Beloved pseudonymous Weird Twitter philosopher dril once wrote, “‘im not owned! im not owned!!’, i continue to insist as i slowly shrink and transform into a corn cob” [sic]
That tweet, from 2011, spawned the phrase “corn cobbing,” which in internet speak means to claim victory in the face of obvious, humiliating defeat.
Now, it seems almost narratively heavy-handed that the social network that enabled dril to become an absurdist folk hero among the extremely online set is shriveling under the leadership of Elon Musk, the world’s richest man (for now)—a man who was once hailed as a genius, but certainly isn’t currently acting like one.
Musk has lost more than half of his workforce through ill-conceived layoffs and inhumane demands. Advertisers are fleeing. Selling verified check marks to any dipshit with $8 and a willingness to provide their credit card information to a website that has lost a significant portion of its security team has led to chaos and, occasionally, hilarity. (In a twist that must be heartbreaking for the desperate-to-be-funny Musk, he’s not the one responsible for the laughs, the anonymous hero pretending to be Eli Lilly is.)
A Nov. 21 New York Times piece claims that this is just Elon Doing Elon, running Twitter the same way he ran Tesla and SpaceX in the early days. While the reporters express a healthy skepticism that this approach will work at a company as different as Twitter, they also leave it to the realm of possibility that this is all part of a playbook that has worked before and may work again.
Meanwhile, while Musk isn’t saying much to the media, he certainly is Tweeting Through It, breaking shit and claiming I meant to do that—flipping his L’s around and sticking them together, telling us they’ve been W’s all along. (Elon, those are clearly L’s. We can see the Scotch tape.)
Let me offer a simpler explanation: maybe Elon Musk isn’t the boy genius he was made out to be, and never was. And maybe his Silicon Valley peers aren’t, either.
In the last month, tens of thousands of tech workers have lost their jobs—from Meta to Twitter to Amazon and on down—and in the coming weeks, leaders across the industry have foreshadowed, there will be more.
Of course, expansion and contraction are inevitable regardless of the industry. But there’s something more going on with what we’re seeing across tech right now. It feels bigger than the gentle waving of the Invisible Hand. It looks like a bunch of guys who were heralded as geniuses, then made a bunch of bad calls, and now reality is finally catching up to them.
As a result, the people who worked for them, who believed in them, are getting hurt.
As recently as a month ago, the prevailing narrative was bullish on Sam Bankman-Fried, the Bahamas-based crypto billionaire boy. At 30, he was the face and brain behind crypto exchange FTX. He had celebrity endorsements, Super Bowl commercials, and the cover of Forbes magazine. But between Nov. 8 and 11 of this year, SBF’s net worth went from an estimated $10.6 billion to $0 when it was revealed that the company had been doing a bunch of things that companies that handle other people’s money should not be doing, and the value of its underlying cryptocurrency had completely collapsed. Bankman-Fried had been mishandling customer funds in a manner similar to what American banks were doing in the runup to the 1929 stock market crash. Not very genius behavior!
Amazon will also be eliminating 10,000 jobs, after its “worldwide digital” unit lost a reported $3 billion during the first quarter of this year. This, according to Business Insider, is because its Alexa virtual assistant that everybody thought was the future of computing 10 years ago was actually not the future of computing. Alexa and its affiliated products have been “money-losing pits” for years, facing controversies that eroded consumer confidence in them, from surreptitiously recording conversations when they were supposed to be turned off to failing to get its users to shop constantly. Whoops. Maybe Jeff Bezos should have stayed in space.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s allegedly brilliant mind has been laying down some expensive stinkers of late. The recently-rebranded Meta (nobody calls it Meta unless they’re reporters writing about it or traders shorting its stock) sank godlike amounts of money into developing the so-called Metaverse, an immersive virtual reality world that requires a $400 headset to join and has provided a consistently buggy and bizarrely legless user experience.
(Disclosure: I was paid to create content on a Meta platform on a contract basis between June 2021-October 2022. I was not an employee of the company nor was I privy to any internal discussions or business.)
But right around the time that Elon was Eloning-up Twitter, and somebody impersonating Sam Bankman-Fried created a believable fake listing for the blunderkind’s $40 million Bahamanian penthouse, Zuck announced that 11,000 of his employees were about to lose their jobs. That’s 13 percent of his workforce jobless, headed into the holiday season and maybe a recession.
It reads a bit like an own goal.
Maybe if he’d spent fewer resources setting up camp in the Uncanny Valley, Facebook would be less of a last stand for the uncle nobody wants to talk to at Thanksgiving and more of a town square ready to step in and fill the role that Twitter did before it began circling the toilet bowl. Hindsight is 20-20, unless you’re strapped into a virtual reality headset and can’t see anything that’s actually going on around you.
How many of these tech busts must we live through before we stop lending the myth of the genius CEO such ardent credulity? How many Elizabeth Holmeses? How many WeWorks? How many prestige streaming mini-series based on the collapse of a company started by a charismatic charlatan must we see nominated for a perfunctory number of supporting actor Emmys before we learn our lesson?
Silicon Valley’s weird daddy worship of its leaders has always been tiresome for those of us whose brains aren’t pickling in its brine. But now we’re seeing the tech industry—with its pathological unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of its leaders—blow up in a spectacular fashion, in a manner that can harm even those who wouldn’t know Elon if he accidentally ran over them with his “self-driving” Tesla.
The tech industry is a china shop full of bulls—both in the sense that without delusional optimism in the upside potential of every endeavor, the whole place would collapse on itself, and in the sense that many of its leaders have no fucking clue what they’re doing.
We are watching what happens when a culture is built around believing its leaders’ auto-mythology.
Silicon Valley is not a superhero incubator. Its leaders are not gods. Many of them aren’t even geniuses. The longer we remember this, the better we’ll be at preventing history from repeating itself again. And again. And again.