It has been just under a week since I wrote about the year of finding out, where poorly thought-out assumptions and magical thinking have begun to erode (or outright destroy) supposedly unstoppable forces. Elon Musk, ever-vigilant for an opportunity to be destructive, has decided to “grant amnesty” to banned Twitter accounts, including Kanye West and Andrew Tate. Twitter missed payroll in parts of Europe (specifically Germany and the United Kingdom), and has now decided the best course of action is to antagonize Apple, who have allegedly - remember, this is Elon Musk saying this - threatened to take Twitter off the app store “for no reason.” Musk’s other pathetic refrain is claiming that Apple Apple “hates free speech in America” by “mostly stopping” advertising on Twitter - a statement that suggests that freedom of speech is predicated on large companies being forced to spend large amounts of money on private businesses, for some reason.
His narrative is dying, and Musk is desperate.
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Meanwhile, columnist and professional Elon Defender Kara Swisher has changed from explaining how great Elon is if you squint to seemingly daily threads mocking Musk with the kind of crunchy verbiage built to make you think “this person never said anything good about Elon Musk.” Kara has now publicly denounced him after months of cheerleading, claiming to Elon that “this [Elon criticizing the media and claiming it’s false, a think he’s done for years] is not the you [person who would text or call back] I’ve known [tolerated the many obvious problems with as a means of retaining access.].” Swisher’s confusing thread also mentioned her “disappointment” about not taking jobs she was offered at Internet startups in the 90s, which would have made her a “pile of dough,” something that Swisher apparently does not have right now.
Swisher is, of course, attempting to rewrite history to reposition herself as the grand critic of tech, despite it being alarmingly obvious that she, like so many others, was completely in Elon’s corner until it was inconvenient to be there. One might ask where Swisher was when Musk disparaged a cave diver as a pedophile, sent thousands of his Twitter followers after reporter Erin Biba, when “pervasive racism” became an issue at Tesla, or when he sent an email around that told his workers to be “thick-skinned” and that underrepresented groups “don’t get a free pass on being a jerk.” Musk has successfully manipulated the media into conflating “firebrand” with “shithead,” and Swisher has up until recently given him the benefit of the doubt.
Swisher also recently pushed people toward a new social network called “Post,” a site backed by Andreessen Horowitz. You may remember A16Z from last year, when they attempted to pump and dump worthless social network Clubhouse, while also aiding in the direct harassment of Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz (who was at the New York Times at the time). Worse still, on an episode of her Pivot podcast she admitted that she’s an advisor in Post, and that her co-host Scott Galloway is an investor. From what I can see, Swisher was pushing people toward a product - on November 17, and again November 21 - that she would only reveal her involvement with four days later.
Post has recently gained attention for claiming to “allow users to read premium news from multiple publishers,” only to offer you the chance to pay for news that is otherwise free elsewhere. And up until recently, Post had intimated that it was against their Terms of Service to make fun of people for their net worth.
Post cries for a return to civility, where the public squares are not quite as public and the powerful are not quite as criticized. Swisher benefits by being one of the biggest new names on a platform, hedging her bets against Twitter (note: Andreessen Horowitz financed part of the Twitter deal and general partner Sriram Krishnan temporarily helped out Musk in his first days at the company) at the time when it’s most convenient to do so.
It’s also a naked attempt by venture capital to recreate the world in their image, and it proves - as has been proven, as will be proven again - that these people have no idea how normal people act or what they want.
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2022 has been a convergence of tests of the brittle narratives that the tech industry has built itself around. Andreessen Horowitz, previously an unstoppable titan, has now found itself under massive scrutiny for funding terrible people and things nobody wants. While they are still making money, their attempts to seize power - by which I mean trying to control how capital and conversation is generated - have fallen remarkably flat.
A year ago I discussed how A16Z - along with other power players in tech - were trying to change reality based on sheer force of will:
As I previously noted, we are experiencing the capitalist lathe of heaven “where the sheer force of rich people’s dreams have started to alter our perception of what is possible.” In the case of Clubhouse, I believe that Andreessen Horowitz and anyone else involved in investing in the company were trying exactly what Ryan Reynolds tried - to use their vast social presence and connections to attempt to make their dreams reality, and while it worked for a while, they realized that isn’t a particularly good strategy for something that is fundamentally, qualitatively bad.
And that’s why I’m such a wet blanket about Clubhouse and the crypto industry - they feel as if venture is attempting to make the future through sheer force of money and influence, without a single consideration of whether anyone will actually like them. While that’s not uncommon, what’s new is the sheer amount of defensiveness and evangelism of these products, and their confusion when the media (and customers) says that something is silly, or isn’t going to change the world.
What I think I missed at the time was that this was a symptom of a tech industry still desperate to feel as if they were leading popular culture. Clubhouse never really took off because it was not a natural experience, and what good parts of it could (and would) be easily cloned by companies like Twitter. The cryptocurrency industry managed to gain relevance through sheer force of capital but has never managed to make a product that anybody actually uses. Post seems doomed to the same fate, in that it seems like a kleptocratic social network built for people that are always telling you about a “thrilling new podcast on economics” they’ve been listening to. Andreessen Horowitz is desperate to be Waystar RoyCo from Succession, yet their influence appears to die the second that it leaves the tech ecosystem, because they are totally disconnected from regular human beings.
Yet, at first, the media ate up the narrative that Clubhouse was the next big thing, a $4 billion powerhouse that was social media’s future. They were willing to tolerate an entirely ridiculous narrative because they believed that Venture Capitalists would not put tens (or hundreds) of millions of dollars into something transparently stupid. And it worked until it became obvious that the product sucked and regular people didn’t care for it.
A16Z has spent most of its life willing things into being by cramming capital into companies and receiving positive press. The tech industry is no longer a funny little doodad in the corner of the economy but home to multiple trillion (or trillion-adjacent) dollar companies and the scrutiny you’d expect. A16Z refuses to adapt, to the point that they tried (and failed) to create their own “news website” to talk about how good their ideas are.
Musk’s narrative follows a similar path because up until alarmingly recently…it worked. As I’ve related above, Musk has been an irascible shithead for many years, but his overwhelming clout with the media meant that he could, effectively push through any idea his little mind desired. A flamethrower? Sure. $420 Tequila? Of course. Landing humans on Mars? He said 2022, but everybody was fine with saying “within five years” or “2029.”
Musk has gotten away with a mixture of half-truths and outright lies enough times that he believed that he had the popularity to do anything, another condition afflicted upon those with billions of dollars. When he bought Twitter, I truly think that he believed everybody would be behind him, because up until that point most of the media had been. Kara Swisher gave an interview in May about how smart Elon was. Jessica Lessin of The Information described the acquisition as “like watching a business school case study on how to make money on the internet.” Hell, he was able to con banks and investors into raising $13 billion for him. Musk still had the ability to manipulate the media - and still does, in the sense that he can still get a bunch of stories about literally anything he does - but couldn’t change the reality that he did not have a plan for the website that he tied his entire financial future to.
That’s why he seems so utterly pathetic. Musk may have had no plan, but he also appears to have never considered the eventuality that most people would dislike his choices. For someone supposedly tuned into “the future,” he continually fails to adapt to his changing circumstances, picking and losing fights and taking that as proof that his cause is just rather than his ideas being bad. And now his closest allies are wobbling sycophants like David Sacks, who accidentally ended up on the right side of the antitrust debate in an attempt to kiss up to his boss.
What we are likely seeing is society turning its backs on the ultra-rich, and are beginning to see that being able to spend a lot of money does not make someone smart, right or just. The common narrative of the abusively powerful is that they are victims, and that victimization is key to their narrative - except the last three years have chewed through much of the sympathy that a regular person would have for anyone with a billion dollars. It used to be convenient to kiss up to these people - comfortable, even - but “having a billion dollars” no longer guarantees that someone is worthy of adulation.
What’s left are public meltdowns and embarrassments of people that could have done so much good with their money, but instead chose to try and create worse versions of existing systems to rig the dice in their favor. The world has changed, and they refuse to change with it, despite having the resources to be quite literally anything.
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I've always viewed Musk as a younger, tech-bro version of Trump (inherited wealth, underserved media darling, PR genius).
Musk always seemed to be running a con...make an outrageous promise, get wall-to-wall press coverage, do minimal work, quietly back away with vastly weaker results, rinse and repeat).
Other than hiring brilliant engineers and leveraging taxpayer subsidies, what has been Musk's actual contributions? Teslas are still wildly overpriced, other countries are developing superior batteries, superior electric cars that don't crash. SpaceX has accomplished the same thing that NASA did 50 years ago.
As with Trump, his real genius is self-promotion and media manipulation. What I've never understood are the media blindspot for both of these man-children (or for crypto, or Elizabeth Holmes). The media seems to fall for anything and everything.
Kudos for accurately characterizing Kara Swisher.
Quite often Ed bends my mind with his deep sarcasm but the idea that the price of sycophancy is subject to inflationary pressures is a gem. My fav from the past.
“A billion dollars isn't what it used to be.”
- Nelson Bunker Hunt