Elon Musk’s Text Messages Explain Everything
A disastrous year for the tech industry, captured for eternity in a billionaire’s private exchanges
As the year comes to a close, I cannot stop thinking about … a court document. Plaintiffs in Twitter, Inc. v. Elon R. Musk et al. filed Exhibit H just before sunrise on September 29 in Delaware’s Court of Chancery. If you’ve seen excerpts, you probably know it by its street name: Elon Musk’s texts.
Exhibit H is remarkable insomuch as it is a spreadsheet containing the private messages between the (then) richest man in the world and his friends, associates, and hangers-on while they discuss buying one of the world’s most influential communications platforms—just for kicks. Leafing through Exhibit H, you will feel like you should never have seen these communications, and yet there they are, on display for the hordes of the internet, courtesy of the legal system.
I wrote about the texts back in September, arguing that they demonstrated “just how unimpressive, unimaginative, and sycophantic the powerful men in Musk’s contacts appear to be.” I still believe that. But now, armed with three months of hindsight, I’ve begun to think of Exhibit H as a skeleton key for the final, halcyon days of the tech boom—unlocking an understanding of the cultural brain worms and low-interest-rate hubris that defined the industry in 2022. What we see in Exhibit H is only a tiny snapshot of a very important inbox, but it’s enough to make this one of the most revealing documents in a year that’s been absolutely overflowing with tech disclosures—from Peiter Zatko’s leaks, to FTX’s balance sheet, to the “Twitter Files” championed by Musk himself.
Beyond the obvious tabloid intrigue, what’s most striking is how Musk’s texts shed light on two of 2022’s biggest tech meltdowns. If you came out of a lengthy coma in mid-December, puzzled by headlines about collapsing crypto exchanges and once-beloved entrepreneurs behaving like villains, you could read a copy of Exhibit H and understand everything with surprising clarity. The texts are, of course, a guide to the events that ultimately led Musk to purchase Twitter—a decision that has tanked his net worth, saddled his new asset with debt, and led to the quick erosion of his reputation as a savvy businessman. But also lurking in Musk’s inbox is Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the now-collapsed crypto exchange FTX, who was arrested in the Bahamas when federal prosecutors charged him with defrauding investors and customers.
For better or worse, Musk’s Twitter takeover and SBF’s downfall are two of the most symbolically resonant tech stories of 2022. You could view them as reckonings for supposed tech visionaries and the ways in which Silicon Valley’s hype machine dashes against the rocks of reality. It’s unfair to suggest that a few personalities are behind all of tech’s troubles—which this year included layoffs at companies such as Meta and Snap and a general feeling that we may be approaching the end of the social-media era—but the Musk texts demonstrate a decadence, an unearned confidence, and a boy’s-club mentality that coincide with the cultural disillusionment regarding the genius-innovator narrative.
In June, I snarkily coined the Elon Musk School of Management to describe the petulant way that some tech founders, such as Musk and Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong, seemed to use confrontational, culture-warring, Twitter-addled thought leadership as a business tactic. The Musk School revolves around two principles: running a company in an authoritarian manner, and ensuring that every management decision is optimized to make news and hijack the attention of those following along on social media. One can see this exact mentality at work in the Musk texts. In message after message, contacts urge Musk to take control of Twitter and solve its problems as only he can. This trend extends beyond Twitter: This year, Musk’s peers at companies such as Meta cracked down on employees, hoping to usher in a more authoritarian brand of management after years of free lunches, competitive perks, and remote work.
The Musk messages also reveal how some of the richest and most powerful men in the world treat actual billions of dollars with a level of care more appropriate for a 3-year-old tossing around Monopoly cash. Oracle’s founder, Larry Ellison, essentially writes Musk a blank check over text, pledging, “A billion … or whatever you recommend.” The venture capitalist Marc Andreessen unsolicitedly offers Musk “$250M with no additional work required.” And Michael Grimes, a top investment banker at Morgan Stanley, proposes a meeting with Bankman-Fried as a way to “get us $5bn equity in an hour.”
“Does Sam actually have $3bn liquid?” Musk asks. (It’s unclear why he got the number wrong.) Grimes says that he believes so. Musk appears nonplussed but willing to do whatever is necessary to get some quick cash: “So long as I don’t have to have a laborious blockchain debate,” he quips. (Seven months after this exchange, Bankman-Fried would claim to have no more than $100,000 to his name.)
The blitheness is the point. It is a total power move to talk about getting “$5bn in equity in an hour” the same way we mere mortals talk about Venmo-ing a friend $15 for lunch. The texts make it clear that these men are fundamentally alienated from the rest of the world by their wealth. “In one sense, the texts show that billionaires are just like us—they’re not doing advanced calculus; they’re in their DMs talking smack, making jokes, and trying desperately to get their way,” Lauren Pringle, the editor in chief of The Chancery Daily, told me recently. But she added: “These are absolutely not normal people with a normal understanding of the world.”
There is an undeniable hubris on display in Exhibit H. One could argue that a reason these men appear so nonchalant about offering no-strings-attached billions is that they’ve been conditioned by years of low interest rates and a booming tech sector to assume that their fortunes will only ever grow, regardless of the business decisions they make. The men in Musk’s phone also appear wildly confident in their own abilities and those of their peers. Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of the media conglomerate Axel Springer, infamously texted Musk his bullet-pointed plan for Twitter, which began with the line item “1.),, Solve Free Speech.”
Exhibit H also shows what happens when somebody with actual expertise questions the visionaries. The entire document is a demonstration of elite-level brownnosing, with the exception of one man: then-Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal. The two seem to hit it off—Musk likes that Agrawal is an engineer who can “do hardcore programming”—but then Agrawal sends Musk a text about his unhinged tweets. “You are free to tweet ‘is Twitter dying’ or anything else about Twitter - but it’s my responsibility to tell you that it’s not helping me make Twitter better in the current context,” he says to Musk. This small suggestion appears to enrage Musk and, it seems, alters the entire history of the company forever. “What did you get done this week?” Musk shoots back. And then, less than one minute later, the billionaire writes, “I’m not joining the board. This is a waste of time. Will make an offer to take Twitter private.”
Exhibit H isn’t just revealing—the existence of the document itself may have also hastened Musk’s purchase of the company. The texts exist for us to see because Musk, in a fit of buyer’s remorse, tried to back out of the deal, and Twitter sued. Although it’s unclear exactly what triggered Musk to settle the suit and continue with the Twitter purchase (he didn’t respond to a request for comment), one popular theory is that Exhibit H may have forced his hand. “I won’t speculate on his motivations, because he’s such an enigma,” Pringle said, “but it seems likely that some of these people in Musk’s phone reached out to him saying, ‘Come on, man, this is embarrassing. Make this stop.’”
Exhibit H didn’t have to be public at all. According to The Chancery Daily’s reporting, it was initially filed under seal with no objection from Twitter’s legal team. But Musk’s team unexpectedly asked for the document to be unsealed. A leading theory is that this was a tactic from Musk’s lawyers to tie opposing counsel up in busy work. If that was the case, the move clearly backfired—yet another act, born out of hubris, that went awry.
It is not difficult to look at these texts and understand how someone like Musk could now find himself in his current, unenviable economic situation and growing ever more reactionary.
Reading through Exhibit H, it’s also easy to see how Bankman-Fried accumulated venture money with hardly any investigation into his company’s finances. In one overlooked text message, one of Musk’s friends, the former Hollywood agent Michael Kives, casually suggests, “It could be cool to [do the Twitter deal] with Sam Bankman-Fried.” Subsequent reporting showed that Kives had taken a $300 million loan from Bankman-Fried’s hedge fund, Alameda Research. You can just imagine the contents of SBF’s own phone and the fawning conversations between the former billionaire and the men looking to stay in his orbit. And it’s also quite easy, reading these text messages, to understand why venture funds are facing tough questions from investors and the public about their decisions to loan money to questionable businesses without doing due diligence.
These are, of course, lessons built off of extrapolation and hindsight. But they are important ones: They teach us what happens when a small group of people with too much money come to view that money not just as a reward for success, but as its own form of merit—a specious achievement that totally alienates them from reality.
Ultimately, Exhibit H documents the loneliness and isolation of being the world’s richest man. As told via the texts, the seed of Musk’s Twitter purchase was planted by sycophants deferential to the billionaire who will never give him hard, truthful advice, because they wish to stay close to him. Indeed, the one time he receives actual, honest feedback from Agrawal, Musk behaves aggressively and impulsively, sealing his fate.
Sifting through the desiccated wreckage of Twitter is raising endless questions about the fate of the platform and what it means for us all. But one question we don’t need to ask is how we got here. For that, we have Exhibit H.