Elon Musk’s Texts Suggest Way More People In The Silicon Valley Elite Should Have Imposter Syndrome

from the super-geniuses dept

I know that Elon claims he’s decided he might actually live up to what he promised to do in the binding contract he signed to buy Twitter, but I still wanted to discuss some of the text messages that became public last week as part of the case, showing text messages between Musk and various famous people about his plans for Twitter.

As a side note, I saw some in the media calling it a “leak” but there was no leak. I’m actually a bit surprised they were released as such, as most of the time materials handed over in discovery usually remain secret, and only come out when bits and pieces are used as actual evidence in the case. I originally thought these texts were released as part of Twitter’s attempt to highlight how Musk had been holding back messages he should have handed over in discovery, but, as the excellent Chancery Daily notes, it was actually team Musk that asked the court to make these public, somewhat oddly challenging their own redactions (read that thread for some speculation as to why).

And, look, let’s face it: for most of us, if most of our texts were all made public, without the context that communications between two people who know each other and have some kind of personal relationship and history have… I’d bet a lot of them would be kinda cringey too. So, I get that aspect of it, and think that the many, many articles talking about the “cringiest” texts from the pages and pages of texts are a bit unfair. Let he who is without cringey texts cast the first stone, etc. etc.

But, there is something more serious here, highlighted quite well by Charlie Warzel over at the Atlantic, noting that these texts go a long way towards “shattering the myth” that a lot of the leaders in Silicon Valley are particularly insightful (or “geniuses”) when, really, it seems like they lucked into some level of success and now think it’s because of their own intelligence.

The texts are juicy, but not because they are lurid, particularly offensive, or offer up some scandalous Muskian master plan—quite the opposite. What is so illuminating about the Musk messages is just how unimpressive, unimaginative, and sycophantic the powerful men in Musk’s contacts appear to be. Whoever said there are no bad ideas in brainstorming never had access to Elon Musk’s phone.

The sycophantic stuff is, perhaps, not that surprising either. I imagine that most billionaires have to put up with a lot of that kinda thing from all sorts of people eager to be in their good graces.

But, there is a real point here that highlights how chaotic the decision-making is and just how little these “geniuses” actually bother to understand things or think through what they’re saying.

First, there’s the ease with which some folks just throw money at Elon. For example there’s famed VC Marc Andreessen saying a fund he managed was “in for $250M with no additional work required.”

(As an aside: the reason this message shows up here in the filings is because Andreessen took a screenshot of the Signal chat — with disappearing messages enabled (the red boxes) — and emailed it to Musk’s righthand man, Jared Birchall. This email was handed over during discovery, but Twitter highlighted it because Musk had told the court that he did not use Signal to discuss the merger, and this screenshot… shows otherwise. Also, this message came out a few days earlier, and not as part of this latest dump, but still fits here…).

And then, of course, there’s Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who had no problem tossing over however many billions Elon seemed to want to support his friend’s whimsy. You can see the actual texts in the filing on page 104, but I’ll borrow another idea from The Chancery Daily, and recreate them in text messaging form, to make them feel a bit more realistic.

If you can’t see the images, here’s the exchange in text:

Elon: Any interest in participating in the Twitter deal?

Larry: Yes… of course 👍

Elon: Cool.

Elon: Roughly what dollar size? Not holding you to anything, but the deal is oversubscribed, so I have to reduce or kick out some participants.

Larry: A billion…or whatever you recommend

Elon: Whatever works for you. I’d recommend maybe $2B or more. This has very high potential and I’d rather have you than anyone else.

Larry: I agree that it has huge potential… and it would be lots of fun.

Elon: Absolutely 🙂

Also of note, in the seconds between Elon’s “Cool” and “How much” texts, he also texts Jared Birchall to tell him that Ellison is in.

I’ve gone through way, way, way more rigorous processes to get a $500 grant. Next time, I should just ask for $500 million, I guess. Of course, when I noted something like that on Twitter I had a shocking number of Silicon Valley execs and VCs note in some form or another that this is more or less how business gets done for the super successful and super wealthy, which is perhaps not surprising, but is kind of infuriating for the tons of people (entrepreneurs, civil society, journalists, think tanks etc.) who could put such money to good use, but can’t even get anything.

But, even more annoying (and much more revealing) is that all these Silicon Valley “geniuses” send Musk their ideas, and the ideas are silly, half-baked, or simplistic ones that lots of people have thought through and explained why they won’t work (and I’ll note that it’s often those same civil society folks who are desperate for donations who have put in the hard work on these issues, only to see these “geniuses” tossing around a bunch of foolish ideas that anyone at these underfunded organizations could explain to you instantly why they’re bad ideas.)

While lots of articles have focused on some of the sillier suggestions, I wanted to call out Mathias Dopfner’s. In the last month, we’ve had two separate stories on Dopfner, the newish billionaire CEO of Axel Springer (which owns a bunch of media orgs, including Politico and Insider), suggesting the guy has oddly simplistic views on how things work. After lying about sending a text in support of what Dopfner falsely believed were positive results of the Trump presidency, he made it clear that he thinks what the world needs is more useless he said/she said journalism. He also called for an outright ban on TikTok.

Dopfner comes across as more desperate than many of the others (and most of them do seem pretty desperate). After the initial investment became public, Dopfner texted Elon:

Why don’t you buy Twitter? We run it for you. And establish a true platform for free speech. Would be a real contribution to democracy.

I’m still trying to puzzle out who is the “we” in this sentence. Also, it’s hilarious to think that the guy who was praising Trump and pushing for nonsense journalism knows anything about being “a real contribution to democracy.” Throughout the process he reaches out to Musk again asking if he can “join that project” and saying he “was serious with my suggestion.”

Anyway, he also had so, so many ideas for Musk. He wrote them all out in a giant text message:

Status Quo: it is the de facto public town square, but is a problem that it does not adhere to free speech principles. => so the core product is pretty good, but (i) it does not serve democracy, and (ii) the current business model is a dead end as reflected by flat share price. # Goal: Make Twitter the global backbone of free speech, an open market place of ideas that truly complies with the spirit of the first amendment and shift the business model to a combination of ad-supported and paid to support quality. #Game Plan: 1.) ,,Solve Free Speech” 1a) Step 1: Make it censorship-FREE by radically reducing Terms of Service (now hundreds of pages) to the following: Twitter users agree to (1) Use our service to send spam or scam users, (2) Promote violence, (3) Post illegal pornography 🙃 1b) Step 2: Make Twitter censorship-RESISTANT • Ensure censorship resistance by implementing measures that warrant that Twitter can’t be censored long term, regardless of which government and management. • How? Keep pushing projects at Twitter that have been working on developing a decentralized social network protocol (e.g., BlueSky). It’s not easy, but the backend must run on decentralized infrastructure, APIs should become open (back to the roots! Twitter started and became big with open APIs). • Twitter would be one of many clients to post and consume content. • Then create a marketplace of algorithms, e.g., if you’re a snowflake and don’t want content that offends you pick another algorithm. 2.) ,,Solve Share Price” Current state of the business: • Twitter’s ad revenues grow steadily and for the time being, are sufficient to fund operations. • MAUs are flat, no structural growth • Share price is flat, no confidence in existing business model and/or

That’s all one giant lump o’ text. And it looks like it even goes on longer, but got cut off because even the texting app was like “dude, chill.” And, there are some interesting ideas in there. Obviously, I’m a big fan of Bluesky (which was, in part, based on my paper), and we’ve had a couple of posts on why Musk should support Bluesky. But… Bluesky is not a part of Twitter, even if it’s initial funding came from Twitter.

But what’s really silly is the whole terms of service stuff. Leaving aside the fact that Dopfner seems to have left out a “not” (it should be “agree not to” rather than “agree to”), his simplified terms of service is laughable to anyone who has ever worked in trust and safety, and has any experience with crafting a set of terms for a website. That list is… not workable.

And that’s the part that’s frustrating about this. There are hundreds of trust and safety experts who could walk someone like Dopfner through the different trade offs and challenges here. Hell, the same day that these texts came out, there was a whole conference of trust and safety professionals talking about creating better site policies. But, here we have a billionaire tossing off a simplistic (and confused) idea to another billionaire in a stream of consciousness text that shows he hasn’t put in any of the work.

And, yes, of course, he’s a billionaire, so he figures he can give big picture concepts and let the little people figure out the details. But this is an area where the details really, really matter, and it’s clear that Dopfner hasn’t done the homework (neither has Musk).

There are also messages between Jack Dorsey and Musk, and while some people have been making fun of them, they actually seem to be some of the more reasonable and level headed texts in the batch. It’s pretty clear that Dorsey is trying to explain to Musk why Bluesky is important and should be the future of Twitter (something I very much agree with, though that’s still a long way off). Jack talks about open-source protocols. But… this is right around the same time that Musk is pushing for “open source the algorithm,” which is… not the same thing.

To be honest, during that period of time, I kept waiting to see if Musk would say anything about Bluesky or the protocol concept, and he never seemed to mention it at all, even with Jack pushing the idea, and Dopfner (in his own confused way) pushing it as well.

The other funny thing in these text messages is how random people pop up suggesting new executives who can be put in place at Twitter. There’s a person who’s name is redacted who pushed for “a Blake Masters type” to lead Twitter enforcement (Blake Masters is the Peter Thiel protégé who is running for the Senate in Arizona and seems to have all the charisma of a stone toad). Then there’s the (partially disgraced) venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson suggesting (the even more disgraced) Emil Michael as a potential senior exec for the company.

Warzel spoke to another social media exec who calls out how silly all this is:

“I’m on 20 threads with people,” the former social-media executive told me. “And it’s literally like, Damn, they were just throwing shit at the wall. The ideas people were writing in, in terms of who would be CEO—it’s some real fantasy-baseball bullshit.” Despite all the self-mythologizing and talk of building, the men in these text messages appear mercurial, disorganized, and incapable of solving the kind of societal problems they think they can

And that’s the bit that stands out to me the most about all of this. It becomes clear that almost all of these messages involve dudes who got extremely lucky in the past, and now think that they can solve the world’s problems, and they toss money and ideas around at each other as if they’re doing something important.

It was truly a contrast that, at the same time those messages came out, I was at this conference of trust and safety professionals, many of them not making nearly enough money for the work that they do, but who were actually working through the hard problems of how to make a social media site actually function for democracy, recognizing the many hard challenges and impossible trade-offs, and recognizing that there are no easy answers. There’s no multi-point plan that “fixes” social media, and any plan to make better social media requires more than a text message.

They’re not having billionaires throw their billions around to help them actually make the very real improvements that can be made. They’re struggling every day to make these websites actually work. And the lucky dudes are mostly tossing around extremely simplistic ideas that half the people at the conference last week could lay out the many issues they’d need to actually think through to understand those challenges.

It just made me realize how many more people in Silicon Valley really should have imposter syndrome, but clearly do not.

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Comments on “Elon Musk’s Texts Suggest Way More People In The Silicon Valley Elite Should Have Imposter Syndrome”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

They have an idea, or stumble across one about to go big and suddenly everyone is hailing them as a genius.

They immediately gain a core of people convinced they are the 2nd coming of christ.

They live in fear that their next “idea” won’t be as awesome.

We look at lottery winners as lucky assholes, and don’t expect them to get another winning ticket… techbros hit the lottery & then start chasing the next winning ticket and they get hailed as geniuses.

They are imposters, they curate these reputations that they can’t live up to, and are always chasing the next thing often writing checks they can’t pay.

The fame these people have doesn’t make much sense…
I founded a payment company!!
Kim Kardashian leaked a sex tape.
They are both rich and famous… why?

Synonymous Scaredycat (profile) says:

Re:

Consider Edison’s fame and the same way he’s portrayed as a genius innovator the same way Elon Musk often mistakenly claimed to be. They both rely on the same recipe for success: taking others’ ideas, whether through theft, purchase, or hire. People who are full of innovation and don’t stop innovating are always too busy to become rich off a constant flow of ideas, often dying penniless. That’s not the life these gentlemen want for themselves, which is why when one of them claims these people actually work for their wealth, you have to question their definition of ‘work’.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re:

Its that thing where they don’t see themselves as poor, but temporarily inconvenienced millionaires.
Its the same reason people in the deep south keep supporting those willing to raise taxes on the poor (themselves) but not on the rich (because they know they will be rich any second now).

See also the state not willing to cut back on water useage because they are sure that CA will just steal all the water they might have saved so no reason to save at all.
I look forward to crying people in the desert upset that their lawn is dead and they only can get a couple gallons daily.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

That wealth also seems to correspond negatively with interest in democracy while positively speaking of it.

Democracy isn’t found in letting Nazis spew hate on Twitter. If they wanted to help democracy, they’d only lobby and fund candidates to (ironically) get money out of politics, stop gerrymandering, champion automatic voter registration, and offer mail-in and ranked choice voting.

But then they wouldn’t get to influence “democracy.”

This comment has been deemed funny by the community.
Anonymous Hero says:

My favorite excerpt: “I have an idea for a blockchain social media system that does both payments and short text messages/links like twitter … The second piece of the puzzle is a massive real-time database that keeps a copy of all blockchain messages in memory”

Can you believe it? A massive database! Of the block chain! In memory!

Synonymous Scaredycat (profile) says:

Re:

How to make Elon Musk’s ‘impossible’ blockchain ‘Twitter’ (semi-satire):

1) start a prepaid cellphone company

2) charge by the text and per unit of data

3) customers load their phones’ text/data by buying private sidechain tokens (remember that the ceelphone company will be able to access the ledger containing all texts/data, though)

4) buying sidechain tokens and spending them results in an ‘award’ of main chain tokens that can be ‘spent’ to ‘tweet’

5) success! you’ve now created a dystopian libertarian free speech island, watch as the inhabitants attempt to trade tokens and manipulate the market simply for profit or hold onto vast amounts of tokens in the vain hope they can resell them for more at some nebulous time in the future when number goes up, however no one will actually be ‘tweeting’ much. If anything the melting turd that’s Truth Social is more likely to thrive, and as your final step you’ll need to rugpull the financial aspect of the projecct and abandon the hardware/software side to scavengers and a handful of desperate people who actually used your service. Yay.

6) Bonus points if it pointlessly references memes in the company, tokens, and products.

7) Triple bonus points for every name that references an unknowable in-joke as well as a meme, this is called security through obscurity and is a highly effective form of decentralization.

8) Bonus points will be airdropped to you in the form of Twokens. Just wait for it. We promise this ‘idea’ isn’t a rugpull.

PS – The presale period for Twokens ends October 7th and each comes with special NFT, buy now before the price moons you in the face on the 8th! You better buy now and buy a lot of it, we’re getting oversubscribed!

/endjoke

Synonymous Scaredycat (profile) says:

Re: Re:

To make a comparison, it’s a bit like saying, “I have an idea, it’s called soap. And the second half of the puzzle of making soap work is… soap. Also, you store it the thing you normally store soap in, but that’s a totally new idea because I just invent soap.”

Then later on (this is the other part) realizing soap has existed for thousands of years and saying, “Oh wait, nevermind.” Especially as the proposed details of this reinvented soap made of soap and stored in whatever you normally store soap in, is actually a worse version of soap and doesn’t really wash everything off even after 20 uses in a row.

To me it’s not even a WTF so much as something cryptobros have mused about for years and even built without realizing some other cryptobro already made because no one who thinks it through really wants it. Genius AI guy apparently thinks a database made of database and stored in the normal place one stores databases is new until he realized it’s not; since that’s how literally every blockchain functions: a database stored in the way databases are stored. I don’t think any of that blockchain social media stuff has really taken off, hence my particular joke about this ‘genius’ idea.

He says it’s a puzzle, but there is no puzzle there, it’s not novel, it’s not new, it’s not even difficult in theory. Just pointless. Jackson Palmer said he’s a grifter and his quote shows him somehow ignorant of the existence of hard drives as a type of memory; the Secondary memory normally used for storing large amounts of information. Or maybe he hallucinated the need for everything to be held in RAM. It’s almost like he stopped learning about computers when they stopped storing everything in RAM (and ROMs, which I somehow wonder if he’s ever even heard of), where you loaded everything from floppy discs you’d have to continually swap out.

How that pertains to blockchains is that they’re already stored as copies on hard drives, which again is a type of memory. Aside from the cryptocurrency scams, blockchains are used by companies for internal logistics where only appending information to a database is appropriate. Again, blockchains are databases that add data and read dat, but don’t remove it and organize data in blocks for reasons related to that. It sounds like all he’s thinking of is a centralized blockchain storing relatively trivial information, which is a bad blockchain use case and probably a part of why the previous/current attempts were/are duds.

Since data is only appended and read, any data contained in the blockchain remains in all future versions of it. No deleting tweets whether they’re ‘spam bots’, misspellings, full of TOS violations for hatespeech, no reconsidered thoughts like deleting memes from the day before comparing Justin Trudeau to Hitler. None of which should be a problem for a Free Speech absolutist like him, so I don’t see what the problem is. Maybe someone explained to him that in addition to that, it’d almost certainly be incredibly slow with the intended use and need to update blocks etc.

Why then, reinvent Twitter?

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Ninja (profile) says:

I’m absolutely shocked (not surprised) how they treat billions of dollars as if it was spare change and I’m struggling with debt trying to figure out how to go through next month. Not to mention plenty of homeless people, hunger etc. I particularly am satisfied with a roof over my head, a good PC with good connection and a sedan to travel around, it’s not that much.

I’m not against people being rich but this is obscene.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

I’m not against people being rich but this is obscene.

Obscene wealth does tend to be obscene, yes. No one’s labor is worth a billion dollars, so these motherfuckers got wealthy in one of only two ways: inheritance of generational wealth or exploitation of the working class.

Remember: If the poorest 50% of Americans disappeared in an instant, modern civilization would collapse overnight⁠—but if the people on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans disappeared, some lawyers and accountants would have to do some extra paperwork.

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Darkness Of Course (profile) says:

Re: Alert: That's Musk fanboi

Well, did you read the texts? I did. They are inane, short sighted, and incredibly out of touch with what they “claim” they are wanting to do.

Which, to be very clear, is to turn Twitter into Usenet. So, spam, porn, spam porn, porn spam, insults, racism, misogyny, fascism, doxing, swatting women, and people that disagree with “the plan”.

Of course Adolf and friends will appear withing seconds (if not milliseconds) of their new world order going live. All without any moderation whatsoever. Russian bot farms will flourish, and because “free speech” will be given credibility to attack our democracy because clueless mediocre White men cannot believe anyone else is smarter than they are.

That One Guy (profile) says:

If you're never told you're wrong you must always be right

I’d chalk it up to a snowball effect.

1) Have good idea
2) Get rich from good idea.
3) End up surrounded by yes-men who would never dare say that your next idea is stupid since that might see them shown the door.
4) Since you’re never told you’re wrong about anything, and you were right the first time clearly all of your ideas are great.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

There is also an element of selection bias. We don’t notice every fool who took a big gamble and lost. We do notice the people who were the right sort of crazy.

It isn’t the good ideas which get them rich, it is the unlikely ideas which are risky and go against the grain. It usually fails but can make it REALLY big. It is so big in fact, that it enables a brilliant sort of madness of venture capital where you throw money at Juicero in case it becomes the next Keurig.

Given that we shouldn’t expect to find conventional wisdom when you only get into that position by going where everybody else had the sense to avoid.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re:

Ah but in their private moments they know they are frauds who aren’t that good, but they have to keep the image of being a god alive no matter the cost.

This startup lets neighbors pool their money to invest in their communities http://f-st.co/CUEZrDy

This… This is taxes. You invented taxes.

https://twitter.com/daramwilson/status/981355059828199431?lang=en

Synonymous Scaredycat (profile) says:

The ‘we’ is Trump’s own ‘deep state’ ‘shadow government’ (remember that Republicans habitually project their misdeeds onto their victims/opponents) that is even less competent than his administration was or his other elected party members still are. At least in my take when these ‘fine folks’ say ‘we’ it means their vague conspiracy of grown-up incels that want to loot the government based on the justification it’s useless, then use its resulting uselessness to justify more looting. Did I say ‘looting’? I mean deregulation and privatization, sorry.

Synonymous Scaredycat (profile) says:

Twitter users agree to (1) Use our service to send spam or scam users, (2) Promote violence, (3) Post illegal pornography

That’s a lot to expect of users, can’t they pick one? I just feel like it’s a huge burden to expect every user to scam or spam people while also promoting violence and illegal pornography. I guess posting snuff films would accomplish all three, but sites already exist where horrific and inappropriate content like that is apparently commonplace, which seems like pivoting into well-established existing competition.

Then again, nobody has ever offered to give me a billion dollars or whatever amount I recommend, much less fell into a basic scam marketing ploy of false scarcity (‘deal is oversubscribed’ etc) and praise (‘I’d rather have you than anyone else’) to double that to two billion.

If anything this is further proof of Elon’s incompetence and cowardice, he probably could have asked for five billion. Then again, I’m not the billionaire here; and a great investment means being more beholden to that investor if you want them to invest again in the future and potentially not sue you.

All of these texts remind me more of college business students than people who actually understand math, engineering, computers, or technology in general. Who also happen to be members of Campus Crusade for Trump (I hope that doesn’t actually exist).

Synonymous Scaredycat (profile) says:

Oof, if Antonio Gracias thinks he and Elon are living in The Godfather (or whatever), he might want to ask Grimes about the state of those mattresses before saying such things. Frankly, none of this is shocking so much as confirmation that techbro foolishness is not just a public persona as the bland Atlantic article pointed out, which apparently techbros and everyone in their circle including Warzel didn’t themselves realize. This is why some of these guys have no actual social media presence despite wanting to profit from the purchase of Twitter; the ones of them that do tweet like Elon Musk make constant fools of themselves in public, something they just can’t help doing in private. However that same perspective of wanting to invest in something without any understanding of it is an obvious norm.

Really, I can only hope for true believers of tech solutionism and the bloated promises (and even more bloated prices, reminiscent of the monopolistic telecom industry it learned its lessons from and now has subsumed) of the broad tech industry, this is an actual wakeup call. I doubt that will be the case, since most of this will be excused and criticism of it dismissed as being motivated by ‘hating success’ or something. The best solution they could partake in for all of the problems tech can actually solve, is to pay taxes that will fund people who actually know these things and give all the rest of their income to those civil society (and etc) groups that have actually researched and thought about these things, then retire and shut the hell up already.

After all, the ‘ideas’ Dopfner has are (like the innovations of most techbros including Elon Musk) something someone else already thought of and did in some form, demonstrating a lack of awareness of what the word ‘competitors’ means. The reason they don’t have imposter syndrome is because they actually are imposters and can’t see it because everyone who doesn’t realize these guys is suffering from survivorship bias. To have imposter syndrome would require these guys to actually have some talent, skill, knowledge, wisdom, intelligence, or other such acuity for them to doubt in themselves in the first place. Instead, they are “…the worst…full of passionate intensity.” And lacking in self-doubt and self-awareness as much as anything else that would even allow them to have imposter syndrome.

I guess if they did have imposter syndrome, that might be nice in the sense it would require them to actually know things and take care in what they do. I’d prefer they just go home via cannon or catapult or something, and leave things to people who actually spend time in reality. If any plan to make social media better requires more than a text message, Mike just explained why Twitter is no better than any other cesspool.

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