Silicon Valley’s Elon Musk Problem

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Last week, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg announced their plans to duke it out in a cage fight. But this potential feud is less important than what it tells us about how Musk is influencing the rules of engagement in Silicon Valley.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

A Race to the Bottom

Something strange is happening on Mark Zuckerberg’s Instagram.

For years, he posted periodic, classic dad-and-CEO fare: anniversary shots with his wife. Photos of his kids and dog being cute. Meta product announcements.

In recent months, though, Zuckerberg has been posting more about fighting. Not the kind that involves firing back at critics on behalf of his oft-embattled social-media empire, but actual mixed-martial-arts training. Earlier this month, he posted a video of himself tussling with a jiujitsu champion. On Memorial Day, he posted himself in a camouflage flak vest, flushed after an intense army workout. And last week, Zuckerberg and Elon Musk said they were going to have a cage fight. The men apparently have ongoing personal tensions, and Meta is working on building a Twitter competitor. But announcing in public their intent to fight takes things to another level.

If you rolled your eyes at the cage-fight news: fair enough. The idea of two middle-aged executives, each facing an onslaught of business and public-image problems, literally duking it out is a bit on the nose. But the fight itself—and whether or not it happens—is less important than what it tells us about how Musk is reshaping Silicon Valley. Musk is mainstreaming new standards of behavior, and some of his peers are joining him in misguided acts of masculine aggression and populist appeals.

Leaders such as Musk and Zuckerberg (and, to some extent, even their less-bombastic but quite buff peer Jeff Bezos) have lately been striving to embody and project a specific flavor of masculine—and political—strength. As my colleague Ian Bogost wrote last week, “the nerd-CEO’s mighty body has become an apparatus for securing and extending his power.”

The two executives’ cage-fight announcement is “a reflection of a really tight monoculture of Silicon Valley’s most powerful people, most of whom are men,” Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington who researches the tech industry, told me. In other words, the would-be participants embody the industry’s bro culture.

Zuckerberg’s recent interest in waging physical battles marks a departure for the CEO, who a few years ago seemed more interested in emulating someone like Bill Gates, an executive who parlayed his entrepreneurial success into philanthropy, O’Mara added. Zuckerberg has been very famous since he was quite young. His early years at the helm of his social-media empire—“I’m CEO, Bitch” business cards and all—were lightly, and sometimes ungenerously, fictionalized in The Social Network by the time he was in his mid-20s. He has consciously curated his image in the years since.

For a long time, Zuckerberg led Facebook as a “product guy,” focusing on the tech while letting Sheryl Sandberg lead the ads business and communications. But overlapping crises—disinformation, Cambridge Analytica, antitrust—after the 2016 election seemingly changed his approach: First, he struck a contrite tone and embarked on a listening tour in 2017.The response was not resoundingly positive. By the following summer, he had hardened his image at the company, announcing that he was gearing up to be a “wartime” leader. He has struck various stances in public over the years, but coming to blows with business rivals has not been among them—yet.

Musk, meanwhile, has a history of such stunts. At the onset of the war in Ukraine, he tweeted that he would like to battle Vladimir Putin in single combat, and he apparently has ongoing back pain linked to a past fight with a sumo wrestler. That Zuckerberg is playing along shows that the rules of engagement have changed.

Musk has incited a race to the bottom for Silicon Valley leaders. As he becomes more powerful, some  other executives are quietly—and not so quietly—following his lead, cracking down on dissent, slashing jobs, and attempting to wrestle back power from employees. Even as Musk has destabilized Twitter and sparked near-constant controversy in his leadership of the platform, some peers have applauded him. He widened the scope of what CEOs could do, giving observers tacit permission to push boundaries. “He’s someone who’s willing to do things in public that are transgressing the rules of the game,” O’Mara said.

During the first few months of Musk’s Twitter reign, few executives were willing to praise him on the record—though Reed Hastings, then a co-CEO of Netflix, did call Musk “the bravest, most creative person on the planet” in November. A few months later, Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, told Insider that executives around Silicon Valley have been asking, “Do they need to unleash their own Elon within them?” The Washington Post reported this past Saturday that Zuckerberg was undergoing an “Elonization” as he attempts to appeal to Musk’s base, the proposed cage fight being the latest event in his rebrand. (Facebook declined to comment. A request for comment to Twitter’s press email was returned with a poop emoji auto-responder.)

Whether or when the cage match will actually happen is unclear. Musk’s mother, for her part, has lobbied against it. But whether Zuckerberg unleashes his “inner Elon” in a cage or not, both men are seeking to grab attention distinct from their business woes—and succeeding.

The tech industry has long offered wide latitude to bosses, especially male founders. Musk didn’t invent the idea of acting out in public. But he has continued to move the goalposts for all of his peers.

In a video posted on Twitter last week, Dana White, the president of Ultimate Fighting Championship, told TMZ that he had spoken with both men and that they were “absolutely dead serious” about fighting. He added something that I believe gets to the heart of the matter: “Everybody would want to see it.”

Musk responded with two fire emojis.


Today’s News

  1. In an audio recording obtained by CNN, former President Donald Trump appears to acknowledge keeping classified national-security documents.
  2. Chicago’s air quality momentarily became the worst among major cities in the world after Canadian wildfire smoke blanketed the region.
  3. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which took effect today, expands protections for pregnant workers, requiring employers to accommodate pregnancy-related medical conditions.


Explore all of our newsletters here.

Evening Read

Wild Horizons / Universal Images Group / Getty

Who’s the Cutest Little Dolphin? Is It You?

By Ed Yong

Across human cultures and languages, adults talk to babies in a very particular way. They raise their pitch and broaden its range, while also shortening and repeating their utterances; the latter features occur even in sign language. Mothers use this exaggerated and musical style of speech (which is sometimes called “motherese”), but so do fathers, older children, and other caregivers. Infants prefer listening to it, which might help them bond with adults and learn language faster.

But to truly understand what baby talk is for, and how it evolved, we need to know which other animals use it, if any.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Still from No Hard Feelings
Macall Polay / Columbia Pictures

Read. “The Posting,” a new short story by Sara Freeman, explores the implosion of a marriage. Then, read an interview about her writing process.

Watch. No Hard Feelings, Jennifer Lawrence’s R-rated rom-com, is in theaters now. And thank goodness for it.

Play our daily crossword.


Last week, my Daily colleague Tom Nichols visited us in the New York office (very fun!). We started talking about how delightful and even helpful it can be to write while listening to movie soundtracks. Different songs can complement different writing vibes—during college, for example, I found the frenetic instrumentals of the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel valuable while writing papers in the library.

So while writing today’s newsletter, I fired up the soundtrack to The Social Network in my AirPods. I recommend you do the same the next time you need to enter deep-focus mode. It was on theme, yes. But it’s also a great album in its own right; the composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won an Oscar for Best Original Score when the movie came out. Listen to its elegant and moody tracks, then take in the cover of the Radiohead song “Creep,” sung by a girls’ choir, in the movie’s perfect trailer.

— Lora

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.