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Elon Musk speaks during a conversation with game designer Todd Howard at the E3 gaming convention in Los Angeles on June 13, 2019.Mike Blake/Reuters

In July 2006, a serial entrepreneur named Elon Musk, the chairman and principal investor in an upstart startup called Tesla Motors, was on hand in Santa Monica, Calif., for the sale of the company’s first 100 “signature edition” all-electric Roadsters. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger attended the event, which a reporter from the Los Angeles Times wrote, “felt like automotive history.” With a US$100,000 price tag, the Roadster had a range of 400 kilometres and was sleek and speedy with a 248-horsepower electric motor and acceleration to 100 kilometres per hour in 3.9 seconds.

Tesla’s founder Martin Eberhard explained the allure, “Most electric cars were designed for people who didn’t even like cars. I wanted to build a car that I wanted to drive and I like fast cars.”

But speed and style were not the Tesla Roadster’s most attractive qualities. The world was full of expensive sports cars; the Roadster’s appeal lay in the fact that consumers were waking up to the reality of climate change, owing to documentaries such as Al Gore’s The Inconvenient Truth. The Tesla Roadster offered customers a chance to drive a sports car without destroying the environment. By going electric, North America’s romance with the automobile, which had always symbolized freedom, mobility and aspiration, could survive. The world could innovate itself out of a crisis.

“We want to do something about global warming,” said Musk. “But you can’t achieve your philanthropic objective unless the company works.”

Say what you will about Musk (and pretty much everything that can be said about a person has been said about him), but he and Tesla achieved their objective. EVs are the future of driving. In Silicon Valley that future has arrived. Drive through San Jose, Willow Glen, Palo Alto, Los Gatos or up to Half Moon Bay or the Napa Valley, all you see are EVs and plug-in hybrids. The majority are Teslas, but there are Chevrolet Bolts, Toyota Priuses and Porsche hybrids among others. There are charging stations aplenty. The “electric car revolution” that Musk predicted is here.

Elon Musk is now running Twitter. He wants to charge users eight dollars a month for a blue check mark verifying their identity and promises to make Twitter “by far the most accurate source of information about the world.” Critics and cultists alike wonder if he can work the same controversial magic with social media that he has with electric vehicles.

Here, they’re missing a key point. Elon Musk is not the variable. With Twitter, he is diving into a business in which he has little depth. That’s always been his method from the start. “I’ve found that being an outsider helps you to think creatively about improving the ways things are done,” he told Salon in 1999. “When people have been doing the same things the same way for years, they stop questioning their methods even if they defy common sense.”

Elon Musk won’t change. It’s what he’s selling that’s different. Here, Tesla and Twitter could not be more different.

Elon Musk became the world’s richest man by selling dreams. With SpaceX – which he founded before Tesla – the dream is rockets in the cosmos – Star Trek come to life.

With Telsa, he was selling a dream that began more than 100 years ago, the day Thomas Edison scribbled the words “The electric car is dead” and handed them to Henry Ford. Musk and the minds at Tesla set about promising wealthy, high-performance car enthusiasts an electric car that would live up to their automotive fantasies. Musk understood that the best way into the hearts and minds was at the high end. In 2004, according to Keith Naughton reporting in Newsweek, Musk met with Eberhard who pitched him the concept: “Electric cars have always tried and failed to appeal to budget minded buyers trying to pinch pennies at the pump. Why not take the luxury lane?”

By 2008, Naughton wrote, Musk was determined to make Tesla the “plugged in Henry Ford, electrifying the highways for the multitudes.”

Said Musk, “This is only interesting if we go mass market. The world isn’t lacking for interesting sports cars.”

Many derided Tesla’s ethics and dismissed them as sanctimonious grandeur. AC Propulsion chief executive officer Tom Gage noted in 2007, “their vision got altered to a ‘change the world’ mentality. But you can’t change the world if you don’t deliver the car.”

Tesla delivered and the rest of the market has followed. Whether or not Tesla is the best EV on the market is inconsequential. It was Tesla that drove the market from the high end downward. It harnessed Silicon Valley expertise to find the solutions Detroit car makers had abandoned in the mid-1990s (see: General Motors ill-fated EV1).

In contrast, there’s nothing aspirational about Twitter. There’s no hope. It’s a social media jabberwocky that runs on hate and cute animal memes; a reverse mega-phone in which small users have their opinions magnified back at them while those with millions of followers set the discourse as discord. Media types are now signalling their sanctimony by “leaving” Twitter. How can Elon sell that as aspiration? When you buy a Tesla you’re doing your stylish car-loving part to help the environment. When people use Twitter, they are 280 characters worse than they were before they sent the Tweet.

When cars were first introduced, Scientific American magazine declared: “The improvement in city conditions by the general adoption of the motorcar can hardly be overestimated. Streets clean, dustless and odourless, with light rubber-tired vehicles moving swiftly and noiselessly over their smooth expanse would eliminate a greater part of the nervousness, distraction and strain of modern metropolitan life.”

That’s the dream Elon Musk reinvented with Tesla. Drivers laid out big money to be a part of that dream and they continue to lay out their cash. The new Tesla Roadster can sprint to 100 kilometres per hour in 2.1 seconds, has a top speed of more than 400 kilometres per hour, a range of 1,000 kilometres and a base price of more than $250,000.

Twitter? At best it’s a distraction and at worst it’s a nightmare. In either case, it’s likely to be a money-suck. While Teslas are stylish, Twitter is about as stylish as Donald Trump on the golf course. Those who think he will work wonders again see Elon Musk epitomizing the curious outside. “A believer,” Salon reported in 1999, “someone whose very ignorance of corporate manners allows him to induce a whole company to come together and embark on an ill-defined but promising course.”

Then again, it doesn’t matter how much lipstick you splat on it – a pig is still a pig – when it comes to Twitter, Elon Musk may end up wishing he stayed in his own lane.