“Elon Musk”, by Walter Isaacson, Part II. Tesla and Twitter: X.AI

I continue here with the review I started in the other post, titled Part I. As I mentioned before, I will approach here the part of Isaacson’s book in which he tackles the process of acquisition and transformation of the social media network Twitter, into X. To that, I add the relationships with Musk’s other companies, and the development that the author suggests.

Isaacson connects Musk’s decision of acquiring Twitter with his childhood, og bullied bully, which, as I told you, is one of his bibliographical tools. In the book’s introduction he comments that Musk suffered bullying in his school and that we could say that he took the business decision of “owning the school yard” where he suffered. To this it should be added he Asperger condition of the businessman, which makes him blunt, sometimes cruel, and tough for human relations.

I don’t believe that all that I included above justifies a business decision as the one he took, and the bad way in which he executed it. Isaacson falls short in defining Musk’s management style. Through the entire book we see a company director with a war speech which he uses to justify his need of control: he breaks boards, directive teams, without following any rule that’s not his own judgement.

The acquisition of Tesla

This is one of the examples of Musk’s management syle. As I said in part I, Tesla is not a business that Musk created, differently from SpaceX. Tesla emerges from two different engineers/entrepreneurs who were researching or getting prototypes in order to create an electric car. One of those is J.B Straubel, from Stanford, who was already working in solar automoviles, but nobody wanted to finance him until he meets Musk, and tells him that he believes in his project. Later, Musk meets Martin Eberhardt, a businessman from Silicon Valley, who was working in 2004 in a project of energy efficiency. He got a prototype made by Tom Gage and AC Ferguson.

(In the image, the original founder and first CEO of Tesla, Martin Eberhard, who ended up suing Musk). Via TeslaMag)

As the car was going to function with an induction motor, he decides to name it after the inventor of such device, Nikola Tesla. Therefore, he had the idea, the name, but he lacked the funding too. Musk gets in touch with him, find outs that he has the protoype, and tells him that he will invest 6,4 million dollars, but he has to work with Straubel. Additionally, Musk enters theboard, as a member.

The entire process of production and design of Tesla is very interesting, and you will see how Musk pressures intensely for them to decrease costs, he takes decisions regarding the reestructuring of the company (Such as unifying the engineering department with the design/production one), which lower the proces of cars and take them to a beautiful design, which is ideal for any luxury product that aims at becoming aspirational. This leads to en emphasis of making the car seat bigger, or change a door component, etc. The book dedicates a lot of space to the “Roadster”, one of Tesla’s models, with the lower price. It also shows all the work implied in decisions regarding where to build factories to produce these cars.

But, some episodes like the presentation of one of the cars, in which Eberhard is identified as the company’s CEO (which he was) offend Musk. In one coverage by the New York Times they didn’t mention him, so Muskmade another statement, he asked to be featured in the website as its director, and more things like that. As he was such a known personality he could, for instance, ride in one of the car’s models with Schwarzenegger, or invite presidents and celebrities of all type. But that need of control made him feel uncomfortable as an “investor and board member” only, to end up being the de facto president of the company.

(Image via NBC. Musk with Schwarzenegger, at that time Governor of California. Musk makes a lot of public relation moves with famous people and such relations help him in his lobby)

Musk’s involvement with Twitter has two aspects: one related with his political position, and another one related with a business decision. It started similarly as it did with Tesla: he was invited to participate in the administration board.

Particulaly in Twitter is seen how Musk believes that the company can only be fixed by making it private again, without opinions or debates of other directives, but only with his boldness and knowledge. Here is clear the incoherence of thinking that only Musk can solve the plataform’s problems, to save democracy, above all, but how paradoxical that, for that end, he needs to dispense the company’s governance.

So, why does Musk buy Twitter? And for what?

(Iustration by CNN)

The chapters regarding Twitter’s acquisition and dissapearance as we knew it are terrible. It’s remarkable that, at one moment, Musk regretted completely his buying offer, but finally decided to continue in order to avoud legal problems, and more damage to his reputation.

As an apparent motive, we could quote Musk statements regarding his concern regarding the “woke virus” that, for him, was endangering the american democracy. Also, his turning to the right, as his family and friends declare. He was supported by libertarians from Silicon Valley that we already know: Thiel, one of the first “contrarians” promoting that thought, Jason Calacanis, Larry Ellison, David Sacks, etc. He even received help from Andreseen-Horowitz to make the buying effective.

As a not so evident motivation, not being left behind in the Artificial Intelligence race. This is also made clear by Musk with his declarations and actions. In a few pages regarding OpenAI, Isaacson mentions how Musk backed up Sam Altman in the beginning, for all the problems that artificial intelligence could bring if it was not considered that it cuold end up dominating humans. Or, in Musk’s words, if there was not assured that “the human consciousness would not dissappear”. Musk’s concern are Google and Microsoft, controlling AI. But, after suporting him with money to fund Open AI as a research foundation, Musk suggest that he could relate it with Tesla, which manages thousands of data (videos mainly) of people driving their cars, and of experiments with autonomous cars. Altman apparently sees Musk’s hidden intentions. and stays firm, he says no. Musk gets angry and takes his support back, of course. Altman later joings Microsoft and launches what we know as ChatGPT 4.

(Photo via NYPost)

Therefore, his initial intention seems to turn Twitter into “X”, that X.com which couldn’t become a giant, because it partnered with Paypal, to become a platform for all kind of financial services. That people could charge their contents, send money, etc. Some people try to convince him to use blockchain, Musk tells them that he doesn’t see the usefulness. Gradually, in what he tells to Isaacson, is clear that Musk sees the value in the hundred of million of data generatd by the loyal Twitter users. Because, such as Musk states, his artificial intelligence initiatives need a lot of data. This is why, at the end of the book, and after his buying of Twitter and his turning into X, Musk funds “x.ai”. In 2021 they started with the “Tesla AI Days”, so Musk sees that if he buys Twitter this could allign.

A parenthesis, while he funds a number of companues, Musk has three children with Grimes: A EX (X), Y, and Techno Mechanicus (Tau). After naming the first one X, naming a company the sam way seems awful. This guy is proud of having children even via in vitro fecundation, with an employee, with the excuse always of “fighting the decrease of natality and mantaining alive human consciousness”. If he wasn’t one of the richest guys in the world, I doubt anyone would include this in a book. Although Isaacson tries to show these as Musk’s “demons”, I just think is surreal, bizarre, unbelievable, and I say it without any moral judgement .

And here is where we go back to Twitter’s acquisition, because even when it’s a book about an innovator, a millionaire, and a visionary, it seems that he was later sorry about the impulsivenss with which he got into Twitter’s mess. In a beginning, his notoriety and his position as a businessman make everybody listen to him. Of course, any entrepreneur or investor knows that Musk is one of the most important businessman in the world. But, I’m surprised of how Twitter’s board listens to him at all.

I remember that time very well, Musk was tweeting all the time about how Twitter action (it was a public company, lised in the NASDAQ until he bought it) was underperforming. This leads to him being invited to collaborate, but gradually, makes everything end up in such a mess. Musk tried to take the 44 thousand million dollars of his initial offering down, arguing that the amount of users was less than the one the company was tellig him, due to the high amount of bots and fake accounts.

The process of acquisition and dismantling of Twitter is disastrous. Not only because he layed off those executives of Twitter’s board with whom he started to work in the beginning, like Parag Arawal, but for his lack of professionalism -which he sometimes accepts -. One of the examples: in his decision of a 75% staff cut he selected three young engineers with few experience. We’re talking about Twitter, one of the most innovative and iconic web 2.0 technological companies. Two of those young engineers were his cousins. Meaning, he chooses those who had his full trust to move on with his authoritative decisions. They had to find out who had collaborated the most to Twitter’s coding to keep those, and remove the rest from the company.

These guys, which he called “the three musketeers”, indetified one by one, working and good people, to make them continue with company. Ben San Souci was one of those, who lasted little time, of course, for how was everything done. Yael Roth, another one, who was in charge of the platform’s security policy. Musk, and his advisors, liked him in the beginning. The problem was that, for Musk, Twitter was working against freedom of expression, manifested in, for example, Trump being suspended from the platform. Roth did contributions to help Musk in what he wanted, and also had good arguments for when Musk wanted to do something wrong, but he finally quitted. After a while, Musk started chasing him showing old tweets, which made a lot of haters go to his house and threatening him. Roth had to move.

(This is when he makes a poll to see if users agree in allowing Trump back Image via CNN Business)

Many scenes like that, delusional. He was told that he had to move his servers, and that would take a year , and he would create a task force with Tesla and SpaceX employees willing to help, with a moving truck, to take them into Oregon. Everyone who knew about this told him it was unsafe, and finally, the platforms ended up with server problems for some months for such decision. Musk later admitted that was a mistake.

While I read this part, I started thinking “ok, I’ll write a review about changes in the platform, of Twitter as a service I’ve been using since 2007, but as I was advancing my reading, I no longer felt like doing it. Musk took a bad decision, and made everyone else pay. He removed the possibility of remote work, instaurated an environment of fear, instability, things which took years to change in diverse industries and create awareness about.

But his desire of deleting the “woke” virus has been stronger than everything. And his need of power. In one tweet he kinda jokes that now that he bought Twitter “Trump will have a chance in 2024” and with his tweets from this week criticizing Biden, I have no doubt that he will use X as a campaign platform, promoting hate and trolling. At a technical and even philosophical level, the book does open a space for analyzing this last subject. Musk comes into terms with the fact that is not that easy assuring free speech, with people like Kanye West, which did nazi messages which led to his being suspended in the platform, or bots attacks in specific issues.

Another issue is censorship to journalists, even when he was working other group of journalists in releasing the #TwitterFiles a leak that would try to show the previous management had with government agencies from the States to give them information about people and problematic issues. Isaacson’s position is clear about how Twitter had collaborated intentionally as a contractor with the state in that sense. Well, the thing is, he ends up suspending journalists and cutting all relations with the one that was going to publish those files –Bari Weiss, from The Free Press– which he had chosen to communicate that affair. That incoherent was everything. In many cases, of let’s say, stumbles with people and situations, Musk seems to realize that he had made a mistake, and he tries to recompose relationships. Since what happened with the Paypal mafia, with Twitter-X former employees. But all that process seems destructive.

“Twitter will be a grain in your ass in comparison to your contribution to the world” his brother Kimbal said to him, when he was advising him not to make the step. And I think that in perspective, Musk’s trajectory would have Tesla and SpaceX as the most revolutionary highlights. I’m not sure what will happen with X, but I think that there are no doubts about how Musk’s acquisition of Twitter fragmented communication in social media.

In 2023 Meta launched “Threads”, and Jack Dorsey, “BlueSky”, an open source platform (similar to the Twitter of the early times), where most of my academic timeline emigrated. [Regarding Threads, you can read my opinion in this post, and this one about BlueSky]. A lot of people also started using Mastodon, which shows that Twitter, or X, won’t be ever again the public square which was in the peak of the 2.0 web.

In fact, it might represent, without Musk’s intention, the end of that cycle, which many were looking through projects related to blockchain, and the move towards something else. In a sentence, Musk says “Technology does not advances authomatically, but rather needs human action”, and in this case, his effort for destroying Twitter will have short term effects, and will surely makes us move to other communication channels which we weren’t considering to use. And let’s not even think about what this means to institutions and brands, who ran away from Twitter ad advertisers, the momento Musk started using the platform to chase people and to say anything as false support to freedom of expression.

(I read this and thought: his companies are not even in the top 3 of the most valuable, was the hunt worth it?)

To summarize, the feeling that the book letf me with was that it’s a terrible lesson about management, and which shows Musk at its full, with a despicable personality. It is recommended to understand a new stage of technological innovation with which we’re not familiarized, in opposite to those who invested in social media after the 2000s (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube), Musk took a road totally different. The companies in which he decided to invest were not oriented towards individuals, nor to “contributing in the public conversation”.

On the other hand, I think that Musk promotes and reflects a steps backwards. In fact, the book made me reflect a lot about changes in the work culture in relation to tech startups, which have no more than a decade, and which Musk tries to erase in any way. And I read, and I wondered ” Is this guy serious about liberating a war due to changes that have no more than a few decades?” Tolerance, diversity, all of that, to him is part of a “woke virus” At times he seems respectful and open, but at others, a villain. As one of Isaacson’s biographies, I hope is surpassed by the next one.

Featured Image via Bolsa Mania

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