I’m saying is that, as an expert on the subject, I believe that Elon Musk is currently in the process of ruining his life.
As I wrote last week, Musk has not simply created an unwinnable situation, but purchased it at a 44 billion dollar premium, then proceeded to make things worse every single day. Omnicom, one of the largest advertising companies in the world, recommended its customers pause ad spending on Twitter. The most obvious thing in the world happened, where accounts paid $8 (the monthly cost of Twitter’s “Blue” subscription service) to get a blue checkmark and then proceeded to impersonate big companies like insulin maker Eli Lilly and Lockheed Martin, leading to Musk both suspending Twitter Blue and hundreds of people who would gladly trade eight dollars for the chance to lower the stock of a major pharmaceutical company. Oh, and he ended remote work at Twitter.
To quote The Times:
On Wednesday, accounts that had paid for the new Twitter Blue — among them parody accounts, conspiracy theorists and white nationalists, according to Media Matters for America — started to get their check marks. Some accounts soon ran amok.
One impostor account with a check mark masqueraded as Eli Lilly, tweeting on Thursday that the pharmaceutical company would provide free insulin to its customers. Eli Lilly’s stock tumbled more than 5 percent in morning trading on Friday and was still down more than 4 percent at the close.
Another account with a check mark pretended to be Nintendo of America, sending a tweet featuring the video game company’s Mario character making a rude hand gesture.
A few days later, Musk entered into a public spat with Twitter engineer Eric Frohnhoefer over the speed of the Twitter Android app, responding to Frohnhoefer’s patient technical explanations by firing him. He then proceeded to fire several more people for being rude about him publicly on Twitter.com and privately on their internal Slack:
One ex-Twitter employee, who was laid off in the first major round of layoffs two weeks ago, said the latest firing emails were sent around 4:30 a.m. ET Tuesday to “anyone who snarkposted about [Musk] in one of the company Slack channels or on Twitter in the last 24 hours.”
On Wednesday, Musk gave his remaining staff - which is to say those who did not resign, get fired for being rude, or get laid off - a choice: stay at the worst-run company in technology and commit to “long hours at high intensity” and being “extremely hardcore,” or receive three months of severance, with a deadline that passed yesterday (11/18/22).
This did not go well. Significantly more people than expected refused to take the pledge to continue to work under the world’s most annoying man, leading to him temporarily closing the Twitter offices until November 21st in an attempt to stop, I assume, anybody causing further harm to Twitter that he didn’t personally approve. As it appeared obvious that people did not want to keep working for him, Musk then relaxed his position on remote work, only to directly threaten any manager who “falsely claims someone reporting to them is doing excellent work.”
As it became obvious that his company was falling apart, Musk tried to stop “critical” members of the Twitter team from leaving the company, to middling effect - though it isn’t exactly obvious how many people quit, the general concern is that Twitter may simply stop functioning in the next few days. It’ll come back, but nobody is sure how, or when, or who will run it, because the people that run it keep being fired or quitting their job.
Anecdotally, I am being told between 65% and 75% of Twitter’s staff refused to take Elon’s “Twitter 2.0 pledge.”
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The Bird In Hell
Yesterday, Twitter felt like the last day of High School - everybody passing around their numbers, making their final jokes, airing grievances over DMs - but the overwhelming feeling was that of warmth and adoration for the website. Whatever malformed series of events created this nasty platform, its user base absolutely adores its chaos, and though likely unintentionally, Twitter has created extremely strong bonds and friendships between people in a way that other social networks struggle to. As I’ve related, Twitter works because we are all forced onto one timeline, and it has taken years to give such focus to millions of people.
And we are in the process of watching said timeline wholesale reject Elon Musk and his ideology. Musk has paid $44 billion to purchase a website that has all told him to go fuck himself. The userbase, the staff, the advertisers, and even the website’s code have united around a bipartisan agenda - that Elon Musk is a big, stupid dumbass, a terrible manager, a terrible coder, and someone who lacks the basic empathy and emotional intelligence to run a company.
Under the largest spotlight in the world, Musk has proven himself to be a petty charlatan who lacks any meaningful skills necessary to run a company. While we may have been able to fool ourselves that Musk could have successfully run three or four companies at once, the truth is more likely that SpaceX and Tesla have survived his tenure as CEO rather than thrived under his leadership. The current state of Twitter is fascinating because it is the most conspicuous analysis of a company we’ve ever seen, one that has revealed exactly how little a Chief Executive can know, how foolishly a Chief Executive can act, and how ignorant one very rich man can be.
You see, he is not done ruining things yet. Musk’s response to a catastrophic level of resignations - possibly the largest-scale rejection of an executive’s ideologies in modern history - was to demand that “anyone who can actually write software…report to the 10th floor [of Twitter HQ] by 2 PM today.” Said “software writers” were asked to email Musk a “bullet point summary of [the] code commits [they] have achieved in the past 6 months.” He is also asking engineers to provide up to 10 screenshots of their “most salient lines of code,” with a follow-up that he expects people to visit in person, and that he would “encourage you to fly to SF to present in person.”
Coding Corner: I do not know how to code, but I do understand that Musk’s requests were strange, so I decided to open this one up to those who knew better.
My followers, when asked, described Musk’s request for code as “like asking a car mechanic to show you their 10 best screws,” “completely meaningless without context,” “like asking for screenshots of the top 10 sentence fragments that you’ve written to figure out how good you are at writing articles,” “like asking a librarian for their favourite numbers in the dewy decimal system,” “like asking an aerospace engineer for their most important airplane parts,” or “like judging a non-fiction book by asking to see 10 books referenced in the bibliography.”
The Twitter debacle has become an incredibly dramatic enumeration of Musk’s sins - his disloyalty, callousness, arrogance, pride, and his endless need for validation. Since the onset of this catastrophic deal, he has made the worst possible choice, both for himself and the website he unfortunately purchased. He clearly had no plan, but believed that his raw talent and managerial skills would quickly fix something that wasn’t really broken, and yet he has publicly and gruesomely proven that “Elon Musk” is a myth.
Musk is not a great businessman, or a great manager, or a great technical mind. Musk is not Tony Stark, or King Midas, or Steve Jobs, or even Mark Zuckerberg. He is a churlish, desperate oaf that has clearly accidentally happened upon success rather than actively acquiring it himself. Twitter as a business could have kept running in exactly the same form he acquired it in - he could have been moderately successful had he just left everything alone.
When I asked E.W. Niedermeyer, author of Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors, he described Musk as ”a huge idiot, but a massively talented escape artist” that “gets into things without the first clue about how they work, invariably messing them up in serious ways, but his fundamental talent is getting himself out of the resulting tight corners.”
To elaborate, Niedermeyer added that as “[Musk] escaped an escalating series of traps he set for himself, his escape methods have become more extreme: from pre-announcing funding rounds and manipulating government subsidy programs to promising "Full Self-Driving," solving "general real-world AI," and creating science fiction fantasy robots.”
It is so rare that an executive can operate with complete freedom, and one might argue that such an opportunity allows great things to happen if they’re up to the challenge. When given absolute power and the world's undivided attention, Elon Musk has managed to economically destroy his company, publicly (and repeatedly) humiliate himself, ostracize most of Silicon Valley’s engineering talent, and dispel any belief that he is a Tier 1 Genius Operator. The banks that participated in the acquisition are desperately trying to shift the debt at 60 cents on the dollar, meaning that anyone associated with the deal will likely never want to touch another Musk-related product for the rest of their lives. Tesla’s stock has dropped from $228.52 on the day of Twitter’s acquisition to $179.99 (as of writing), in part thanks to Musk selling nearly $4 billion of Tesla stock “to save Twitter.”
And while the world burns around him, Musk is on trial over the massive $50.9 billion compensation package he received from Tesla in 2018, with the plaintiffs alleging that Musk’s overwhelming power over Tesla’s board allowed him to unfairly enrich himself. It isn’t obvious what the outcome of the suit will be, but it has revealed Musk to be a manipulative, insecure, and overconfident man dedicated to his own fame and wealth.
However, Musk has become high on his own supply, failing to differentiate between luck and execution, making him believe that he could continue a streak that has involved finding talented people to fix the problems he’s created. While he was able to enter early enterprises like Tesla and SpaceX and create a culture of fear and paranoia, Musk could not impose his will on Twitter. Staffers were not scared of him, as the company was not fundamentally dedicated to Musk’s pursuits, and he had no hand in its success, all while mistakenly believing that most people saw him as a moral and intellectual paragon.
Fundamentally, this situation has also proven Elon Musk to be deeply, painfully uncool. He is a terrible poster, in part because he never appears to have sincerely interacted with an online community without being famous. As hundreds (if not over a thousand) people chose to not work for him, he posted a confusing and flippant meme - “help us ligma johnson you’re our only hope” - at a time when even the most jocular executive really should not be posting at all. He desperately wants the cool kids of the website he bought to love him, yet he refuses to change or grow in any way. There is no coming back from this that doesn’t begin with him admitting he is wrong, and if I’m honest, one of the least likely things he is to do.
I do not think Twitter will die, but it will go down in the next few days due to the World Cup and its overwhelming traffic. When it does, Musk will dedicate himself to bringing it back up, and boldly claim that his mission is to “keep Twitter standing.” In the background, he will realise that nobody wants to work for him, and that there is no path that involves him running (or even keeping) this website that resembles any kind of success. He is realizing that despite how annoyingly conspicuous he is at Twitter that there is no possible way to make anybody grateful to him for its existence.
Between now and then, we will witness the world’s largest tantrum. Musk will take wild swings, desperately pissing from Mount Olympus and demanding that Greece thanks him for the rain.
Ultimately, Musk is a deeply boring rich guy devoid of true joy, lacking in any of the imaginary depth that people had used to rationalize his success. Musk’s legacy will be that of historic hubris and an eternal warning about mythologizing the rich and famous.