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Musk should be taken seriously and with caution

Elon Musk (Image: WIRED)

Up until recently had I not taken an interest in Elon Musk. Any news stories about him, my natural instinct was to blank them out - whatever he did, and whatever business he owned, they had nothing to do with me. It's only when he took over Twitter, for a reported $44 billion, that I felt as though I needed to learn a little about him at the very least, considering I'm one of its millions of users and that, despite me not 'following' him, the vast majority of his tweets still appear on my news feed.

If any of you wanted to discover more about Musk, I suggest you watch the fantastic and fascinating three-part documentary series, aired on the BBC earlier this year. It explored his rise to fame, how he became the richest human on Earth, his successes and struggles, and his future visions. We heard from everyone who knew him, including his nearest and dearest, and business associates and colleagues who either hold him to the highest regard, disregard or both. It's clear that he's a man who divides opinion and wants to achieve a lot in this world; I mean, who wouldn't if you had his bank account?

I suppose Musk's words before buying Twitter didn't quite matter. It wasn't as if he was irrelevant, far from it in fact. It was just that his belief of getting people to emigrate to Mars and popularising expensive futuristic cars weren't capturing the mass audience's attention. Sure, his movements were (and are) watched with intrigue by influential American politicians and a relatively small number of people who share his visions, but not to many more else. But his recent attention seeking antics have reached a point where we cannot afford to ignore anything he says, even about Mars and his beloved Tesla.

Since 2006, Twitter has been a solace for users worldwide. For almost 17 years, it's arguably been the closest way for 'ordinary' members of the public to connect with their favourite celebrities. It fed a gap at that time, where we had a vested interest in personalities who felt worlds apart from everyone else. As the site grew in popularity, it also quickly became a powerful tool in politics and, with the likes of Meta (responsible for Facebook and Instagram) and LinkedIn, have created this industry that is likely to overtake every traditional media when it comes to news and information consumption.

Pre-Musk, Twitter was under intense scrutiny over whether it's providing true free-speech, or its reported stagnation of user numbers. Perhaps the platform had been too comfortable, or perhaps some with certain beliefs felt left out because former US President Donald Trump, among other controversial figures, were banned. Regardless, Musk spotted an opportunity to expand his business portfolio and, after toing and froing, decided to take a chance with a sector he hadn't previously touched. He'd been a critic of the platform for a long time so he felt this was his opportune moment to put his money where his mouth is and reform, at least to his liking.

And he's sure made an impression. In a short space of time, we've seen significant personnel changes (some he's enforced, others have walked), the return of Mr Trump and the introduction of some interesting features, such as different colour 'ticks' to distinguish businesses and individuals apart. His presence alone has rubbed some people the wrong way, with users - many of whom had millions of followers - deciding to delete their accounts. Those who advocate free-speech at any cost are loving it, however.

I was quite indifferent about Musk's acquisition until the mid-term elections, actually, where he encouraged Americans to vote for the Republican Party. It wouldn't have mattered if he was an everyday user of Twitter, but he's the chief - it's like a media baron endorsing a party. Certainly, we've seen this with Rupert Murdoch and his words changed political landscapes. It's tacky and shouldn't be allowed. Musk is now as influential as the Aussie mogul, and his words matter now more than ever.

What Musk is doing is a reflection of what's going on right now. It's no longer trendy to look at topics from both sides, unfortunately. There is a desirable urge for people to blurt out radical thoughts in order to get noticed, and entrepreneurs tend to lead the way in this. In the 1990s, we had the likes of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Bill Gates who were pioneers, with their works standing the test of time. Their radical thinking got them to where they are today. That said, they also used their platforms to champion philanthropy, set realistic goals and made things believable. 

Musk is a generation later than the folks mentioned just now, but still in the same league - big thinkers and striving to achieve the impossible. Perhaps with Musk, he's thinking a little too much outside the box. We're not ready for Mars, and won't be for a long time yet. And Tesla isn't accessible for everyone, and won't be for a long time yet. His maturity and ways of thinking are perhaps a step behind Gates and the like.

The problem is that Musk has gotten away with making his niche visions mainstream, which has enabled him to get away with a lot, including buying Twitter for an obscene amount. US Presidents appreciated his support, though current President Joe Biden may seem a little distant now. Biden is indirectly right though - he (and other world leaders) should scrutinise his movements, in ways they hadn't done before. He's transformed himself from a harmless maverick to a serious player in the media business practically overnight. Whether Twitter lasts under him or not (and technology experts are questioning its future), he's the difference between political leaders winning or imploding.


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