WASHINGTON – After years of bad press and scandals, Mark Zuckerberg is seeing his reputation improve in the fickle world of technology, thanks in large part to the increasingly unpredictable behavior of Elon Musk.
Always bubbling just below the surface, the on-again, off-again rivalry between Musk and Facebook creator Zuckerberg has boiled over with the launch of the Twitter Threads clone.
Meta’s new app has prompted the Tesla titan to sue Zuckerberg and unleash a series of malicious trolls on Twitter.
“It’s definitely unique to see two people, who are obviously terribly rich, get into these kinds of grudge matches,” said Andrew Selepak, an assistant professor of media at the University of Florida.
“But it seems a bit one-sided” with Musk clearly engaging in “childish behavior,” he added.
Any detailed account requires immersing yourself in the often arcane to-and-fro that takes place on social media.
An altercation began on Threads when the official account for fast food chain Wendy’s made a friendly mockery at Musk’s expense, which Zuckerberg tagged with a laughing emoji.
This quickly met the wrath of Tesla’s mercurial boss: “Zuck is a Cuck,” Musk wrote on Twitter, using a far-right-embraced slur to smear Zuckerberg as a shill for the establishment.
Musk then proposed “a literal penis-sizing contest.”
‘Learning is failing’
Zuckerberg has ignored the provocations, but he hasn’t always stayed out of the fray.
Two weeks ago, before the release of Threads, he offered, perhaps jokingly, to meet Musk for a bare-knuckle cage fight.
And in the hours after Threads was released, he took to Twitter for the first time in over a decade to post a popular Spider-Man meme pointing at another Spider-Man, a tacit acknowledgment that, yes, he had copied Twitter.
Zuckerberg, who is 39, now cultivates a calmer image as the brawny big-tech wise man who practices martial arts and cares for his young daughters, all while generating huge profits.
“Part of learning is failing,” Zuckerberg recently told the Lex Fridman podcast.
“By the time you decide you’ll be too embarrassed to try something new, you won’t learn anything anymore,” he added.
Memories of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Zuckerberg in front of US lawmakers to defend their company’s actions during the 2016 US election fade.
Even last year’s failure to do anything with VR, with billions of dollars written off and thousands of employees laid off, has faded from the headlines.
But Musk’s antics have helped rehabilitate the Facebook founder more than anything.
“These attacks by Musk have only helped Zuckerberg’s image,” said Rob Enderle, a tech industry analyst.
Bad ‘I can understand’
Threads were sent last week to Instagram’s 2.3 billion users (excluding Europe), and more than 100 million have signed up.
Those who praise Threads have often been those who have raised alarm over the years about Facebook, and especially the company’s close monitoring of users and relentless collection of personal data.
Threads, which does not yet display ads, is no different, and users are asked to give Meta permission to closely track them across the internet.
Those lawsuits have delayed the app’s launch in Europe, where new legislation limits Meta’s ability to track and share data across its family of platforms.
But for analyst Carolina Milanesi, a close observer of the industry, “at least I can understand the evil that is driven by profit, versus Twitter, which is just a selfish rich man with despicable ethical conduct.”
Bloody feuds in the tech industry aren’t new, with Apple icon Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, for example, known for engaging in battles that would leave those on the other side remembering them for years.
“Balmer threw furniture away when people went to Google and there were certainly some interesting stories in the Netscape days (late 1990s), but this is crazy,” Enderle said.
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