Counterculture and Discourse in the Online Age
Elon Musk loves twitter. He is a committed twitter user. He loves it so much that he is trying to own it.
What he is not, I would contend, is a poster. He is not good at twitter. He shares memes and posts lower case, but there is something about his presence, his online affect, that is not quite right. He is doing it, putting all these things on the internet, because he thinks it is cool, wants to be cool, and not because for better or worse the internet has rewired his brain. Donald Trump, for example, is a poster. He is an aging racist megalomaniac who has done untold harm to the world, but credit where it is due, he is funny on twitter, in the unthinking manner of someone who has pickled their mind in a brine of algorithms and all caps posts. A single “sad!” from the Donald contains more wit, humour and unhinged power than Musk’s entire online output.
Elon Musk this week posted a meme of the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, over which was superimposed the text “looney tunes are just normal tunes to me. crazy frog is just a normal frog to me”. The picture featured a getty images watermark, and Musk captioned it, “Getty watermark is the coup de grace”.
One of the things the internet is good at is connecting critical theory, or high art, or the work of scientists or historians or sociologists, or any number of serious academic concepts and disciplines, with surrealist low culture, mashing together serious minded ideas with nonsensical pictures, captions that have their origins in reality television dialogue or random tweets. At its best, this kind of posting is a funny way to convey, engage with and even reinterpret ideas from our academic cannon. This is the kind of posting Elon Musk wants to do, to be seen to appreciate- but the only thing less funny than someone desperately trying to be the kind of funny they think is cool is when that person is the richest man alive. This is all to say: the meme isn’t funny and Musk, as usual, comes off as an obnoxious pseud, the human personification of the “you do have to have a high IQ to understand Rick and Morty” copypasta, if it were so wealthy that it could probably have you killed.
But then, in the comments, comes a reply that might truly register as one of the all time great posts, displaying Dril level mastery of the form; surreal, offensive, bizarre, multi-layered. The post consists of a well known photograph of Musk, in black tie, standing next to the convicted paedophile, sex trafficker, and Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell; only in this version of the photograph, Maxwell’s arms and shoulders have been photo edited to be blue, and superimposed over her face is the cartoon visage of the animated character, “the Crazy Frog”. The post, naturally, comes from the verified twitter account of the Crazy Frog himself.
You will probably, just about, recall the first iteration of the frog. He was first created by Swedish animator Erik Wernquist in 2003, and a video of him overlaid with the sound of a teenager making a series of vrooming and dinging noises became a slightly inexplicable and briefly inescapable hit in the mid 00s. It made sense when people bought 20 second ringtones from the back of magazines; at this juncture, however, the frog has been far from the cultural fore for some time. After many dormant years, he was revived in 2020, complete with social media accounts. He is currently promoting a new single.
The internet is a place where people speak a variety of languages. In the liberal spheres of what would at some points have been termed resistance twitter, it is a kind of medical, pathologising language that hits hardest. This is why, for example, the accusation that “Donald Trump is gaslighting America” carried such weight and ingrained itself so into speech and culture. In the language in which Elon Musk is trying to impress, the currency is a kind of multi-layered shock and incongruity; transgression that requires background reading, indicating both in-ness and intellectual credo.
Considered with these metrics, the Crazy Frog Ghislaine Maxwell meme in response to Elon Musk’s Baudrillard tweet (how many sentences do you say a day that would kill an early modern child) scores a home run. The Crazy Frog himself is just an inherently weird thing, a minor 00s fad that few understood at the time, lingering on on the internet. Why is he on twitter at all, and who is shitposting on behalf of the frog? However for all that he’s weird (he’s crazy), he is also a brand, a commercial entity (he has a new single out) and there is a limit to just how much brands can post mental. Or, at least, there should be. They should have audiences to fear alienating, marketing strategies, targets. Put simply, if you are a cartoon frog whose unlistenable music is presumably mostly aimed at children, you should not be superimposing your face onto the face of the face of one of the most famous paedophiles in the world. And yet. There it is. The frog has form when it comes to straying beyond the bounds of taste on the internet; in July 2020, the account posted a picture of the character and a noose, appearing to imply that the frog was about to take his own life (an apology was later issued).
When considering the post, there is also the question not of who Maxwell is, but of what she and her associate Jeffrey Epstein mean on the internet. Many disparate groups of people feel that they can see the ultimate truth of the world, the proof of their perspective, in the Epstein case. Old fashioned conspiracy theorists of the Behold a Pale Horse variety; QAnoners; believes in a corporate elite, a political elite, a Jewish elite; feminists and true crime obsessives. Animating their interest is an odd mix of ideological vindication and outright voyeurism.
When I was on Hinge, it was not uncommon to see the prompt “What if I told you that” answered with “Epstein didn’t kill himself”. It’s an interesting bit of signalling, this. If we can ascribe any common meaning to “based”, it is a term that implies that you are seeing through something, subscribing to a difficult or unpalatable hidden truth in which you will ultimately be justified. To be based is then to be countercultural; it is also by necessity parasitic on the mainstream culture. Because of the variety of worldviews finding vindication in it- its lack of ideological specificity- “Epstein didn’t kill himself” is perhaps the definitionally based take. There is a reason why the case is the chosen subject for the Red Scare podcast’s vanity project horror film, The Scary of 61st ; the ubiquity and leak of this cultural signifier into the mainstream is also neatly symbolised by the appearance of the writer, director and star of Scary in arguably the most popular and influential television programme of our age, Succession.
Semiotics aside, the meme is also just a good @. Elon Musk is the richest man in the world, but he also pathetically and publicly, yearns to be thought funny, erudite, and likeable to boot. He’s not funny. He has built a fortune off snake oil and a stupid person’s idea of genius; he is calling innocent people paedophiles on the internet and getting away with it while being papped with the real deal, and he is just as funny and charming and good as he should be, and a suicidal cartoon frog of uncertain commercial viability is owning his ass on twitter.com.
Elon Musk is not just speaking on the internet, tweeting to an audience. He is writing on a platform he will likely soon own, over which he already has enormous influence. The culture of this place and how he interacts with it matters, even if it hates him. We are about, so we hear, to start spending much of our time in “the metaverse”, Facebook’s virtual reality hellsphere, and a place that takes its name and much of its form from a platform in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snowcrash. The circuitry of our world is being constituted and reconstituted on the fly by the likes of Musk and Zuckerberg, and it is accordingly worth paying attention to the ways in which they speak and are criticised online.
Morgan Jones is a freelance writer, and a contributing editor of Renewal Journal