New Delhi: Elon Musk knows he “who controls the memes, controls the Universe”, and with one fell swoop, or in his case tweet, the quirky entrepreneur has been creating and destroying a universe of wealth faster than you can say his youngest son’s name, Æ A-Xii.
Musk has come a long way from the days he was a balding millionaire to become a cool, leather jacket-wearing visionary centibillionaire, or someone whose net worth is more than $100 billion (he is one of nine in the world). He’s mastered the use of the internet pop culture to keep heart rates of both serious and amateur investors thumping like crazy. A scroll through his Twitter timeline will see a collection of emojis, memes and GIFs — a language he uses with much fluency, especially when compared to his tech CEO peers, all the while creating real world market changes.
Only last week, Musk tweeted a heartbreak emoji and a meme with a reference to rock band Linkin Park, while talking about Bitcoin. The result: The price of the cryptocurrency dipped 6.3 per cent.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 4, 2021
A few weeks ago, Musk tweeted a blue hued picture of a dollar bill with the face of a Shiba Inu, the Japanese dog breed that’s become famously associated with the cryptocurrency Dogecoin. The post came with the question: “How much is that Doge in the window?”
Musk’s tweet nearly doubled the price of Dogecoin, according to media reports.
How much is that Doge in the window? pic.twitter.com/bxTkWOr50V
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 20, 2021
Initially created as a joke, Dogecoin is represented by the face of a Shiba Inu that became internet famous as a meme and also gave birth to broken English/Internet slang phrases such as ‘Much Wow’, ‘Bedteim Story’ and the word ‘Doge’ itself.
Then there was that time Musk didn’t even use words in a tweet and still managed a market shake up. This particular post had three emojis — three droplets and a rocket, followed by an arrow pointing to the moon.
?? –> ?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 5, 2021
Investors took this to understand Musk intended for the price of an adult-themed cryptocurrency (delicately symbolised by the first two emojis) to shoot up to the moon. The price of the cryptocurrency rose nearly 400 per cent after Musk’s tweet.
Not everyone, though, is happy with Musk’s cheeky use of Twitter to roil up markets. A video on 5 June, posted by the hacker group Anonymous, said: “The games you have played with the crypto markets have destroyed lives,” and added that “Millions of retail investors were really counting on their crypto gains to improve their lives.”
Two days later, Musk’s fans came to his defense by trending the hashtag “#WeLoveYouElon”, even in India.
Nevertheless, Musk’s attention on cryptocurrencies seems to mark life coming full circle for him as he re-enters the world of online commerce.
Zip2, PayPal to SpaceX, Tesla
The Canadian-South African man with a lilting accent started his entrepreneurial journey in 1995 with Zip2, a software company that provided services to online newspapers. When Zip2 was sold to computer maker Compaq, Musk earned $22 million. Then in 1999, he founded X.com, a financial services firm that, via a merger, became money transfer system PayPal. When eBay bought PayPal, Musk earned between $160-180 million.
In 2002, Musk set up SpaceX, venturing into space travel. His goal is to make it more affordable, make humans a multiplanetary species and one day, take humans to Mars. His mission has earned him the tag “King of Mars” from renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher.
It was his posts about SpaceX — mostly photos and videos — that helped Musk grow his Twitter fandom. The idea of space travel and life in the Universe has long captured our imagination, and here was Musk actually building rockets to land in Mars, living out the ultimate space geek’s dream.
Then there is Tesla Motors, the company that has been revolutionising the electric vehicle industry. Though Musk didn’t start Tesla — the firm was founded in 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning — he joined as an early investor in 2004 and is now one of five co-founders and its CEO.
Fast forward to 2021, the ‘Technoking of Tesla‘ has been using Twitter to raise both his own and the company’s profile. Tesla neither invests in traditional marketing nor has it hired any brand ambassadors. It doesn’t need to, it has Musk to tweet cool GIFs of Teslas car doors opening and shutting like a falcon in flight.
Add to this, Tesla products are literally ‘SEXY’: There is a Tesla Model S from 2012; Model 3 from 2017 (where the 3 is a stylised ‘E’); Model X from 2015, and a Model Y from 2019.
Obviously, Musk tweeted about the S3X lineup.
Tesla merchandise had apparel with the S3XY acronym, and included red satin short-shorts for women. The company also sells tequila (not for sale in India yet). In 2018, Musk tweeted a picture of himself looking unconscious next to a Tesla for the announcement of the liquor brand:
Elon was found passed out against a Tesla Model 3, surrounded by "Teslaquilla" bottles, the tracks of dried tears still visible on his cheeks.
This is not a forward-looking statement, because, obviously, what's the point?
Happy New Month! pic.twitter.com/YcouvFz6Y1
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 1, 2018
Musk’s knack for promoting his big bold achievements using memes (and tequila and satin short-shorts) has made him a meme unto his own. For a meme is an idea that resonates across masses, turning into a cultural moment. With his legion of space fans, electric vehicle fans, solar energy fans, 56.8 million Twitter followers, and cryptocurrency investors hanging on every tweet/emoji of his, Musk has become someone who drives cultural shifts.
In fact, his recent appearance on Saturday Night Live (SNL), an iconic American live comedy show that’s birthed the careers of so many comedians and late night talk show hosts, only furthers his near cult status.
When Musk tweets
“Erratic, unstable, reckless, operatic”: These are the adjectives that have been used to describe Musk. Which is probably how one would describe his tweeting style.
“Look, I know I sometimes say or post strange things, but that’s just how my brain works. To anyone I have offended, I just want to say: I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”
This is Musk’s counter point, as he succinctly put it while hosting SNL. During the show, he also revealed he has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum that is marked by trouble with social skills and an obsessive focus on one topic.
The micro-blogging site definitely seems to be the place Musk spends most of his social media time. He doesn’t use Facebook; he doesn’t like it and thinks it’s lame. He also deleted his Instagram account.
What sets Musk’s Twitter account apart isn’t just his volume of tweets or that it’s a peek into his life and mind. His tweets captivate one’s attention since no one of his stature — successful, massively wealthy CEO of a publicly listed company — tweets with such reckless abandon. (Except perhaps Donald Trump, who commanded some Twitter notoriety, especially during his years as the US president.)
Musk is by far the most prolific tweeter among his centibillionaire peers — he has tweeted over 14,000 times; Bill Gates comes next, with just over 3,500 tweets.
Incidentally, Gates has said Musk makes “outrageous comments” and implied Musk shouldn’t be speaking about the pandemic. Musk cheekily responded to this by tweeting, “Billy G is not my lover”, and “The rumor that Bill Gates & I are lovers is completely untrue”.
Some of Musk’s tweets about the Covid pandemic are of note. A few days before WHO declared it a pandemic, Musk tweeted, “The coronavirus panic is dumb.” Multiple media reports also highlighted how Musk spread misinformation about Covid-19 via Twitter.
Musk joined Twitter in June 2009, starting off rather low key. In fact, his first tweet came a year later in 2010 June, and that was only to verify it’s really him.
Musk’s tweets from 2011, 2012 and 2013 were neither as cheeky as they are now nor widely shared, but this could have just been due to Twitter’s early years in the market. At the time, Musk’s tweets would garner a couple of hundred likes, a very low bar compared to the over 1 lakh he averages now.
The entrepreneur’s tweets started getting thousands of retweets and likes from 2014 onwards when he gradually started posting more pictures and videos of SpaceX, and articles such as the one about a cute baby baboon.
In 2016 and 2017, Musk’s tweets started resembling its current form. In 2016, he announced the start of The Boring Company that digs tunnels to ease vehicle traffic. In 2017, he tweeted more gimmicky stuff like selling flamethrowers, and a video of a “Nuclear alien UFO from North Korea”.
It was also among his 2017 tweets that Musk talked about cryptocurrency for the first time. When a user asked Musk about Bitcoin, the response was, “Never heard of it.”
Musk’s tweeting really became famous in 2018 when it started having serious real world consequences. In August that year, Musk tweeted: “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.”
Later in September, the US Securities and Exchange Commission charged Musk with fraud for his tweet that quoted a higher price for Tesla stock than its trading price and caused Tesla share price to rise over 6 per cent. Musk and Tesla ended up having to pay $40 million as penalty.
That same month, Musk also tested out some marijuana and drank whiskey during a podcast, and nothing makes you more famous on the internet than drugs and alcohol.
Since 2018, Musk began using memes more frequently, amping it up by 2021. “A picture says 1,000 words, and maybe a meme says 10,000 words … It’s a complex picture with a whole bunch of meaning in it,” he explained during a chat on the social network Clubhouse earlier this year.
Catching the crypto bug
Musk became a regular tweeter about cryptocurrencies in 2021. He tweeted about Tesla accepting Bitcoin as payment, but later changed his mind when he found out creating Bitcoins is not energy efficient and bad for the environment.
These days, he is an avid backer of Dogecoin, and tweeted that he bought his youngest son (nicknamed X) some of the digital currency.
Musk’s first tweets about Dogecoin date back to 2019, when he posted a meme of a Shiba Inu smoking a cigarette and wrote: “Dogecoin rulz”.
Dogecoin rulz pic.twitter.com/flWWUgAgLU
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 2, 2019
This year, he has been more invested in the cryptocurrency, intertwining references to it with other aspects of his life. Such as the time he teased his appearance on SNL with the tweet: “The Dogefather. SNL May 8”.
In another tweet before the SNL show, he used a Lion King meme to indicate he was introducing Dogecoin to the world.
ur welcome pic.twitter.com/e2KF57KLxb
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 4, 2021
The tweets had led to speculation that Musk might make some important announcement about Dogecoin on SNL, triggering a spike in the cryptocurrency’s market value by billions of dollars. However, it dropped as much as 40 per cent after Musk joked about the currency during the show and even called trading the coin a “hustle” — an attempt to get rich by manipulating trading, especially given that Dogecoin has no intrinsic value besides the value of being backed by famous people like Musk.
For his fans, that’s quintessential Musk.
As one said, “Elon, I love you because now I know that someone who likes nonsense memes can be a bilionaire and change the world. Thank you for that.”
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)