On Friday, May 14, Jackson Palmer, the co-creator of Dogecoin, returned to Twitter and called Elon Musk a “self-absorbed grifter.”
Is Palmer accurate? Is the Tesla CEO little more than a grifter?
John Mac Ghlionn is a cryptocurrency researcher and writer.
Whether you answered that question definitively or not, one thing is indisputable – Elon Musk is controversial. On Twitter, very much his soapbox of choice, Musk dictates the cultural narrative, with many of his 54 million followers hanging on his every tweet. His influence is immense. Remember, this is a man who has the ability to break the internet with an eggplant emoji.
Anything he touches generates controversy. The actor Kevin Smith, most famous for playing Silent Bob in his film “Clerks,” once said the term “controversial” is little more than a “euphemism for interesting and intelligent.”
Musk is most definitely interesting, and he is most definitely intelligent. He has found a way to dominate culture, generate controversy, and commodify friction. In the outrage economy, few others have profited like Musk. Without his ability to commodify controversy, would he be one of the richest men in the world? No.
Many see Musk as an inventor, like Nikola Tesla. But he’s not. He is an entrepreneur. He possesses an unrivaled ability to explore and exploit value-added novelty in economic and social spheres. Everything he touches generates interest, and this interest generates revenue. The man who plans to colonize Mars has already colonized culture, and cryptocurrencies have played a pivotal role in Elon Musk’s rise to prominence.
In February of this year, Tesla announced it had bought $1.5 billion worth of bitcoin. A short time later, the company confirmed it was willing to accept bitcoin payments in exchange for its products. Environmental activists were not happy. The reasons why are obvious. Bitcoin, in its current form, is terrible for the planet. Nevertheless, shortly after Tesla announced plans to accept crypto payments, bitcoin shot up in value.
The puppet master pulled the strings and the world reacted. However, the decision to accept bitcoin was little more than a PR stunt. First, because bitcoiners are notorious HODLers, they are reluctant to use the cryptocurrency to purchase anything. Over a decade ago, a young man from Florida purchased a couple of pizzas with bitcoin. That was a financially costly mistake for the Floridian but a highly instructive one for the Bitcoin community.
Second, as CoinDesk has highlighted, trying to purchase a Tesla with bitcoin was like trying to teach a cat how to code. In other words, extremely difficult. As noted at the time, “according to the company’s Bitcoin Payment Terms and Conditions, bitcoin transactions must be completed within a certain window of time or else the price in BTC expires and the buyer must ask for a new price.”
If you happened to purchase a Tesla with bitcoin, found yourself unhappy with the car, and wanted a refund, you faced a world of trouble, noted CoinDesk columnist JP Koning.
On March 12, announcing that Tesla would no longer be accepting bitcoin as a payment method, Musk delivered one of the most notable U-turns in recent times. Bitcoin’s destructive impact on the environment, we were told, inspired the dramatic decision. Musk’s tweet resulted in bitcoin nosediving in value.
People like Dave Portnoy did not buy Musk’s newfound concern for the environment. The Barstool Sports founder took to Twitter to call out the billionaire, saying, “Elon Musk just tried to tank bitcoin. The same Elon Musk who had bitcoin on Tesla’s spreadsheet and their balance sheet so Tesla can show profit at the end of the quarter because they aren’t selling cars, now suddenly bitcoin is bad.”
Was Musk simply manipulating the cryptocurrency market? There is reason to think so, as CoinDesk’s David Morris wrote last week.
Crypto, like Twitter, appears to be Musk’s plaything. He is an expert troll, and he clearly gets a kick from shattering reality on a regular basis. Elon Musk is officially the “hold my drink” guy. However, when an uber-influential individual tweets something out, the effects can be extremely profound. Donald Trump, when president, demonstrated this perfectly.
Whether or not Musk was intentionally manipulating the market is debatable. Nevertheless, even if he was, does any of this hurt brand Musk? Of course not.
The 49-year-old has found a way to monetize controversy, consistently and without shame. He sucks up so much cultural oxygen that influential figures like Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan and the Kardashians barely register on the current “who’s who” radar. The monopolization of cultural oxygen is, of course, strategic. Dominate the media and you dominate the world. Considering Musk spends nothing on advertising, the desire to dominate the narrative is, again, strategic. The anti-ad entrepreneur is a master puppeteer. When he sings (or tweets), the world dances.
Which brings us back to Palmer’s comment. One cannot be as successful as Musk without being self-absorbed. You don’t become one of the richest people in the world without a high degree of egomaniacal focus.
Now, is Musk a grifter? No, he is a grafter, a workaholic with an uncanny ability to control the cultural narrative. He is an astoundingly intelligent troll. Grifters are small-time crooks; they don’t run the world. Musk, on the other hand, appears to be the most important man in the world right now.