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How Elon Musk became the internet’s most loved, and hated, meme

Elon Musk may be the perfect example of the saying “Never meet your heroes” — but there are admirers willing to risk it. And what better day than on his birthday to try?

Over the past few years, Musk, whose birthday is Sunday, June 28, has built up a reputation for himself, not only as an eccentric chief executive, tech giant, and billionaire, but also as a famed internet personality — one who is both revered and despised. His likeness has been used in viral memes (take for example the one where he smokes a blunt with Joe Rogan), and that kind of currency in today’s online culture is priceless. In May, after the birth of his seventh child, the internet seemingly exploded trying to figure out how to pronounce the baby’s unusual name.

Yet, his own social media platform of choice is similar to that of the U.S. president: Twitter. And he uses it to his advantage in the same way.

Only a few figureheads have the power to leverage stock markets, secure millions of dollars in investor funding, and make news headlines across the world with a single tweet. Musk has that mastered this — he’s a natural at Twitter — taking to the keyboard quicker than Kanye West circa 2018. Other CEOs and tech moguls stick behind choreographed PR statements. But not Elon.

My Twitter is pretty much complete nonsense at this point

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 19, 2019

Since joining the social media platform in 2009, Musk has laid his aspirations out bare for everyone to see. His plan to die on Mars. His dream to make an affordable electric car for everyone. His ambition for Tesla to be the antidote to climate change.

This type of accessibility and immediate interaction has gained him a stealthy set of supporters, those who are willing to collectively swarm critics that come after him in a troll-like fashion, yet shower him in praise even when he announces Tesla delivery delays. And though he typically replies to a select few regulars on Twitter, I was unable to get him to respond to a direct message for this story.  

An army of stans

Musk’s stans seem to cling onto one of his more laudable attributes, which contrasts him to the rest of Silicon Valley: He doesn’t waste his big brain on small ideas, like apps and startups — but instead on space and progressing the human race.

Spanish investor Sam Kelly, and notable Tesla devotee, said if the public doesn’t start to place people like Musk in higher regard, “mankind may not have much of a future at all.”

“Today in general we give more focus to social media influencers and reality TV stars,” said Kelly in an interview with Digital Trends. “It’s nice to be able to admire someone who is genuinely contributing towards the betterment of mankind.”

“He behaves like a happy child,” said Emil Senkel, a 17-year-old Musk fan currently saving for his own Tesla Model 3. “He does everything that goes through his head, he sets no limits, and that is why he always makes incredible inventions.”

tesla and spacex CEO elon musk stylized image
Getty Images/Digital Trends Graphic

Doing and saying everything that comes to his head has also gotten Musk in trouble, and rightfully so. He has joked about his companies going bankrupt. Used his platform to attack journalists. Threatened to take Tesla private, before securing any funding. In 2019, Musk was forced to step down as Tesla’s chairman over that tweet, which landed him in hot water with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The year before, he called a Thai rescue diver a “pedo guy” — and was later forced to apologize.

More recently, in March, he wrongly suggested that children were “immune” to COVID-19, and re-opened Tesla’s Fremont factory against official guidelines, resulting in some employees testing positive for the virus.

Critics have called Musk irresponsible, rude, and obnoxious. And, no doubt, he is those things. But some, like Recode’s Kara Swisher, can still admit he is “charming” and “strikingly confident” while dismissing the common, blanket sentiment that he is “crazy.”

— Ryan (@Ryleger) March 6, 2019

The man, the myth?

It may be important to note here that Elon Musk is human. Despite the hundreds of thousands of “enthusiasts” on his namesake subreddit, or memes relating him to Marvel’s Tony Stark, or Earth’s very own apocalyptic savior. Spend a few minutes in his Twitter replies, and you may feel your own mind begin to warp thanks to the sheer number of accounts parading his achievements back at him.

“Elon Musk has the pleasure of inhabiting some of our favorite archetypes: The wizard, the boss, and probably a touch of bad boy,” said Zoe Fraade-Blanar, co-author of the book “Superfandom,” which examines fan-based obsessions. “As with all celebrities, people use his public persona for their own narrative-building and identity-creation purposes. No matter what someone wants to comment on in the culture, his persona is available as a stock character to do so. In the case of memes, literally.”

This may be why even his most loyal internet supporters are able to separate Musk from his companies and his damaged reputation, while also making him fit into a meme-worthy format.

Supporters see Tesla and SpaceX, with Musk at the helm, as the mecca of all things innovative and futuristic. Everything they want the world to look like — meaning anything he does and says in pursuit of that, can easily be written off and salvaged with one viral, visionary tweet. (“Who controls the memes, controls the Universe.”)

“He’s just himself and that’s why his social media presence is so successful,” said Kelly. “Perhaps some people want him to behave more like a billionaire CEO, but that’s just not who he is.”

The one thing we know for certain is that Musk is not likely to change his ways. Investors have tried and failed. His unpredictability and carelessness online, however, may be the only steady traits to rely on. But for some fans, even that can feel isolating and problematic in the harsh light of today’s reality. Whether these characteristics inspire awe, animosity, or ambivalence, will only add to his internet allure.

“Some people are just really great, intentionally or not, at mythologizing themselves,” said Fraade-Blanar. “Good for him, I say.”

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Meira Gebel
Meira Gebel is a freelance reporter based in Portland. She writes about tech, social media, and internet culture for Digital…
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