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How Tesla lost its vibes Elon Musk's empire reflects a farcical hype economy

Is Elon Musk losing his grip on what's hot? (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty)

Is Elon Musk losing his grip on what's hot? (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty)


April 17, 2024   5 mins

Elon Musk’s electronic music phase may have been a bit of a joke, but it captures the spirit of capital. His 2020 single, “Don’t Doubt ur Vibe (because it’s true)”, is a mantra for self-reliance in the hungry market, for trusting a feeling — perhaps no more than the shiver of an instinct — that could be the difference between winning it all and being left holding the bag. “Vibe”, a term born in the Sixties drop-out era, is now part of the remix of counter and business culture perfectly embodied by Silicon Valley — and, on a smaller scale, Musk and Tesla.

Musk built his empire on vibes, and used Twitter to circulate hype and tempt investors with risk. In May 2021, his tweets about holding Dogecoin turned what was essentially an internet joke into a legitimate stock. After buying Twitter, he briefly switched the Twitter bird to the Doge logo in April 2023, adding as much as $4 billion to its market value. He had a knack for harnessing vibes for profit.

Now, however, clean-living Tesla drivers are beginning to doubt his vibe. According to a report in Reuters, Tesla’s consideration score — a measure of a consumer’s confidence in the brand and how likely they are to purchase a car from the company in the future — has fallen by more than 50% since November 2021. In addition, Tesla’s Q1 sales this year were 14% below forecasts and the slump was attributed to Musk’s personality.

The problem is not carbon emissions, in other words, nor Houthi attacks in the Red Sea nor a fire in Tesla’s German factory. It is Musk’s bad vibes. Tesla’s downfall began around the same time that Musk acquired Twitter and rebranded it as X. Since then, many argue that X has become a site for misinformation and trolling rather than informed debate. Musk himself is the archetype, airing extreme Right-wing views on issues such as immigration, trans rights, Disney’s inclusion (DEI) policies, the Ukraine war and all-round “wokeness”. Only last week, Brazil’s attorney-general called to regulate social media after a clash with Musk over free speech. The billionaire is known for his ability to move markets with a single tweet, but this is probably not what anyone in Tesla had in mind. So why did his vibes sour so quickly?

In his 1936 book The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes wrote of the “animal spirits” that mould the market: his term for the lurking vibes and contagions that shape consumer confidence. Markets are not just rational systems, Keynes wrote. They are shaped by irrational forces; the animal nature lurking in the brain of homo economicus. Before the idea was applied to markets, animal spirits were already spoken of as a sub-human consciousness — something unknowable, unquantifiable. Something like violence or risk or chaos. Something like a vibe, maybe.

The whole point of a vibe is that it isn’t rational; it’s hard to quantify. As philosopher Robin James explains, a vibe is an ambience, but also an intuition that lacks empirical explanations. Peter Thiel once described Musk as speaking with a “super-heroic, almost Homeric kind of vibe” that was out of sync with Silicon Valley.

Nowhere oozes vibes more than social media, which privileges images, audio and video over text. The internet is no longer a place for those looking for truth or narrative, so much as somewhere we go for “moments of audio-visual eloquence” — for a vague undefined feeling of rightness, or even profound wrongness. There’s a definite vibe to an image of Donald Trump’s latest electoral campaign or a trad-wife making sandwiches draped in Cottagecore — even if it is a #cursed vibe for cursed times. Right now, our visual culture, and as a result our politics and markets, are all dictated by vibes.

“We live in a moment where our visual culture, and as a result our politics and markets, are all dictated by vibes.”

Take GameStop as an example. In 2021, coordinated decisions by a group of retail investors to buy call options for an apparently worthless game company cost hedge funds who were shorting the stock a lot of money. The value of GameStop emerged, not from any strong correlation between share price and the underlying asset, but from the vibe. The SEC report on GameStop in October 2021 concluded that “it was positive sentiment, not the buying-to-cover, that sustained the weeks-long price appreciation of GameStop stock”. The space between illegitimate gambling and legitimate investment narrowed. So did the space between taking an economic stake and posting an unasked-for opinion on the internet. Finance apps emerged as a new kind of social media.

Or consider the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in 2023. One explanation for the failure of SVB is the Federal Reserve raising interest rates. As tech stocks were devalued by rising interest rates and venture capital funding began to dry up, many investors withdrew money from SVB to meet their liquidity needs. But another explanation for the collapse was a bank run caused by bad vibes. A user goes to the bathroom, checks their phone, sees or more accurately feels something they don’t like and decides to move their money all in the time it takes unzip their trousers. A student with a loan and a Robinhood account watches a video or sees a meme telling him he likes the stock. Don’t Doubt ur Vibe. The fall of SVB was the result of a vast throughput of rumours and transfer requests that traditional risk assessments were not equipped to measure and financial institutions were not built to withstand. Vibes shifted the index.

And if, in this world, Musk is the ultimate market maker, then Donald Trump is the populist president of vibes. News of a dip in Musk’s reputational capital coincides with the public launch of his Truth Social on the stock exchange. Like Musk, Trump is all vibes and no substance. And this is what makes him so successful as a politician: he can be whatever you want him to be. For a nostalgic Boomer generation, he promises a pathway back to the American dream. For downwardly mobile Americans who never believed in that dream in the first place, Trump’s idiocy confirms their nihilism. So what else than for the meme president to shill his own meme stock? Despite a loss of $60 million in 2023, and reports from the company that revealed “greater profitability challenges” (or “jargon for ‘we don’t make sh*t’”, as one Reddit user put it), Truth Social is still incredibly overvalued. It is also incredibly erratic because its value is entirely divorced from underlying fundamentals. Vibes not verifiable reality.

Yet perhaps this moment is coming to an end. Tesla’s downfall may be a sign not just that Musk is losing his grip on what’s hot, but that the economy is unhitching itself from the universe of vapourware vibes. Companies such as SVB and Tesla are creatures of the Zero Interest-Rate Policies (ZIRP) that shaped the high-tech venture capital economy from 2008–2023. The policy was an economic move designed to stimulate investment in the years following the financial crash — and it encouraged risky investment based on vibes. But today, the tide has turned. The real economy is back, and it may not be kind to the titans of tech.

Will Musk and Tesla survive the new regime? Many of the business practices that we associate with Big Tech today are, arguably, features of the ZIRP era: companies that operate without making a profit, or that may make a profit in some inscrutable way from consumer data at some point in the future; the practice of poaching engineering talent from one tech enclave to another for eye-watering salaries, and that of “blitzscaling” (expanding production so quickly that competitors go bust competing). Combined, this allowed the Bankman Frieds and Musks of the world to rise to improbable levels of wealth, without actually producing any real wealth at all. Musk’s hyperbole vibed with a high-risk, low-interest-rate economy. But how long can one of the richest men in the world be the CEO of a car company that makes a net loss every year? Maybe this #cursed vibe has finally run its course.


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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

Since then, many argue that X has become a site for misinformation and trolling rather than informed debate
What do you mean, “since then”?

Paul T
Paul T
1 month ago

There is a scene in Men In Black that always grabs my attention. They are looking for information on the location of certain aliens, so they go to “The Hot Sheets” which includes The Eye, The National Enquirer etc. and there hidden in the many ridiculous stories are truths staring people in the face but being dismissed. Right now you are presenting the men in grey that want to stamp out these voices because of any dangerous wrong-thinkers which go about liking stuff you apparently easily dismiss.

edmond van ammers
edmond van ammers
1 month ago

Great comment. Remember that hapless BBC journalist who Musk skewered when the journalist couldn’t be more specific than “people are saying”

Kim Fleshman
Kim Fleshman
1 month ago

Exactly. I’m no Musk fan, but a journalist should know better than that. One of the fundamental questions that should be asked is, who are the people saying that, and where did they get it from?

Caractacus Potts
Caractacus Potts
1 month ago

I do and it was glorious. Much like this awful article the chump BBC interviewer could not offer one single piece of evidence. He just spouted ‘progressive’ platitudes learned by rote and ended up looking like the clueless idiot that he was.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
20 days ago

Like Cathy Newman did in her interview with Jordan Peterson on C4 news.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
1 month ago

Exactly! The Twitter Files analysis revealed that, prior to Musk’s acquisition, all of Twitter’s content moderators self-identified as Democrats or Progressives and suppressed conservative posts as a matter of policy. “Informed debate” on Twitter is a ludicrous notion.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago

In May 2021, his tweets about holding Dogecoin turned what was essentially an internet joke into a legitimate stock.
All cryptos are internet jokes.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

No idea who Rachel O Dwyee is but this is the kind of nonsense I come to unherd to avoid. Lazily lumping trump and Musk together, repeating msm tropes about mis/disinformation. No understanding of the importance of free speech or analysys of the scale of teslas over valuation.

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

This, yes. Tesla is hardly experiencing a “downfall,” nor is Twitter now 4Chan.
“Extreme right wing views on transgenderism” are, to the columnist, probably something along the lines of “women are humans who carry XX chromosomes, and are generally capable of gestating offspring.”

T Bone
T Bone
1 month ago

The neurodivergent, electric car guy is now the “archetype” of “Right-wing extremism.” Not putting off enough vibes into the Progressosphere brah!

“Musk himself is the archetype, airing extreme Right-wing views on issues such as immigration, trans rights, Disney’s inclusion (DEI) policies, the Ukraine war and all-round “wokeness”. Only last week, Brazil’s attorney-general called to regulate social media after a clash with Musk over free speech.”

Lancastrian Oik
Lancastrian Oik
1 month ago

The slump in Tesla’s sales has probably got nothing to do with the post-millennial Marxist bullshit in this article, and certainly not because Musk is suddenly perceived to be “far right” by would-be purchasers
It’s because the BEV bubble has been pricked as the realities of ownership have been made plain and subsidies have ended.

Gordon Chamberlain
Gordon Chamberlain
1 month ago

Well said. The EV market is struggling everywhere. The whole article is nothing but tripe.

0 0
0 0
1 month ago

Is Douglas Murray still the owner?

Penny Rose
Penny Rose
1 month ago

Thank you, I came here to say that. The article is a pile of piffle.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago

Oi! Trying to steal my vibe?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago

All she had to was an internet search to answer this question.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
1 month ago

“Musk is airing extreme right wing views like on immigration, trans rights and Disney’s DEI”…
She lost me there, but I forced myself to read to the end. Guess, the author has no clue, that Musk is a Libertarian (he was politically left of the middle) and bought Twitter, because he is extremely keen on freedom of speech. The last owner and most Twitter employees were happily following the government’s diktat and shadow banned many scientists and doctors, who happen to have different views on how to battle the Covid virus and also happily suppressed any articles about Hunter Biden’s Laptop right before the 2020 Election.

Also the SVB mostly bankrupted itself, not because of attaching itself to “the universe of vapourware vibes” and relying on ZIRP, but by giving out huge loans according to the Gospel of DEI as long as the employees of these new ventures had the right pronouns pinned to their jackets…

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 month ago

I had to stop after that ludicrous statement. I’m getting tired of being called a right-wing extremist simply because I believe in lawful immigration, freedom of speech and because I can define what a woman is. We will not lose faith, however!

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
1 month ago

Anyone who sees the ” before” and ” after” of X clearly sees the difference. This writer is indubitably prejudiced against Musk, who overall and so far has allowed X to be a far freer space than Dorsey.
” Maybe this cursed vibe has run its course” sounds uber- ominous. Are the Powers That Are , whom this writer seems to have access to, planning some ” Dark Arts” already?!

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago

“Musk himself is the archetype, airing extreme Right-wing views on issues such as immigration, trans rights, Disney’s inclusion (DEI) policies, the Ukraine war and all-round “wokeness”.”

Extreme you say? That’s quite a claim rooted in personal opinion without so much as an example. But then that is the problem with the article and Rachel’s new book. They’re not very well researched. Snippets of information curated to support a predetermined conclusion isn’t research, it is how novelists write a story. And that’s fine if you’re just writing a nice novel, but less so when you promote a book as a piece of research.

In this article we read Rachel desperately trying to show she’s had some new, fresh insight. Yet all Rachel has revealed is she’s learned about speculation and manipulation. Interestingly, market manipulation has powerful analogies with how the literary review circle lends vibe to its preferred authors. Bear that in mind next time you read a positive book review…

T Bone
T Bone
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

It doesn’t read like a very novel theory. It just sounds like she’s just putting her own new age spin on the Alchemy of Finance.

Ian Stone
Ian Stone
1 month ago

Musk himself is the archetype, airing extreme Right-wing views on issues such as immigration, trans rights, Disney’s inclusion (DEI) policies, the Ukraine war and all-round “wokeness”

Obviously she’s not read the main piece by Freddie Sayers today on … disinformation and censorship! Whoops!

Ben Notsay
Ben Notsay
1 month ago

Well, I don’t want to cast too much doubt over the future of Tesla she portends, although I wish it well.

However, for the rest, I wonder how anyone as cynical could be anything but a journalist in today’s mediascape. Certainly, not an investor or builder of things and their damn optimism.

I still wonder if I really see the true Elon.. but short of knowing, I take Joe Rogan, Schellenberger and many other wonderful people for their word in confirmation of the feeling I get that he is a good freak – not perfect by any means.

Rachel, compare your accomplishments to his.. you are working within the system as you see fit to achieve your ends – and already, you may have peaked.

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

A dreadful waste of time reading this bilge.

Peter James
Peter James
1 month ago

“a car company that makes a net loss every year”
Nonsense, Tesla has been making good profits for several years.

Andrew H
Andrew H
1 month ago

“Airing extreme right-wing views on issues such as immigration, trans rights….” What, like saying that no woman can have a p***s? Have I landed on the abomination that is the Grauniad site by mistake? This wokeist rubbish is just not good enough for UnHerd.

kate Dunlop
kate Dunlop
1 month ago

Weary, poorly researched, and badly written- typical output of the pseudo-academics that leech off public money,

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 month ago

Seems I read a (s)hit piece from the Guardian

Mike MacCormack
Mike MacCormack
1 month ago

I was under the impression that Musk bought Twitter because he had to, having made a silly offer for it when bigging himself up as a financial wizard. This is the internet economy, part genius, part Ponzi scheme, all Jam Tomorrow. ‘Buy land’ said Mark Twain, ‘they’re not making it anymore.’ What’ll be the demand for a knackered Tesla battery when the penny drops? Exactly.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
1 month ago

Is there a way to downvote an entire article?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 month ago

I knew what this screed was going to be before I clicked, and, sorry to say, I was right. Whenever a writer uses “some say” or “many argue”, they mean “I think but have no f*cking clue what I’m talking about”.

Mark epperson
Mark epperson
1 month ago

Pretentious prattle.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago

This is where I stopped reading; “Only last week, Brazil’s attorney-general called to regulate social media after a clash with Musk over free speech.”

The clash? Musk refused to ban a group of elected officials from X. But it gets worse. X was expected to enforce the ban and not reveal that it was ordered by a Surpreme Court judge without any kind of hearing.

PS. EV sales are cratering across the board, not just at Tesla. It has nothing to do with vibes.

PPS. I hate the word vibes. I carries all the sincerity of a telephone salesman.

0 0
0 0
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Quality plummeting here.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 month ago

We are all far right extremists now. Sad.
I had no idea.
My own grandmother was a far Right extremist all along.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 month ago

Yes indeed! Off to the gulags with all of us someday.

Francis Twyman
Francis Twyman
1 month ago

He will lose much more than his vibes, he will lose his fortune, Tesla is hugely overvalued at 150, on a P/E basis , and Price to Book value of 8 as compared to legacy car companies, example Toyota is under 2. Cutting 10% of the workforce means they are expecting flat or even declining sales in the foreseeable future. Although profitable since 2020, they are facing margin squeeze and probably declining profits. In addition Tesla will face only increasing competition as legacy auto companies release dozens , maybe hundreds of ev models in the in the next 5 years, probably better cars and lower prices. The stock can easily go to 50$ or even less. He is pushing for a 50 billion $ compensation from Tesla, looks more like he is trying to milk the company before the crash. Musk made a huge mistake and overpaid for Twitter by at least 50% or more and X is struggling. He should stop tweeting nonsense and focus on the survival of Tesla because the future is going to be very difficult. I agee with the author in some respects, he has many similarities to Trump: oversized ego, narcissistic, no compassion, loves money and power. He could be headed for a fall like many such people.

Neil Wareham
Neil Wareham
1 month ago

The idea that X has become a platform for misinformation is somewhat laughable. It has always been a platform for misinformation. One only has to look at ideology driven cancellation of voices who objected to woke orthodoxies which went on forever. In the light of things like the Cass review, there are many sane non extreme people owed an apology.

Unwoke S
Unwoke S
1 month ago

Musk himself is the archetype, airing extreme Right-wing views on issues such as immigration, trans rights, Disney’s inclusion (DEI) policies, the Ukraine war and all-round ‘wokeness’.” I thought UnHerd editors were having us on. Was this essay written on April Fool’s day, I thought? This author needs to get out into the real world and stop getting her news and views from CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and the rest. In the quote I have inserted there’s the giveaway about who and what she is: Disney’s DEI policies, for her, are merely “inclusion” policies.

0 0
0 0
1 month ago
Reply to  Unwoke S

Unherd is not exactly what it was at its inception.

Liam F
Liam F
1 month ago

There’s a definite vibe to this article : basic misunderstanding of facts.
Tesla is down because BYD has nicked their tech and now China can sell an EV for a lot cheaper than Tesla. As for SVB bank -it just interest rates. There are lots of other finance institutions is just as poor shape. There’s the old Warren Buffett saying (vibe?) ” it’s only when the tide goes out that you get to see who’s been swimming naked”.