Tuesday April 26, 2022
Musk: Tech visionary turns social media king
Elon Musk speaks at an event in Hawthorne, California. File/Reuters
Sometimes it feels like it’s Elon Muks’s world and we just live in it. The endlessly innovative, endlessly eccentric billionaire has struck a deal to buy Twitter — giving him control of the social media network on which the world debates, mobilizes and bickers. It is just the latest conquest for Musk, who has revolutionized the car industry, sent his own rocket to space, built the world’s biggest fortune — and created fountains of moral outrage and celebrity gossip along the way.
Musk, 50, last year became the world’s richest person — taking the title from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — following the meteoric rise of Tesla, his electric automaker founded in 2003. His takeover of Twitter caps a rollercoaster of announcements and counter-announcements — which he characteristically punctuated by gleefully firing jabs at the company on its own platform. And Musk’s new guise as a social media overlord will fuel controversy over his political views, business methods and outsized personality. He is libertarian, anti-woke, impulsive and promotes himself as a champion of free speech. Some would call him right-wing, while his critics accuse him of being autocratic and bullying.
All this has come in a month in which Musk also made headlines with Tesla opening a “gigafactory” in Texas, after the company left California following a dispute over his efforts to defy a state shutdown of his plant to stop the spread of Covid-19. And there’s more — his space transport firm SpaceX is currently breaking yet another boundary as a partner in a three-way venture that sent the first fully private mission to the International Space Station.
But Musk also makes news of a less flattering kind: Tesla has faced a series of lawsuits alleging discrimination and harassment against Black workers as well as sexual harassment. In parallel with the whiplash-inducing stream of business news, Musk’s penchant for living by his own rules in the private sphere also keeps the world wide-eyed.
It recently emerged Musk has had a second child with his on-again off-again partner, the musician Grimes: a girl they named Exa Dark Sideræl Musk - although the parents will mostly call her Y.
He is even expected to make an appearance — in person or not — at the ongoing celebrity defamation trial pitting Johnny Depp against his ex-wife Amber Heard, who formerly dated Musk. One way or another, Musk has become one of the most ubiquitous figures of the era. So how did he get where he is today?
Born in Pretoria, on June 28, 1971, the son of an engineer father and a Canadian-born model mother, Musk left South Africa in his late teens to attend Queen’s University in Ontario. He transferred to the University of Pennsylvania after two years and earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and business. After graduating from the prestigious Ivy League school, Musk abandoned plans to study at Stanford University.
Instead, he dropped out and started Zip2, a company that made online publishing software for the media industry. He banked his first millions before the age of 30 when he sold Zip2 to US computer maker Compaq for more than $300 million in 1999. Musk’s next company, X.com, eventually merged with PayPal, the online payments firm bought by internet auction giant eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002. After leaving PayPal, Musk embarked on a series of ever more ambitious ventures.
He founded SpaceX in 2002 — now serving as its chief executive officer and chief technology officer — and became the chairman of electric carmaker Tesla in 2004. After some early crashes and near-misses, SpaceX perfected the art of landing booster engines on solid ground and ocean platforms, rendering them reusable, and late last year sent four tourists into space, on the first ever orbital mission with no professional astronauts on board.
Musk’s jokingly-named The Boring Company is touting an ultra-fast “Hyperloop” rail transport system that would transport people at near supersonic speeds. And he has said he wants to make humans an “interplanetary species” by establishing a colony of people living on Mars. To this end, SpaceX is developing a prototype rocket, Starship, which it envisages carrying crew and cargo to the Moon, Mars and beyond — with Musk saying he feels “confident” of an orbital test this year. Musk, who holds US, Canadian and South African citizenship, has been married and divorced three times — once to the Canadian author Justine Wilson and twice to actress Talulah Riley. He has seven children. An eighth child died in infancy. Forbes estimates his current net worth at $266 billion.
Twitter was the preferred method of communication during former US President Donald Trump’s four years in office, as opposed to press briefings at which he would face questions from reporters. Investors had essentially steered clear of Twitter stock, which prior to Musk’s uninvited takeover bid launched three weeks ago was worth 12 per cent less than it was priced when the company’s shares first went public more than eight years ago. Twitter last year introduced a “Blue” subscription tier offering exclusive content and features, and Musk has made it clear he is a fan of such models at the platform.
There is a risk though, that if Musk follows through on his vow to let people say pretty much anything they want on Twitter, moderate users will not want to pay subscriptions to be in a platform turned hostile, said Hargreaves Lansdown analyst Susannah Streeter. Musk taking Twitter private will provide more room to maneuver, but will not guarantee success, according to analysts. As a private company, Twitter will be free to make changes that might irk shareholders or take longer than they like to pay off.
Musk and his partners buying Twitter will be able to focus more intently on the financial side of the business, and not fret over issues such as diversity that might be important to shareholders at a public firm. And despite talk of making the software running Twitter more transparent, the business side would have to disclose less to the public as a private operation. Musk will be able to shrug off concerns about the environment, diversity or political correctness and decide “to hell with it”, running Twitter the way he thinks is best, William Lee of the Milken Institute said.