Elon Musk has change into the web’s chief agent of chaos


Jai Pollard-Watkins turned an Elon Musk fan in 2014, on the ripe previous age of 10.

Rising up in Atlanta, he was enjoying the online game “EpicDuel” and stumbled on a villain character named Elon Musk sporting “this futuristic, like, armor go well with,” Pollard-Watkins says. He was “like Iron Man, however on steroids.” It didn’t take lengthy for him to find that this “Elon Musk” was the sport designers’ tribute to an actual Elon Musk, then a type of area of interest tech-world hero.

Quickly afterward, Pollard-Watkins developed an extracurricular curiosity in astronomy, gobbling up information about Musk’s non-public space-exploration firm, SpaceX. It was a solitary pastime. “Nobody’s into astronomy,” he says with fun. However within the late 2010s, one thing shocking occurred: Rappers began name-checking Musk of their lyrics, and shortly Pollard-Watkins’s buddies had been speaking about Musk, too.

Now, “Elon Musk is that man,” gushes Pollard-Watkins, 18, who now lives in Barbados and just lately graduated highschool. He’s in every single place. Everyone is aware of him. “He’s, like, the Drake of enterprise.”

Musk has all the time stood aside from different software program geeks, past simply his deal with {hardware} and arduous issues. His picture as an eccentric inventor knowledgeable Robert Downey Jr.’s efficiency as Iron Man, and in 2010 he made a cameo in “Iron Man 2.” Then there have been Musk’s much-publicized relationships with actresses Amber Heard and Talulah Riley and the musician Grimes — and, in fact, his rise to turning into the world’s official richest particular person.

He’s attended the Met Gala. He’s hosted “Saturday Night time Reside.” He’s posed with Kanye in orange-themed outfits.

However over the previous 5 years, Musk reworked from tech-famous to famous-famous to what one might name “crimson capsule” well-known. “Take the crimson capsule,” he tweeted in 2020, a reference to the pill within the “The Matrix” that has change into related to a conversion to right-wing views. On Twitter, the place his following has practically doubled up to now 12 months to simply over 100 million, Musk trolls the woke and hypes up fellow free speech followers in a method that leaves one guessing. However is the world’s richest man formally proper wing or doing it for the lulz? Did he actually plan on paying $44 billion for Twitter or was it all the time a lark? Although Musk filed to kill the deal and Twitter’s board is suing to implement the merger, the saga has helped increase Musk’s attain as a popular culture determine — one whose journey by means of these three phases of fame has made him a novel mixture of influential govt, oddball superstar and polarizing web provocateur.

Most tech billionaires can’t have interaction in on-line provocation as a result of it could threat hurting their companies. And Musk’s web antics have price him, too. He has been fined by the Securities and Change Fee for his tweets and some SpaceX staff signed a letter calling his public habits distracting and embarrassing. However Musk had already cultivated a cult of persona by means of his firms, and his instinctive, unfiltered tweets additionally helped him diversify his following into “crypto bros,” Trump supporters, and critics who can’t look away, all of whom comply with him simply as fiercely as aspiring start-up founders as soon as copied his sleeping habits.

Jack Dorsey might hang around on Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s yacht, Mark Zuckerberg might personal a bit of Hawaii, Invoice Gates might have world leaders on velocity dial. Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Submit, might — like Musk — mingle with stars on Oscar night time and have his personal space-exploration firm. However solely Musk has followers that may mob any critic who questions their techno-king.

In different phrases, Musk just isn’t a conventional superstar a lot as an internet influencer, a becoming crossover for an period when a rich TV star like Donald Trump can tweet his option to the White Home and tech billionaires appear to spend extra time on social media than sequestered on their yachts.

“I’m sufficiently old to recollect a sure time in historical past when billionaires had been reclusive,” says Lainey Lui, founding father of the celebrity-gossip web site LaineyGossip. “Tradition on the whole has all the time been considering very rich folks and their lives. … ‘What wouldn’t it be prefer to have all that cash? How do they spend it?’” Because of this, many use their extraordinary wealth to purchase extraordinary privateness. However as an alternative of going the Howard Hughes route, Lui says, “right here’s a billionaire who’s really working in direction of the warmth.”

Musk, 51, first made a reputation for himself in Silicon Valley within the mid-Nineties, when he co-founded the web city-guide web site Zip2 (which was bought by Compaq for $350 million in 1999) and the web financial institution X.com (which later turned PayPal, and was purchased by eBay for $1.5 billion). Within the 2000s, his visibility elevated when he based SpaceX and have become the CEO of the electric-vehicle producer Tesla. Within the mid-2010s, after years of battle and uncertainty, Musk’s success with SpaceX and Tesla turned him into an entrepreneurial icon, who appeared to single-handedly reinvigorate curiosity in futuristic electrical automobiles and rockets to outer house, the stuff of American goals.

It didn’t harm that Teslas additionally turned a luxurious good: Lui says Musk’s star started to rise “coinciding with the patron public wanting into Teslas, wanting Teslas … Teslas turning into this factor that you’d personal for standing.”

Search Amazon for “Elon Musk biography” nowadays and also you’ll end up swamped with a number of dozen choices, much more than what the positioning turns up about Invoice Gates or Steve Jobs. In the meantime, on Instagram and Reddit, fan accounts and boards dedicated to Musk now have followers numbering within the hundreds of thousands.

Machine Gun Kelly and Tyler, the Creator have name-dropped Musk in tune; the hook of Lil Uzi Vert’s 2017 observe “Neon Guts” goes, “Increased than Elon Musk, so excessive stars eat our mud.”

Ashlee Vance, the writer of the acclaimed biography “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Unbelievable Future,” factors to 2018 because the inflection level in Musk’s superstar. That’s the 12 months Musk smoked weed on the “Joe Rogan Expertise” podcast in an Occupy Mars T-shirt, which continues to be the preferred video on Rogan’s YouTube channel. Like Musk, Rogan has discovered a rabid on-line viewers with hard-to-categorize right-leaning politics and unfold covid misinformation.

“He simply determined to let far more of his persona unfastened on Twitter,” mentioned Vance of Musk, “and to embrace this position as half thinker, half troll.”

“I feel that’s difficult his life and complex the tales across the companies fairly dramatically,” Vance provides. “He’s change into such a polarizing determine, nearly this religious-type determine, the place you both love him or hate him, and there doesn’t appear to be a lot room in between.”

Each time his firms stabilize, Musk goes all in and dangers every part, Vance identified. Now he appears to be deploying the identical technique along with his persona, and relishing it. “He’s all the time attempting to one-up himself and go larger and larger and larger.” (Musk didn’t reply to a request for remark for this report.)

The 12 months 2018 was additionally when Musk confirmed as much as the Met Gala with Grimes, with whom he has two youngsters with the unorthodox names X Æ A-Xii and Exa Darkish Sideræl. He additionally gained a status for attaching himself to media sensations, pledging that his firms would help a 2018 mission to free 12 boys trapped in a collapse Thailand (incomes criticism for calling one rescuer a “pedo”) and in 2019 sharing a new rap observe along with his identify hooked up to it titled “RIP Harambe,” in reference to the late Cincinnati gorilla. (It was later revealed to be carried out by the L.A.-based rapper Yung Jake.) In early 2020, he launched an EDM observe on SoundCloud titled “Don’t Doubt ur Vibe.” That summer time, after Kanye West shared the viral photograph of him and Musk (caption: “If you go to your boys home and also you’re each sporting orange”), Musk voiced his assist for West’s much-publicized bid for the presidency.

Musk’s SNL internet hosting gig in 2021 gave him one other flip at popular culture’s middle stage, although a number of members of the solid and crew expressed disapproval at his invitation; in an Instagram story, solid member Andrew Dismukes wrote, “ONLY CEO I WANT TO DO A SKETCH WITH IS Cher-E Oteri.” Musk’s embrace of memes on social media — “Who controls the memes, controls the Universe,” he tweeted in 2020 — has additionally irritated creatives for his behavior of cropping out their identify when he shares their work.

Musk’s flip within the limelight has additionally additional elevated the profile of his mom, Maye, a longtime mannequin. She appeared with him at Met Galas and on SNL, and was additionally featured within the Sports activities Illustrated swimsuit problem.

In the meantime, an enormous enhance to Musk’s on-line recognition occurred when he rode the wave of curiosity in crypto in early 2021, mentioned Jason Urgo, chief govt of Social Blade, a social media analytics agency. The identical month that Tesla introduced it could settle for bitcoin, Musk began tweeting about one other cryptocurrency, dogecoin, and its worth hit a excessive. This seeming affect allowed Musk to “faucet into a very totally different market of individuals,” particularly the crypto crowd, mentioned Urgo.

Musk additionally bought a viral enhance by inserting himself in one other 2021 monetary frenzy, when particular person traders banded collectively to drive up the share worth of GameStop inventory. After the buying and selling app Robinhood halted its buying and selling of GameStop, resulting in mass outrage, Musk took up the reason for retail merchants and grilled the Robinhood CEO stay on the audio app Clubhouse — casting himself as a populist hero of those small-time merchants, all within the wee hours of the morning, one other Musk specialty.

Twitter, nonetheless, is the place Musk made his “Take the crimson capsule” declaration. “Taken!” Ivanka Trump replied. Regardless of seeming to having a advantageous relationship with Democrats throughout the Obama administration and maintain some liberal views, Musk has just lately taken intention on the left and embraced Republican causes helpful to his firms, akin to fewer covid restrictions, much less regulation and decrease taxes. He tweeted in March 2020 that “the coronavirus panic is dumb” and two months later proceeded to reopen the Tesla manufacturing unit in Fremont, Calif., in defiance of native mandates. The president, Trump, tweeted his approval.

Musk additionally started interacting with right-wing accounts together with Benny Johnson and the Babylon Bee and parroting conservative views by questioning trans rights and tweeting that “the woke thoughts virus will destroy civilization.” He mentioned in Could that if he had been to purchase Twitter, he’d reverse the ban on Trump, who was kicked off the platform due to the “threat of additional incitement of violence” after a mob of the president’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. An entire new subset of Individuals had been now rooting for Musk.

Ever for the reason that deal soured, nonetheless — and since Musk indicated he was leaning towards Florida governor Ron DeSantis (R) within the 2024 presidential election — Musk has been brazenly feuding with the previous president. Trump referred to as Musk a “bulls— artist” at a July 9 rally, to which Musk responded on Twitter, “I don’t hate the person, nevertheless it’s time for Trump to hold up his hat & sail into the sundown.” Trump posted Tuesday on Fact Social that in his presidency, Musk had come to him asking for assist along with his backed “driverless automobiles that crash, or rocketships to nowhere.” “I might have mentioned, ‘drop to your knees and beg,’” Trump wrote, “and he would have completed it.” Musk’s response when Vance tweeted a screenshot of Trump’s publish: “Lmaooo.”

Definitely, the pair’s relationship was quietly fraught for some time: After a SpaceX launch on the Kennedy Area Middle in Could 2020, Trump spoke to a big crowd that included a number of high-profile Florida Republicans. Trump referred to as on Musk, within the viewers, to face up, however when Musk obtained a rowdier cheer from the remainder of the group than Trump had, Trump tried to curtail it: “Sit down, Elon.”

In current months, Musk has disregarded a succession of scandals. In Could, he greeted an allegation reported by Insider that he propositioned and uncovered himself to a flight attendant (which he’s denied) with a crude joke about genitalia. When the information broke earlier this month that he fathered twins with an govt at his brain-implant start-up, Neuralink, he tweeted, “Doing my greatest to assist the underpopulation disaster.”

The headline-grabbing Twitter saga threatens to additional Musk’s status as a purveyor of provocations. Musk initially solid himself because the swashbuckling iconoclast shaking up a stagnant firm along with his take-it-or-leave-it buy supply. Fanboys had been positive he was enjoying 4D-chess. However after he tried to again out of the deal, complaining of a lack of knowledge on bot accounts, Twitter’s lawsuit argues he gave no regard to hurting the status of an organization that he had a fiduciary responsibility to guard. Musk tweeted in response: “Oh the irony lol.”

Though his follower depend has risen, some see Musk’s rightward shift as dimming his star with mass audiences. E-book agent Howard Yoon mentioned readers initially gravitated towards Musk as a result of folks love the concept that geniuses exist, and his fixation on saving the planet set him aside from different Silicon Valley CEOs, mentioned Yoon. “Now he’s just a few tradition warrior.”

Hammad Ahmed, 32, turned a Musk fan when he was in school, round 2009. He shortly started evaluating Musk to Steve Jobs, one other tech hero he admired. Tesla had impressed him, SpaceX much more so. “I feel for me what actually stood out was simply how broadly bold his targets had been,” remembers Ahmed, an fairness dealer in Houston.

Ahmed started to reassess his assist for Musk in 2020, when Musk started questioning the U.S. authorities’s coronavirus protections. Given the next that Musk had amassed by then on the platform, “I simply felt prefer it was a bit irresponsible for him to be partaking in that method, particularly due to how critical issues had been on the time,” Ahmed says. “I felt prefer it was possibly simply including to a variety of the misinformation noise that was there.”

For some followers, although, the newfound and controversial outspokenness that has accompanied Musk’s rise has solely solidified his standing as legend, phenomenon, the Man. Pollard-Watkins, for example, sees it as a high quality that units him aside from different megasuccessful entrepreneurs.

“He’s one of many only a few billionaires that, like, the cat doesn’t have their tongue, you already know what I’m saying?” says Pollard-Watkins. “It’s my favourite factor about him.”

Faiz Siddiqui, Rachel Lerman and Lori Rozsa contributed to this report.

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