From alarming questions about Elon Musk’s role in Ukraine’s war effort, to new details about his complicated personal life, there has been no shortage of bombshells from Walter Isaacson’s recently released biography of Elon Musk.
The book covers his childhood in South Africa, as well as his business dealings, from his first startup to Tesla, SpaceX and Neuralink. Perhaps unsurprisingly, more than a quarter of the book is devoted to Twitter.
Isaacson spent two years with Musk and thus had a front-row seat to his takeover of Twitter, beginning with his move to become a major stakeholder last spring. While much of the drama that unfolded at Twitter (now, X) over the last year and half has been well-documented, Isaacson’s account adds telling — and at times bizarre — new details about how it all went down.
Musk almost immediately regretted his decision to buy Twitter
Isaacson describes Musk’s initial bid to buy Twitter as impulsive — the result of one of his frequent “manic” moods. And he writes that Musk regretted the plan almost immediately after the deal was put in motion — both because he thought he was overpaying, and because he was so unimpressed with Twitter’s former leadership. Musk later admits, more than once, that he bought the company because he didn’t have a choice.
“I don’t know why I did it,” he says two weeks after the deal finally closed. “The judge basically said that I have to buy Twitter or else, and now I’m like, okay, shit.”
The main motivation for increasing Twitter Blue subscriptions
We already know that Musk wants to bring banking and payments features to X, but the book makes it clear that those ambitions are very much intertwined with his push for Twitter Blue (now called X Premium) subscriptions. Isaacson writes that Musk was so focused on Twitter Blue because he saw it as a way to “get a user’s credit card information into the system, enabling Twitter someday to become the broader financial-services and payments platform.”
However, the plan was somewhat derailed by Apple, as most of Twitter’s subscribers signed up via its iPhone app, and Apple doesn’t share user data, like credit card and other financial details, with app makers. Incredibly, upon learning of this, Musk instructed Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, to “just call Apple and tell them to give you the data you need.” Roth, realizing that such a request would not go over well with Apple, declined to make the call.
Musk would later meet with Tim Cook amid a separate dispute related to Twitter’s iOS app, but, according to Isaacson, Musk opted not to bring up the user data issue. But it underscores just how important financial data is to his vision to make X an “everything app.”
Musk tried to ban the ADL and other activists in 2022
Musk often portrays himself as a noble defender of free speech, but even a sympathetic biographer is quick to point out all the ways Musk put his interests ahead of free speech after acquiring Twitter.
Months before Musk would boost the #BanTheADL hashtag, he wanted to ban the group and other activists for urging advertisers to boycott the platform, Isaacson writes. Musk apparently went to Yoel Roth, twitter’s former head of trust and safety, and demanded he “stop users from urging advertisers to boycott Twitter.”
Musk then tried to ad lib a new policy to justify what would have been an unprecedented ban. “I’m changing Twitter policy right now … blackmail is prohibited as of right now. Ban it. Ban them,” Musk said. Roth deflected and Musk apparently dropped the issue.
Musk flip-flopped on whether to restore Donald Trump’s account
Despite joking to his sons that he was buying Twitter to help Trump get reelected, Musk is no fan of Trump, according to Isaacson.
“I want to avoid the bullshit disputes about Trump,” Musk had told me a few weeks earlier, emphasizing that his principle had always been to allow free speech only if it was within the bounds of the law. “If he’s engaged in criminal activity — and it seems increasingly that he has — that’s not okay,” Musk said. “It’s not free speech to subvert democracy.”
Musk, of course, would change his mind and decide that a Twitter poll was a better way to decide the issue. Isaacson doesn’t speculate on a reason for the reversal other than saying he was in a “feisty mood” that day.
How the “hardcore Twitter” pledge came about
In the several weeks following his chaotic takeover of Twitter, Musk laid off thousands of Twitter workers. Isaacson sheds new light on how these decisions were made, writing that Musk tapped his two first cousins and their close friend — all of whom worked at Musk’s other companies — to help him identify who should be cut.
Around this time, one of the more infamous stories to come out of Twitter was an online form sent to the remaining staffers, giving them two days to commit to the new “hardcore” version of the company. According to Isaacson, the form was inspired by one of Musk’s cousins, who after digging through Twitter employees’ public Slack messages, “suggested to Musk that he give employees the chance to opt out.” Musk later decided to make the form opt-in, rather than opt-out. “We want people who declare they are hardcore.”
What really happened to Twitter’s servers
Last December, Musk decided to move thousands of Twitter servers from a data center in Sacremento to a facility in Oregon in order to save money. But when Twitter engineers said the move would take at least six months, Musk grew angry, saying he felt like the “head-explosion emoji.”
Then, two days before Christmas, Musk made an impromptu visit to the Sacramento facility and declared moving the servers didn’t “seem super hard.” By the next day, Christmas Eve, Musk had tapped his cousins and others to start the move. The group began rolling the 2,500-pound server racks, which contained “totally critical data” onto a Oregon-bound moving truck. Twitter’s rules required servers with user data to be wiped before such a move, but Musk opted to use Apple AirTags and store-bought padlocks to secure them instead.
Ultimately, all of the servers were relocated within weeks, rather than the several months the company’s engineers originally estimated. But the move also caused months of instability within Twitter’s systems. This resulted in a number of issues, including a disastrous live stream with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who was almost unable to announce his presidential bid.
The hasty move has also attracted the scrutiny of the FTC, which is investigating X over a number of privacy and data related issues. Recently revealed court documents refer directly to the incident as an example of the company failing to follow its own security policies.
Musk’s obsession with a mobile strategy game called Polytopia
The book is filled with details about Musk’s personal relationships. But one of the more bizarre details is his long-running obsession with a mobile strategy game called The Battle of Polytopia that many of his confidantes say is key to understanding him. Musk is apparently so addicted to the game that at one point in the narrative he skips a meeting with Tesla managers so he can keep playing.
Musk is so obsessed that he’s roped much of his inner circle, including Grimes, his brother Kimbal and Shivon Zilis, the Neuralink executive with whom he has twins, into playing as well. All of them eventually deleted the game, with his brother Kimbal saying it was “destroying” his marriage. Musk, on the other hand, deleted the app from his phone but, a couple months later, opted to keep playing.