Elon Musk paid for our attention, but the price to keep it is getting higher


I see Elon Musk has pivoted from pretending he’s going to physically fight Mark Zuckerberg to pretending he is going to sue the Anti-Defamation League. Okay. There are people who still take Musk seriously, and I wish them well on their journey. This blog is for the rest of us.

Obviously, there’s a level of attention-seeking behavior at play. Some of this is financially motivated: Musk is perhaps the most important influencer in the world. His tweets move markets. And he faces the same problem as other influencers. The danger of being too famous is overexposure — people get sick of you.

Why make this threat in the first place?

Musk’s public persona is an important marketing tool. Consider his appearance on Saturday Night Live: Tesla didn’t have to run advertisements because Musk is so closely associated with the brand that the entire episode functions as a car commercial. Meanwhile, every other EV maker bought ad time. You can think of Musk as the end state of being an influencer, in which the human and advertising are completely inseparable. He is Kim Kardashian’s final form.

So, the ADL thing: Musk has blamed the group for declining ad sales on Twitter and threatened to sue the group. If you are wondering about the merits of such a suit, Mike Masnick runs it down — but me, I’d like to talk about the optics. Why make this threat in the first place?

Well, for attention. The threat generated headlines and put Musk in the news! Besides that, blaming the ADL for Twitter’s ad woes lets Musk off the hook, which is the sort of thing he is highly motivated to prefer. Musk is dancing with something we’ve seen already from Kanye West and former president Donald Trump: extreme language gets attention. People are highly motivated to condemn antisemitism, which paradoxically means that Musk’s message gets spread further. This is the bait for a quote-tweet dunk writ large.

Musk’s media strategy of no ads ever means Musk has to do what every lowly influencer does: grab attention. It is, of course, much easier to grab attention by summoning anger and outrage than it is by sparking joy — not a new observation by any means. Nor is Musk the first to tap into the so-called Culture Wars in order to achieve power, political or otherwise.

For an influencer like Musk, attention functions as golden handcuffs

I have covered Elon Musk for the better part of a decade now, and the part of my brain that experiences emotions about him got fried sometime around 2018. But what’s odd is that I now run into people who can’t stop telling me how sick they are of Elon Musk. I don’t just mean our commenters, of course (hi there!) — I mean actual humans I meet in real life. People used to ask me if I thought Musk was really a genius. Now they just groan.

This is called overexposure. For an influencer like Musk, attention functions as golden handcuffs. If he were to go full Howard Hughes and hide away from the public eye, Tesla would have to figure out another way to get attention. Right now, it’s got a new product to launch. Whatever psychic damage Musk takes by staying in every conversation may very well also sell Cybertrucks. Besides that, if he stops using Twitter regularly, that’s maybe a problem for the platform he owns.

As for Musk’s forays into politics, there’s business logic there, too. As a man with significant business interests in Texas, he’s got an important constituency to keep happy: Texas politicians. And while he might tell his stenographer that his drift right is the result of personal animosity toward one of his children, I am skeptical about that — the donations started much earlier.

Regardless, Musk’s attempts at kingmaking have fallen flat. The launch of Ron DeSantis’ campaign on Twitter was a bad joke, the kind that would drive away any future candidate from doing something similar on the platform. Trump is trouncing DeSantis anyway.

Musk has to continue doing more extreme stuff in order to get attention

There might be a lot of reasons for that, but there’s one big one that is often noted in politics: Twitter isn’t real life. The things that grab attention on social media, that drive conversation on online platforms — those things aren’t necessarily the things people actually care about. And as more people quit posting, Musk’s social media celebrity may be in danger.

Musk has to continue doing more extreme stuff in order to get attention — that’s just how the treadmill of social media works, even if you own the platform. I have wondered for a long time whether being overexposed matters in any meaningful way. With so many people complaining about Musk’s behavior, this seems like a moment to find out.

Twitter itself isn’t necessarily the best test case. Part of that is that Twitter was already in trouble before Musk took over. His stewardship hasn’t helped, obviously: there are very real concerns for advertisers about brand safety. Things that used to work are now busted; there are also some problems with the ad revenue sharing program. This is to say nothing of lighting Twitter’s brand on fire for X. I think Musk is too hands-on in ruining Twitter to measure his indirect effects.

SpaceX’s major customers are government agencies. It’s not a great test case, either.

Tesla, though, that’s interesting. Musk and Tesla are so closely associated as to be interchangeable. And Tesla’s got real competition now — something that wasn’t true for many years. It’s had to slice its prices in order to juice its revenues; that cuts into the profit margin. The Cybertruck is scheduled to start mass production next year. This is not a good time for Musk’s reputation to take a beating. 

The more Musk seeks attention with extreme behavior, the less trustworthy he looks. Musk’s reputation was, for a very long time, an intangible asset that benefitted his companies. I wonder what happens to Tesla if more people decide they’re sick of Musk. He’s the reason the company survived the 2008 financial crisis and went on selling cars. Will he also be the reason people stop buying them?



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