This is the joke that was worth $44 billion. On October 26, 2022, having just spent that astronomical sum to buy Twitter, Elon Musk showed up at the company’s headquarters, smiling and holding a sink. “Let that sink in,” he wrote, gloating, on Twitter.
Entering Twitter HQ – let that sink in! https://t.co/D68z4K2wq7
— elonmusk (@ Elon Musk)
Like the Tesla and SpaceX boss’s decision to acquire one of the world’s leading social media platforms, and like the increasingly right-wing political viewpoints of the richest man on the planet (at that time), the joke was divisive. Musk’s fans applauded and posted hundreds of variations of the quip. The press reported the scene in a slightly embarrassed way. Meanwhile, Musk’s critics – and there are many of them – were dismayed, in the context of a wave of layoffs and radical changes to the platform’s moderation rules.
However, there is something deeper behind the pun. It may be difficult to separate the man who fires thousands of people and reactivates neo-Nazi accounts on Twitter from the comedian. But it is clear that the billionaire’s relationship with jokes sheds light not only on his personality but also on his most risky business choices.
‘Public good’ and ‘woke mind virus’
First, there was the “mass-market” flamethrower, launched as a joke and which he ended up marketing in 2018. That same year, he announced he wanted to take Tesla off the stock market by buying back shares at $420 apiece, a thinly veiled reference to cannabis. It didn’t get much of a laugh out of the US stock market watchdog.
And then there was the Twitter takeover. According to some accounts, the idea first popped into Musk’s mind after the Twitter account belonging to the Christian satirical site The Babylon Bee – American conservatives’ response to the parody site The Onion – was blocked for posting transphobic messages. For years, Musk has indeed been very invested in the sphere of satirical sites. He had considered buying The Onion as early as 2014 and then hired two former managers of the site to launch Thud, a project as crazy as it was short lived: Without a specific site, it lasted six months before closing due to lack of funds. The pared-down team launched fake campaigns for fake products, such as this gun that “protects you 24 hours a day by shooting all the time.”
For Musk, humor is something incredibly serious and satire almost a “public good,” the co-founders of Thud explained a few years ago. And in his mind, that “public good” is under threat from what he calls the “woke mind virus,” which turned most comedy shows and performances into “moral lessons that tell you why you’re bad human beings, instead of comedy, ” he explained in a lengthy 2021 interview with The Babylon Bee executives.
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