In early 2016, I moved back to New York after spending most of a year working abroad. I was living on a friend’s couch and needed a job, and she hooked me up with a permalance gig working the night shift for a new digital media startup that covered technology, science, and entertainment. The site largely focused on the kind of stuff that would hit big with the content-hungry crowds of Facebook users interested in pages like “I Fucking Love Science,” Star Wars, and the Marvel and DC comic book universes. Above all, our readers fucking loved, and I mean LOVED, Elon Musk.
The top-performing social headlines we ran, for the most part, were ones that praised something Musk was doing. In 2016 (and, to a large extent, still), a not-insignificant part of Musk’s business relied on coverage like this — his companies enjoyed almost overwhelmingly positive coverage, allowing Musk to repeatedly brag about Tesla’s advertising-free business model. His companies didn’t actually make any money, of course, forcing him to consolidate Tesla and Solar City into one electric vehicles/ clean energy conglomerate, but his pop-culture exposure as a “real-life Tony Stark” was at its absolute zenith. He sent rockets into space and loved Rick and Morty. He played Overwatch in his spare time: the most exciting inventor in the world was a gamer too! His sleek, lightning fast electric cars went “ludicrous speed” and played the nyan cat meme.
Coverage like this was our bread and butter — and for the first few months I worked at the site, it was a breeze to write. I was 25 years old and had spent the past six months living out of a duffel bag mostly in Eastern Ukraine, which left me completely burned out; getting to sit on my couch four nights a week and bang out a few blogs about a cool car going vroom while not getting shot at seemed like a pretty great deal to me.
In July the website offered me a full-time job, paying me $45,000 a year. I accepted in a heartbeat, thrilled to make a steady wage and keep building a new and exciting website with my smart and funny and talented coworkers. Our bosses told us they wanted to really develop the site’s voice, make it unique, help us flex our muscles as writers in the fast-paced blogosphere. At one point one of my bosses told me I should read more Hamilton Nolan and try to write like him. (This is very funny to me now and I have never told Hamilton about it in person despite sitting 6 feet away from him for a year at another doomed digital media company. Anyway.)
It was an interesting time to read Hamilton Nolan. Peter Thiel, a big tech tycoon, was currently grinding Hamilton’s website, Gawker.com, into oblivion by bankrolling a lawsuit brought by professional wrestler Hulk Hogan.
Thiel was an easy villain to pick out, a gateway drug to the realization that maybe all of the big brain boys in Silicon Valley weren’t necessarily looking out for the interests of the millions of young sci-fi nerds and aspiring engineers who idolized them, let alone the underpaid bloggers who fueled their ventures with free advertising. (Thiel, funnily enough, had first gotten rich when his security software company Coinfinity merged with Elon Musk’s online banking company X.com to create PayPal.)
After a few other roles, I eventually settled in to running the site’s transportation coverage. My main beats were futuristic technology like self-driving or flying cars, electric vehicles, and the Hyperloop (itself a Musk fever-dream that spawned a cottage industry of chaotic startups for a solid year, one of which faced a lawsuit involving a man named Brogan BamBrogan, shady Russian investors, and a literal hangman’s noose).
As any reporter covering this beat can tell you, almost all of this stuff was complete and utter horseshit. The problem was, our readers did not want to hear that. They wanted to believe.
And because there were over a million of them following on our Facebook page that we depended on for clicks, the readers got their way. Critical or “snarky” coverage of the tech world was deemed “uncurious” (their word), as our metrics showed that our Musk-loving readers responded better to positive stories about big tech. The same boss who told me to write more like Hamilton Nolan told me about a year later that to do Gawker-style writing you needed Gawker-caliber writers, which we didn’t have, and to therefore just shut up and stay in my lane. The irony again is that Gawker did not develop their writers’ voices by making them stay in their lanes, but what did I know, I was just a pitiful little writer who couldn’t even hit his individual traffic goals.
So I stayed in my lane, as the saying goes now. Over the year and a half that I worked for the company, I wrote hundreds of articles, sometimes as many as five a day, that credulously reported on Musk and his companies. I wrote about Tesla’s promise to deliver cars capable of driving cross-country roadtrips without human input. I wrote about the Boring Company and SpaceX and all the other frivolous, breathless topics I listed above.
My reward for this was getting laid off in August of 2017.
I think it’s a pretty well-acknowledged fact that the election of Donald Trump radicalized a lot of generally liberal people, to either the left or the right. I am unquestionably much more radical now than I was at the beginning of 2016. But for me, that change has just as much to do with Elon Musk as Donald Trump. Stories critical of Trump were allowed and even encouraged on the site; stories critical of Musk were not as welcome, despite the fact that both men are billionaire snake-oil salesmen who rely on a cult of personality propped up by disadvantaged people who want to believe someone rich and smart is looking out for them.
When I started reporting on Elon Musk, I too thought my rich and smart bosses were looking out for me. What working at the company taught me was that they are not. Elon Musk does not care about taking me to Mars. My bosses did not care about making me a better writer, or getting me better health insurance, or paying me more than $50,000 (I got one raise). We were all told, in one way or another, to stick to sports.
My colleagues did care, though. As we suffered together, we learned about the things that Elon Musk and Donald Trump both hate: collective action, labor unions, mutual aid. We wrote letters supporting one another and advocated for each other when we learned that pay was wildly disparate on gender lines. We paid for each others’ drinks when we’d had a hard day. We pushed back when the traffic demands got to be too much. Sometimes these tactics even succeeded. Mostly, though, they didn’t, but doing something was a hell of a lot better than just sitting there and taking it. By the time six of us got laid off in 2017, and certainly after another round of layoffs in 2018, almost every one of my friends from the site was a ride-or-die leftist, pitched into radicalism by a predatory industry that forced us all to prop up the same structures that held our livelihood hostage.
I’m not sure if this ideological shift has made my life much better in a tangible way, personally. I’ve still never managed to get a union card at work. But it has made me far more comfortable with how I interact with the world, far more secure in my relationships with people who feel the same way, far more hopeful that if we keep working together the Musks and Trumps and media bosses of this world will not be the ones in power forever.
One consolation, to me, has been watching Musk reveal himself to the world at large. Though there does seem to be some rhyme and reason to his erratic and often illegal tweets, Musk’s public persona has transitioned from quirky Tony Stark to Howard Hughes pissing in milk jars faster than you can say “Azealia Banks’ Instagram Story.” He’s shot himself in the dick on Twitter repeatedly over the past few years in a frankly embarrassing chain of events involving multiple SEC inquiries and a defamation lawsuit from a cave diver Musk called a pedophile. He is currently, as I type this, melting down about selling all of his possessions and reciting the Star-Spangled Banner on his Twitter page to protest California’s stay-at-home order because it is keeping some of his electric car factories closed so his workers don’t die. He still has a legion of fans that defend him at every possible opportunity, but the breathless puff parade of free advertising has largely ended. There are a few media outlets still doing it for him, but fortunately, I don’t write for any of them anymore.