If Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter is little more than “a game played by billionaires”, as disgruntled employees have claimed, then it is one he seems closer to losing with every passing day.
And the maverick inventor has only been at the social media platform for five minutes.
With Musk, it is always hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t – where the line between genius and insanity starts and ends.
It’s possible, of course, that the joke is on us mere mortals and self-destruction was the intention all along.
What a cruel yet brilliant twist that would be – the super-hero who was always a secret super-villain, just as his fiercest critics have long suspected.
But really, the impression with Musk is that beneath all the bravado and the antics lurks a fragile human being who is desperate to prove everyone wrong. In which case things could barely be going more badly.
Again, it may be an elaborate ruse designed to make him look even more brilliant if he succeeds in turning things around. But as things stand, Musk appears to have asked off way more than he can chew.
“Bankruptcy isn’t out of the question”, he reportedly told employees on Thursday as an exodus of senior executives gathered momentum, and a new policy of allowing anyone to acquire a hallowed blue tick for the price of a cup of coffee dramatically backfired – the move opened the door to a wave of imposter accounts.
Musk pledged in April to defeat the bot scourge or “die trying!”, so seemingly making it worse is quite the achievement.
Years from now, MBA students may look back on this as the moment when the cult of the big tech founder, which has elevated some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names to the status of god-like emperor, was revealed to be little more than a mirage .
It isn’t just Musk. Once seemingly intouchable, the titans of technology are suddenly floundering.
On Friday it was Amazon’s turn to add to the wave of mass lay-offs cascading through the industry. A former employee claimed that the entire robotics team, a division employing thousands of people and in which he had apparently worked, had been axed in one go.
Similarly large numbers have been shown the door at payments giant Stripe, Facebook owner Meta and overpriced fitness bike manufacturer Peloton, while major cost-cutting programs are expected at Google, Microsoft and chip-maker Intel.
One website that tracks job numbers in the tech industry calculates that there have been 100,000 job losses since the turn of the year.
The most simplistic way of looking at things is that Silicon Valley’s brightest minds wildly over-egged the extent of the pandemic boom and now their staff are paying for it dearly.
But this is not just a case of unwinding the over-exuberance of the good times. It is proof of several things, including that the normal rules of physics apply to the tech tycoons after all.
The likes of Musk and Bezos may have conquered space, and Mark Zuckerberg wants to create an entirely new universe altogether, but gravity has finally caught up with them in the same way that it has with so many other businesses as runaway inflation brings growth to a halt and an era of dirt cheap money along with it.
Big tech is an industry that was built on the false belief that for a generation of visionary entrepreneurs to truly thrive and change the world for the better, those around them had to accept being told what to do – and that meant shareholders had to largely stay out of the way.
In the most egregious cases, founders such as Meta’s Zuckerberg demanded special classes of shares that meant it was almost impossible for them to be overruled, like some sort of modern-day pharaohs, while simultaneously assuming corporate losses would be bankrolled forever.
It is this mindset that allowed Uber to join the stock market in 2019 despite admitting in its float prospectus that it might never make a profit.
Similarly, if the tech industry had been held to the same standards as most other public companies, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey probably wouldn’t have been able to reinvent himself as a wellness guru who disappeared on meditation retreats at the same time as he was supposed to to be running a multi-billion dollar company.
Yet, none of the tech giants were built by one visionary alone. Success was many-headed. Yes, at the heart of all the big technology companies are groundbreaking ideas and a figurehead with the personality to push them through.
But they have also been heavily reliant on benign economic conditions, the goodwill of investors, and plenty of hype to thrive.