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With Elon Musk, the Drama Is the Point

With Elon Musk, the Drama Is the Point

Friday, 10 June, 2022 - 04:45

Previously on “Elon,” our man rushed into a $44 billion deal to buy Twitter just before the bottom fell out of tech stocks, including his own. Not the best timing, but fret not, for Elon’s always got an out.

This time it’s bots. Eradicating the scammy, automated accounts that plague Twitter had been one of his ideas for turning the company around: “Defeat the spam bots or die trying!” he’d vowed.

Well, new war plan: Retreat! Twitter says bots make up less than 5 percent of its user base, but what if there are lots more bots than we thought? Couldn’t, say, 20 percent of Twitter’s users be bots? And maybe it’s even more! What if Twitter has been underreporting its bot count in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission? Hence Elon’s new plot: Unless Twitter can prove who’s bot and who’s not, the deal’s shot.

But wait, wasn’t it Elon’s responsibility to ask for this sort of inside information while negotiating the acquisition — something he specifically did not do, according to Twitter? And didn’t he sign a contract obligating him to a $1 billion fee — and possibly many billions more — in the event the deal breaks down? How is he possibly going to get out of this one?

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

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

Musk’s ability to grab the world’s attention may be as important to his empire as any innovation in batteries, solar panels, rocket engines and tunneling machines. Indeed, many of those advances are made possible by the media trick Musk pulls over and over. First, make a big, sometimes impossible-seeming promise — the bolder, the more haphazardly planned, the more unlikely, the better. Next, find some way to turn the resulting attention into new customers or investors or fanboys. Then rinse and repeat. Sometimes his big talk pans out, but it rarely seems to matter if the promises never come true. After all, not delivering only ramps up the drama, and with Elon Musk, the drama is the point.

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Musk has cast his one-man marketing plan as a way to keep down costs. Unlike just about every other car company, Tesla does not run ads. In 2020, Musk shut down the company’s public relations department. Tesla no longer answers press inquiries. It doesn’t need to; journalists and everyone else can just ask Musk questions on Twitter.

But I doubt that it’s only cost cutting that drives Musk’s constant push for attention. His method plainly keeps working. Consider how Musk promoted the affordable, mass-market electric vehicle that he first promised in his 2006 “Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan.” For one thing, he made the promise in 2006 — years before Tesla had any possible way to build such a vehicle. No matter; the fans were intrigued and waited. It took eight years before Musk added details: In 2014 he revealed the car would be called the Model 3 and said it would cost about $35,000. Two years later, he finally unveiled prototypes of the vehicle and, crucially, began taking preorders. Hundreds of thousands of people paid $1,000 each to get a place in line for a car Musk said he felt “fairly confident” would be released in 2017. He did make that deadline, but barely. Tesla delivered fewer than 2,000 Model 3s in 2017 and none for the $35,000 low price. The first deliveries were of the top-end, $49,000 version.

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 began taking orders for it. In that time, some people canceled their orders. But most did not; throughout those years, Musk kept dropping bread crumbs about how hard Tesla was working on the car, stringing fans along. He said he was pulling all-nighters, sleeping under his desk, battling “production hell.” The trick worked: Customers stayed with the Model 3, which is now the world’s best-selling electric vehicle. It’s also no longer $35,000; Tesla has since raised the price to around $48,000.

Musk has been doing the same for other Teslas. There’s a pickup truck in the works, there’s the big-rig Tesla Semi, and always, there is the self-driving car that he has been promising will come “next year” every year for about a decade. Will he actually do all these things? Does it matter?

You might notice that Musk’s modus operandi is very much like a certain former president’s. Like Donald Trump, you never quite know when Musk really means what he’s saying or whether he’s just trolling for the attention that he craves as surely as plants need sunlight. Who knows what he wants to do with Twitter? Perhaps not even he knows. That’s why we keep watching.

The New York Times

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