Tesla and SpaceX in particular have become synonymous with their respective fields.
What else does he do?
Though a brilliant businessperson, a philanthropist and father of six, Musk is — perhaps unsurprisingly for a person worth more than $US200 billion ($259 billion) — a pervasively discussed and resented figure across popular culture. This is something he frequently exacerbates with famously juvenile attempts to appear edgy or cool on the internet.
From awkwardly smoking weed on a podcast to repeatedly insinuating a rescue worker at a cave disaster in Thailand was a paedophile, Musk’s impulsive behaviour and constant meme-posting make him celebrated in some online circles but denigrated in most others. Often the transgression and subsequent pushback is relatively harmless — such as when he released a song called RIP Harambe (a reference to the much-memed Cincinnati Zoo gorilla who was killed in 2016), or when he and musician Grimes tried and failed to name their baby X Æ A-12 — but he’s also appeared out of touch in his attacks on everything from AI researchers and representative government to the very idea of public transport. However, he does have a very large and very devout following of defenders online, who are like-minded in terms of favouring widespread decentralisation and free markets, and who appear to buy anything Musk is selling.
Some transgressions have been much more serious than viral idiocy. Last year he appeared to be critical of gender non-binary identities, and flirted with far-right ideologies by invoking the “red pill” metaphor hijacked from The Matrix by misogynists and conspiracy theorists. He also refused to comply with COVID-19 restrictions at Tesla’s manufacturing plant in California, while also spreading dangerous misinformation about the virus online and questioning the effectiveness of testing. This fleetingly earned him the nickname “Space Karen” on Twitter.
So what is he up to this time?
This week Tesla revealed it had bought an enormous stockpile of Bitcoin — almost $2 billion worth — and that it would be accepting Bitcoin as a payment method. This raised eyebrows with commentators, regulators and currency watchers alike, because Musk had recently been whipping his followers into a frenzy with pro-cryptocurrency tweets and memes that sent Bitcoin’s value solidly up, but it was not clear when Tesla actually made the purchase.
Musk has praised Bitcoin to his 46.5 million Twitter followers in the past, but late last month sent its value up more than 20 per cent by changing his Twitter user name to “#bitcoin”. He then publicly said via meme-of-the-week video app Clubhouse that Bitcoin was about to break into mainstream finance. The currency’s value kept climbing, jumping sharply again when Tesla’s investment was announced.
Given the man’s every word has a cartoonishly outsized impact on the value of a currency his company is now invested in, speculation is rife he could (not for the first time) find himself in trouble with regulators.
What effect does all this have?
Musk seems very aware that his word can create serious and immediate change in markets, but shows no signs of reining it in. Most of his recent tweets reference Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency that began as a joke but has since reached a total value of more than $US10 billion thanks to signal-boosting like Musk’s. It also may have a knock-on effect of boosting other crypto like Bitcoin.
He was once fined $US20 million by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for tweeting that he had funding to take Tesla private, which resulted in the company’s shares soaring. It was alleged the claim was completely false.
More recently Musk, long a vocal critic of short-selling, amplified the movement to buy GameStop and other shares targeted by short-sellers, helping what could have been a flash in the pan become an industry-shaking event that bankrupted businesses.
His most recent tweets claim to have bought Dogecoin for his toddler son, and a pledge to host a chat with Kanye West over Clubhouse, despite a promise last week to take some time off Twitter, which lasted two days.
The top technology stories, gadget releases and gaming reviews delivered every Friday. Sign up here.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.