what is elon musk?

A Close Read of @elonmusk

What the Tesla founder’s Twitter feed reveals about the man behind the handle.

Illustration: Cold War Steve
Illustration: Cold War Steve

Elon Musk joined his favorite social-media platform on June 4, 2010, with a vow of authenticity: “Please ignore prior tweets, as that was someone pretending to be me :) This is actually me.” Then he didn’t tweet again for 18 months. At some point around 2012 or 2013, though, he caught the bug, and since then he’s tweeted from @ElonMusk nearly 19,000 times, accumulating 103 million followers and, depending on Tesla’s current trading price, more than $200 billion in net worth. To the offline world, Musk has transformed himself from a quirky South African tech entrepreneur into perhaps the world’s wealthiest man, a polymath CEO juggling multiple ambitious start-ups, with a rapidly multiplying family. (As of press time, Musk had nine children, including three by two different women over a six-week span last fall.) On Twitter, though, @ElonMusk has been pretty much the same guy all along. Like he promised in that very first tweet, this is actually him.

It’s hard to think of another billionaire, in fact, who has shared more about who he really is than Elon Musk. All those random data points turn into pointillism once your tweet count hits five figures. The wish for him to remain a cartoon supervillain, or a huckster peddling monorails to Springfield, goes up in smoke. He’s both! And so much more! If you want to know who Elon Musk really is, he’s been baring his soul, one tweet at a time and often from the toilet, under the nom de plume @ElonMusk for more than a decade. Unless you work for the Securities and Exchange Commission, though, you’d have to be some kind of masochist to read all of them.

Elon Musk, as understood by

A baffled, dazzled, incredulous public.

Hollywood.

The towns and cities sold on a hyperloop.

His romantic partners.

Students at the tiny private school he inspired.

His most ardent supporters.

Wall Streeters who bet against him.

.

His 18,000 tweets.

His style sense.

Sometimes, when a writer accepts an assignment, they will realize within minutes that their enthusiasm was ill-considered and they’ve made a terrible mistake. In my zeal to learn what the collected works of @ElonMusk might reveal about the real Elon Musk, I failed to consider what would be required to satisfy it: I’d have to read all 19,000 tweets, every single one, and keep on reading in real time, as @ElonMusk kept on tweeting a dozen or more times a day and I began to taste true Sisyphean despair. It took me about three weeks to catch up to present-day @ElonMusk, and only thanks to the miracle of PolitiTweet.org, which tracks more than a thousand public figures and houses an archive of @ElonMusk’s entire Twitter history, including the ones he deleted.

A crucial thing to know about @ElonMusk is that a normal user could follow him for months, seeing tweets here and there, and come away convinced that the feed is nothing more than a sophisticated AI customer-service bot. The edgelord @ElonMusk who’s been inescapable these past few months is just one face of the 20-sided die — it’s Musk when he’s feeling puckish, or surly, or when he’s pooping. He’s also a middle-aged dad with a dad bod and dad jokes for days, and an adolescent coder bro who still thinks 69 and 420 are hilarious. He does not suffer fools — a fool being anyone who disagrees with him — and he seems to feel no accountability for the angry Twitter masses he unleashes on ordinary people who raise his ire. If this is your preferred portrait of @ElonMusk — the egoist who seems like he’s bucking for a featured speaking slot at a men’s-rights convention — the evidence is plentiful.

But then you’d also have to reckon with scores of inconvenient truths about his actual beliefs. His support for a universal basic income. A carbon-emissions tax. Electric vehicles, solar power, zero fossil fuels. Decriminalization of marijuana. Wireless internet for poor and low-density populations. Federal regulation of anything that poses a danger to the public, from assault weapons to artificial intelligence. Would it surprise you to hear that @ElonMusk has been pleading for the U.S. government to regulate AI for as long as he’s been on Twitter? And the sheer imagination of @ElonMusk’s fears are, in a word, marvelous: “Imagine giving advanced AI to a toilet with an implicit ‘maximize ’ utility function, so it engages in deep societal manipulation just to get maximum.” Not T-1000. Not Skynet. What keeps @ElonMusk up at night are toilets that trick you into eating a lot so you’ll shit more — a truly bipartisan paranoia.

Musk likes to say that he runs his companies by feel, instinct, making it up as he goes along, and while tactically speaking that might be true, a decade’s worth of his tweets tell a very different story. Since the early days of Tesla, SpaceX, and @ElonMusk, he’s been unswervingly consistent about his three-part core strategy, which he and his acolytes refer to as “the Mission”: ending the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, making humankind a multi-planetary species, and extending the light of human consciousness ever deeper into the future. Musk’s empire-building has always been purposeful. He doesn’t buy companies to flip them for a profit. He buys them because they fit the Mission.

Buying Twitter, therefore, represents his first serious deviation from the Mission yet, and it’s a doozy. It won’t help us eliminate fossil fuels or get to Mars, and if anything, Twitter discourse is what’s left when the light of human consciousness goes out. You can scour all 19,000 tweets from @ElonMusk, but you won’t find a single logical explanation for it, and that’s because there isn’t one. To make sense of it, you have to read between the tweets and peer into @ElonMusk’s heart.

On November 15, 2017, @ElonMusk gave a rare stamp of approval to a magazine profile about him, retweeting a Rolling Stone cover story, titled “The Architect of Tomorrow,” in which he shared that he can’t be happy unless he’s in love. This is a useful insight, because if there’s a single firm conclusion to be drawn from the soup-to-nuts @ElonMusk, it’s that, holy shit, does Elon Musk love Twitter. Sure, he loves the exchange of ideas and the global town square, and he loves the direct human contact that requires no actual human contact. He loves being able to survey his followers for cheese recommendations and getting 98,000 replies. But what really gets his dopamine pumping is the violence, the coliseum, and the lustful roar of the crowd. The trolling and the flaming — what Jon Stewart recently called the platform’s “arson economy.” “On Twitter,” @ElonMusk rhapsodized the following year, “likes are rare & criticism is brutal. So hardcore. It’s great.”

In that same Rolling Stone article, he told the magazine that he hates being alone in bed at night. With Twitter by his side, he never has to be.

Just look at Musk’s romantic history — Twitter is so his type. Infatuating, tempestuous. A constant roller coaster. He dated Amber Heard. This was post–Johnny Depp, and she broke his heart. The British actress Talulah Riley, his second wife, and also his third wife — they divorced, then briefly remarried — is best known for playing a killer sex-bot on Westworld. He met Grimes, the avant-garde pop star and the mother to two of his children, on Twitter. He was about to tweet one of his dorky science-fiction puns when he discovered that Grimes, a closet dork herself, had beaten him to the pun. When he launched his bid this spring to buy the platform, though, Musk was newly single again and tweeting about a dozen times per day. In retrospect, it seems like foreplay. And indeed, according to @ElonMusk, it’s the only action he’s gotten in a long time.

One reason Musk loves Twitter so much is that for so long Twitter loved him right back. During his early years on the platform, Musk was still considered one of the good guys in many corners of the media, and especially on blue-check Twitter, where his gutsy bets on crazy start-ups had already made him a cult figure. That was a different time. Sheryl Sandberg was leaning in, not taking bullets for Zuck. Social media was rotting our brains — that much had become obvious — but it wasn’t the enemy of democracy yet. Musk was rich but not yet Bezos rich, then like a nutter he plowed it into his own R&D. Of course people fell for him. He was playful and self-aware and subversive and extremely online, he mixed at all hours with hoi polloi, and he was roasting all the right targets. He even snacked on the same pop culture. How could you hate someone who loves Nathan for You? Breaking Bad? Even his embarrassing-dad moments could be endearing (“@KiannaFierce Oh, I love trap. Good suggestions welcome!”) because embarrassing dads are endearing. He was fun, especially compared to Bill Gates or, worse, Jeff Bezos, who has an actual supervillain laugh. (Listen — see?)

Maybe it’s unfair to say that Twitter is how Musk interacts with the outside world, but it can’t be too far off. He believes changing the world requires, at minimum, an 80-hour workweek, and if he’s not at SpaceX or one of his Tesla factories, or home with his kids, he’s on a private jet shuttling back and forth. He’s an autodidact, so the legend goes, and even more impressive than learning how to build rockets by reading old Soviet Soyuz manuals is the way he taught himself how to be really good at Twitter. It’s much harder than astrophysics. Like the rest of us, @ElonMusk crawled at first, sharing book recommendations and the like. Then his addiction to strategy games took over, and by the time he was tweeting about taking Tesla private at $420 per share, it was plain that he was treating the platform like it was real-life Battle of Polytopia. Flirting with securities fraud in broad daylight is like writing a book with an elaborate murder plot and then carrying it out in real life. The alibi is baked in.

Musk doesn’t use Twitter. He plays it. His handling of the May 19 article by Business Insider revealing that SpaceX paid a flight attendant on his private jet $250,000 to settle a sexual-misconduct lawsuit should be viewed through this prism. The day before it dropped, @ElonMusk tweeted that “political attacks on me will escalate dramatically in coming months,” then when the story was published, his loyal army of Muskovites reacted like he was a soothsayer. His voting history, meanwhile — a lifelong ballot-line moderate Democrat, he claims, until backing a Republican this summer for an open Texas congressional seat — suggests that his Twitter bromance with Florida’s belligerent right-wing governor, Ron DeSantis, is primarily about bringing Democrats to heel. He’s already got 2024 presidential flirt Pete Buttigieg buttering him up, and don’t think Musk hasn’t noticed. If Republicans really think he’s joining their club for anything more than an election cycle, well, he won’t be the first rich grifter to con the GOP.

Playing Twitter is free, though. Buying it is expensive, maybe indefensibly so for a guy already running multiple companies — the rapacious entrepreneur’s version of a midlife crisis, a fast motorcycle begging to be crashed. Musk nearly died on a bike when he was 17, which is why he says there’ll never be a Tesla motorcycle on his watch. But that thirst for danger doesn’t go away just because you swear off bikes. And nothing pushes us to take crazier risks than love.

Elon Musk was in love on Twitter, once. “I would say,” he declared on August 22, 2017, “that @TheOnion is the greatest publication in the history of all conscious beings, living or dead.” Aside from the official handles of the companies he owns, Musk’s lifetime No. 1 retweet, by leaps and bounds, is surely @TheOnion. It was one of @ElonMusk’s very first follows on Twitter, in fact, all the way back in the early 2010s. But @ElonMusk does not follow @TheOnion anymore.

The affair began to spoil in the spring of 2018, when The Onion made fun of Musk for the first time: “Elon Musk Embarrassed After Realizing He Proposed Idea for Thing That Already Exists.” The world was in a dour place. Trump wasn’t going away. Billionaire was hardening into an epithet. Musk took the joke as a compliment, though. His ego can’t be pierced by an innovation burn. Two years later, The Onion went after him again (“Nation’s CEOs Sign Pledge to Continue Fucking Over Americans”), and at some point that summer, @ElonMusk unfollowed the greatest publication in the history of all conscious beings. Then, in a transparent and frankly pitiful attempt to make The Onion jealous, he began flirt-tweeting with @TheBabylonBee, the objectively terrible right-wing answer to his estranged beloved.

“@TheOnion Have you read @TheBabylonBee?” @ElonMusk tweeted on February 6, 2021. “It’s great!!”

Then, nuclear war. March 22, 2021: The Onion published an article titled “The Richest Person in Every State and How They Made Their Money.” Musk won the honor for Texas, and according to The Onion, he made his money through “Apartheid.” “Shame on you, Onion,” @ElonMusk lashed back. “This is why people are switching to @TheBabylonBee!”

Musk’s outburst was the culmination of a leitmotif running through @ElonMusk’s Twitter history, which is his dawning sense that some odious lies about his biography are hardening into accepted facts. It really is unconscionable how many blue-check Twitter accounts have repeated the smear that he launched his businesses with blood money from his apartheid-loving father’s emerald mines. Not a word of this is true. But the truth isn’t so helpful, either. Just last month, Errol, 76, tried to top Elon’s baby spree by announcing, with icky inexplicable pride, that three years earlier he’d knocked up his 35-year-old adopted stepdaughter, Jana, with their second child. (Jana was 4 when her mother married Errol.) As it happens, Musk despises his father — @ElonMusk has been brutally clear about that — but their shared affection for spawning sure feels like the definition of “like father, like son.” “The only thing we are on Earth for is to reproduce,” Errol boasted to The Sun, sounding an awful lot like Elon, who’d been ranting on Twitter for years about population decline before any of us realized that he intended to solve the problem by himself.

Now his falling out with The Onion is repeating itself on a grand scale with entire swaths of Twitter. So much of his rage at progressive Twitter springs from its refusal to see what seems obvious to him: Yes, he’s a billionaire, but don’t you see he’s not one of those billionaires? He’s not Bezos, bullying towns to knock down bridges so he can park his yacht and ferrying his friends to space on his penis rocket. (@ElonMusk, May 9, 2019: “@jeffbezos Putting the word ‘blue’ on a ball is questionable branding.”) Meanwhile the libs continue to get snowed by Bill Gates. (May 27, 2022: “Since Gates still has a multi-billion dollar short position against Tesla while claiming to help with global warming, I guess I have some trust issues with him too.”) A surefire way to provoke @ElonMusk is to lump him in with those guys and forget to put an asterisk.

@ElonMusk is not unaware that he can be a royal dick, but he doesn’t grasp the cost to him, the trust he’s eroded, the good will he’s squandered. Like Dave Chappelle and J.K. Rowling, his habit of punching down makes even ideological allies doubt his motives. How do we know this isn’t the early stages of a heel turn?

His ongoing war with what he calls “the woke mind virus” is rooted in his conviction that its progressive practitioners are all frauds, that they’re crisis actors and virtue signalers who don’t do anything to solve real problems and who resent the people who do. (March 13, 2021: “Woketopia. Battle for the Moral High Ground in this new game!” April 19, 2022: “The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable.” May 18, 2022: “Yale is the epicenter of the woke mind virus attempting to destroy civilization.”) Like his buddy and fellow Texas transplant Joe Rogan, @ElonMusk is a free-speech absolutist. So what if he unleashes a gnashing online horde every time he puts someone on tweet blast? Is it his fault that all of his attacks are by definition disproportionate? What’s he supposed to do? Not tweet?

Throughout @ElonMusk’s late-stage campaign on Twitter to expose all the bots and fake accounts he already knew about, there’s been a vague tone of a man who’s beginning to feel betrayed. He sounds wounded. He’s behaving like a basic bro trying to worm out of a relationship and blaming it on his lame girlfriend. This was bound to end with a bonfire, though, right? Actually, no. We might think we know where his tryst with Twitter is headed, but at least in Musk’s love life, his relationships tend not to combust. He and Riley remain close. He has nothing but lovely things to tweet about Amber Heard. Grimes quickly moved onto  a new girlfriend, but she still calls Musk her best friend.

“Ya know,” @ElonMusk wrote on May 26, “it’s pretty damn great to be able to talk to people from all walks of life and many countries on Twitter! So much to be learned, even from the harshest critics. Basically … I’m just saying I love all you crazy people [two heart emoji].” It sounded like reconciliation, but it could also be an admission that they’re better off as good friends and occasional lovers. Either way, whether he winds up buying it or not, Twitter will have @ElonMusk’s [heart emoji] forever.

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A Close Read of @elonmusk