Elon Musk versus Hank Green, the online influencer who is everything Elon pretends to be.
Since I left Twitter I’ve been fulfilling my social media dopamine needs elsewhere, which is how I learned that yesterday Elon Musk got in a fight about his new toy with Hank Green.
It wasn’t a big fight. Elon is mad that advertisers have reduced their ad spending since the world’s richest man made Twitter his personal conspiracy theory megaphone. Elon threw a little tantrum and tweeted that those advertisers are “trying to destroy free speech in America.”
Hank replied to remind Elon that on his first day as owner he shared a false, Right Wing, anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory about a man who was at the time hospitalized. Hank didn’t specify, but this came against the backdrop of Elon buying Twitter for the express purpose of loosening rules meant to keep out Nazis and other monsters. So Hank (rather politely) suggested that Elon try some introspection instead of tossing out accusations. This led to a rather benign back and forth with dismissive responses from Elon.
The reason I find this so notable is that Hank Green truly is everything Elon Musk pretends to be. Hank is an actual genius inventor, a clever entrepreneur who is good at building businesses, and a cultural influencer who has shaped our entire online culture. And yet while you certainly know Elon Musk, you have probably never heard of Hank Green.
In January of 2007, two years after YouTube’s launch, Hank Green and his brother John started their “Brotherhood 2.0” video project. Yes, this is the same John Green who wrote The Fault in Our Stars and a number of other successful young adult novels. The brothers posted daily videos as their only form of communication for a year. Though they addressed only each other, their videos developed a huge audience, for whom the brothers would discuss their own lives, their struggles with mental health, and a wide assortment of cultural topics like science, politics, and art.
The Greens are still uploading those videos today, now known as Vlogbrothers. But with those early videos the Greens became some of the first “influencers.” These were the early years of YouTube, before celebrities and movie studios and TV networks started joining, and vlogging was still a new concept. Newcomers like Tyler Oakley, Michelle Phan, and the guys behind Smosh built massive fan bases completely under the nose of legacy media — and at the heart of the emerging “YouTube culture” were the Green brothers.
As their own fan base (self-described “Nerdfighters”) grew, the Greens explored and expanded the boundaries of YouTube culture, with Hank usually in the lead. In 2010 they created VidCon, an annual convention of YouTube creators and fans that became the definitive such event. Pre-pandemic, VidCon regularly sold out, attracting 75,000 attendees a year. In 2012 the Greens launched Crash Course, a series of YouTube courses aimed at expanding education and critical thinking. This led to Hank Green becoming a producer behind roughly a dozen online video series, including content for PBS.
Green launched an online subscription company, Subbable, that was eventually purchased by Patreon. He launched a record label, a series of podcasts, an annual charity drive, and went on to become a successful novelist like his brother. As CEO of Complexly, he employs roughly 50 people, and in recent years has come to prominence on TikTok, where he functions as the platform’s very own Mister Wizard or Bill Nye, responding so often to questions from fans that “Ask Hank Green” has become a hashtag and an entire genre of content on TikTok.
Elon Musk, on the other hand, was born into a massive fortune made by exploiting Black laborers in apartheid South Africa. As an adult, he used that fortune to buy himself a reputation as a technocrat genius despite poor business instincts and mediocre intelligence. He purchased Tesla from actual entrepreneurial inventors, earning an undeserved reputation as a pioneer in electric vehicles even as his leadership mostly diminished Tesla’s reputation and the quality of their vehicles.
What Musk has done is capitalize on the reputation he purchased for himself by securing billions of dollars in government subsidies for his various ventures. Because of his undeserved reputation as a real-life Tony Stark, agencies have been far too willing to hand Musk taxpayer dollars for expensive boondoggles like rockets that explode on the launchpad and “inventing” underground tunnels for cars. As a result, he is now the world’s richest man.
As the world’s richest man, Elon finally had the chance to demonstrate his poor business instincts, buying Twitter as a stunt at a price so high he cannot possibly hope to recoup his investment. Because he is not very smart, he launched his ownership by first promising advertisers that Twitter would remain a friendly space, then amplifying far-right anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories less than 24 hours later.
And because he is an entitled child of wealth who is used to unearned adulation, Elon believes he is entitled to advertiser dollars. Even as he insists his Twitter will be a basiton of “free speech,” he accuses those who choose not to speak of a conspiracy to harm him (and then one day later announces he will suspend anyone who performs parody without clearly labeling it parody).
I don’t think Hank Green resents his relative obscurity. If I had to guess, he likely prefers things that way. The kind of fame awarded to people like Elon Musk is a burden, especially for someone with as many projects and endeavors as Hank. I just find it illustrative and enjoyable to watch Elon, the World’s Wealthiest Fraud, engage in an intellectual battle with someone who truly is the thing Elon pretends to be… and come up so short.
In the end, the best retort he could find to Hank Green’s very gentle but adroit criticism was “Do a Google search.”