Conrad and I do “content strategy” which is digi-lingo for persuading people to buy stuff by posting interesting or amusing stuff on websites, social media, newsletters, blogs etc. The best person in the world at this right now is Elon Musk, who, with a single tweeted word, “Indeed”, can send the price of Bitcoin to its lowest level since February. Or by tweeting “How much is that Doge in the window?" send the price of the “joke” currency Dogecoin from $0.29 to $0.40.
One of our favourite newsletters is Bloomberg’s “Money Stuff” by Matt Levine, who wrote this about Musk:
“There really is something unprecedented and amazing and almost magical about Elon Musk’s continuing ability and inclination to move the prices of Bitcoin and Dogecoin with his slightest whim.”
Levine compares Musk’s superpower to being in possession of a “magic lamp”. Whisper into it, “price go up” or “price go down” and lo! The lamp is, of course, Musk’s twitter account.
A close cousin of “content strategy” and something I am increasingly asked to advise on is “founder comms”, which is what Elon Musk’s twitter account falls under. (Below: a 2010 meta tweet)
Initially, we wanted to break down Musk’s twitter moves to see what can be learned and then bung it all into some kind of pat formula that you could copy. But not only is that totally lame, but also, totally impossible. To be clear: very few people can “do an Elon” - and probably not the CEO or founder of your direct to consumer beauty or fashion start-up. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand what’s happening.
The seeming lack of strategy and the deliberate sowing of chaos, volatility and confusion, is, we think, the superpower at the heart of Musk’s magical twitter lamp. Here’s a tweet from 2019:
Most strikingly, his tweets often go against the logic of his own self interest. Some of the maddest ones seem designed to make Tesla’s stock fall or invite further SEC scrutiny. Musk was trolling the markets in this manner way before all the recent crypto shenanigans. Here’s a graph from Wired magazine published in 2018.
From declaring his own company bankrupt to saying it is about to go private before later declaring that, actually, it’s going to stay public left most analysts scratching their heads.
A similar pattern can be spotted with his Bitcoin tweets:
Now, are Elon’s market moving tweets evidence of a classic “pump and dump” or perhaps the lesser spotted “poop and scoop”? Or is there a bigger game afoot?
Right, here is where I am about to go full Adam Curtis on you, but bear with me! Musk’s chaos twitter strategy bears a passing resemblance to a new form of political control invented in Russia by Putin’s top strategy chief, Tupac fan, aesthete and modern art enthusiast, Vladislav Surkov. Instead of straightforwardly crushing the opposition in the manner of a traditional authoritarian regime, the Kremlin not only allows but positively promotes rival political and ideological factions within Russia, a strategy known as “non linear warfare”.
A brilliant profile in The Atlantic magazine by Peter Pomerantsev describes his methods: “One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions.”
By creating a chaotic world full of angry rival factions and ideologies, Putin’s promise of “stability” seems even more desirable to a country that has experienced so much bloodshed and political upheaval. The methods are so “effective” (another Putin buzzword), that: “Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.”
When Elon Musk trashes Dogecoin on Saturday Night Live by calling it “a hustle” and sends it plummeting by 40%, and the following Thursday tweets this to send it up another 30%, he’s playing Putin’s game. But with one crucial difference: while Putin promises Russia “stability”, Musk’s fanboys crave volatility.
Success on social media means you have to be true to your mission and instinctively know what your followers want. For Musk’s legions of young fanboys, volatility and craziness is all part of the excitement of crypto - even when the bet goes wrong for them. You hear almost nothing about “normal” people losing their house by betting on Gamestop or crypto currencies. Could it be that these mostly young people have nothing to lose in the first place? According to Scott Galloway in New York Magazine: “People under the age of 40... have less than half of the economic security, as measured by the ratio of wealth to income, that their parents did at their age.” Plus, they’re bored out of their minds.
The ability to gang up with a bunch of friends and make really crazy stuff happen in the financial markets a la Gamestop, Dogecoin and Bitcoin, is hugely entertaining, and feels empowering and revolutionary even when it’s not (the only person being empowered is Elon Musk). With his maverick tweets Musk has become the ringleader of this movement, and in doing so has turned chaos and volatility into power and control.
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