Elon Musk Is Making Mark Zuckerberg Seem Cool Again | Mint

Elon Musk Is Making Mark Zuckerberg Seem Cool Again

STEPHANIE AARONSON/WSJ; PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES; MATTHEW BUSCH FOR WSJ
STEPHANIE AARONSON/WSJ; PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES; MATTHEW BUSCH FOR WSJ

Summary

  • The Facebook co-founder is seizing the moment with a win after years of tumult

Elon Musk has done the once unimaginable: He has helped revive Mark Zuckerberg’s Silicon Valley mojo.

That was evident this week as tens of millions of people signed up for Zuckerberg’s alternative to Musk’s Twitter.

After more than eight months of turmoil under Musk on Twitter, a certain glee erupted from those who said they were tired of the chaos and sometimes nastiness of his particular digital clubhouse. So much so that they signed up for Threads, overlooking the typical privacy anxieties that come with Meta Platforms sites.

Those concerns had, in part, made Zuckerberg akin to a public enemy for years. Users of his social-media platforms wrestled with the reality that their pictures, posts and likes were fuel in a larger data industrial complex that had made him one of the world’s richest men and raised worries over privacy in the digital age.

On Wednesday, Zuckerberg seized the moment, rolling out Threads amid a Musk-led policy change at Twitter that limited the number of posts users could read each day, an initiative announced unexpectedly last weekend as part of his stated effort to reduce third-party companies scraping user data from the site.

“If you think about it, Elon is the greatest PR person of all time. He has us rooting for Meta!?!" Ashley Mayer, a co-founder of venture capitalist firm Coalition Operators, tweeted on Friday.

The stakes in the fight between Musk and Zuckerberg may have more to do with influence than dollars. Twitter’s user base is a fraction of Zuckerberg’s platforms’, and its annual revenue at its peak was less than 5% of Meta’s sales. But the bird app has long punched above its weight in terms of sway as a home for journalists, politicians and celebrities shaping popular culture and world events.

In launching Threads, Zuckerberg, Meta’s 39-year-old chief executive, was hanging a welcome sign for those looking for less-angry conversations and framed his new offering as “an open and friendly public space." The evening introduction, using Meta’s Instagram accounts to make it easy for people to simply import their usernames, and who they follow, into the Threads app, wasn’t without snafus and criticisms.

There were reports of apps crashing and posts not loading. But overall it appeared from the outside to be a successful launch as, hour after hour, Zuckerberg updated figures on the surge of people signing up.

Initial posts had a first-day-of-school vibe as users made awkward jokes about being in a new spot that felt a lot like Twitter. Others issued defiant posts against Musk, who has said he acquired Twitter in late October to defend its place as a public square for free speech.

“Twitter is definitely not anyone’s PUBLIC square. Not anymore," Chris Messina, who is credited with inventing the hashtag concept that has become ubiquitous throughout social media, wrote Thursday morning on Threads. “It’s Elon Musk’s private playground where he’s about to charge everyone, not just the landed gentry, for entry and access."

For years, it had been Musk, 52, who was winning over praise for his antihero antics, risking his personal fortune to bring the world electric cars and make space travel possible—all as he took on entrenched industries with his cunning swagger. His ambitions made him the world’s richest man.

He dated Hollywood starlets and joked about drugs and sex on Twitter, where he has amassed more than 145 million followers, and spoke with an authenticity that won him many fans.

All while Zuckerberg was cast in recent years as Silicon Valley’s poster child for the Great Tech Backlash. It was a painful fall for the wunderkind who helped usher in the social-media age almost 20 years ago as a baby-faced, Harvard University student who co-founded The Facebook in his dorm room.

His arrival in Silicon Valley brought a new way of doing things and a new kind of bravado. His business card once read, “I’m CEO…bitch," and his trademark T-shirts and hoodies became standard uniforms for a generation of wannabe hackers.

Then he seemed to have something of a quarter-life crisis in his 30s.

First Snapchat then TikTok were appealing to a younger generation. Zuckerberg was portrayed in memes as socially robotic, hauled before Congress to testify about alleged antitrust tactics and weathered unflattering media attention, including The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files investigation that found his platforms were riddled with flaws that caused harm, including being toxic for some teenage girls.

He was reviled for various scandals, from Cambridge Analytica to the company’s slow response to 2016 election meddling, and ridiculed for his unusual personal pursuits—like riding a hydrofoil while holding an American flag—that made him seem out of touch.

And his company faced criticism over his investments in virtual reality for the so-called Metaverse and saw advertising sales pull back amid new privacy changes introduced by Apple’s iPhones.

“It’s almost like every day you wake up and you’re, like, punched in the stomach," Zuckerberg said last summer in a podcast interview.

Since then, things have been looking better for the CEO and his company, even if not always easy. He has cut thousands of jobs as part of his so-called “year of efficiency" while also seeing improvements in the ad business, reporting in April its first revenue increase in almost a year. Investors have rewarded Meta: Shares have more than tripled from last year’s low.

With Threads this week, Zuckerberg appeared to have some of his swagger back as the public face of the platform’s rollout. “Let’s do this," he posted in his debut Wednesday.

In the hours and days that followed, he kept engaging with users—big and small—as they flooded in, making corny dad jokes (“If there’s a nerd zone, I’m in") and personally welcoming some, such as the 1990s pop band the Backstreet Boys.

His upbeat, inoffensive posts were in many ways counterprogramming to Musk’s tweets, especially as the rival billionaire stewed on Twitter, accusing Meta of copying his platform.

“Best public image stretch for Zuck in a long time," Eric Newcomer, author of a popular newsletter about startups on Substack, wrote on Threads. “A kind of enemy of my enemy is my friend situation. Also Elon set such a low bar by making Twitter mean that Meta saying ‘how about nice’ makes them look like saints."

The morning after launching, Zuckerberg announced 30 million sign-ups.

When a user told him he needed to “be actively shitposting on here" to overtake Twitter, Zuckerberg demurred. “Not my style personally," he posted, “but I’m sure there will be plenty of entertaining content here…"

On Friday, Zuckerberg began with another update: 70 million sign-ups for Threads.

But he has seemingly acknowledged that millions of users wouldn’t be enough for ultimate success.

“It’ll take some time, but I think there should be a public conversation app with 1 billion+ people on it," Zuckerberg wrote this week. “Twitter has had the opportunity to do this but hasn’t nailed it. Hopefully we will."

 

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