Pranay Pathole was a senior in high school in India when Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX landed a Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship floating on the Atlantic Ocean in 2016.
It was the start of an obsession. Pathole poured over the details of every subsequent SpaceX launch and resolved to become an engineer in the Muskian mold: electric self-driving sports cars! Microchipped brains! Underground tunnels a-zoom with speedy Teslas! The race to land on Mars!
But unlike the rest of Musk’s many admirers, the 23-year-old Pathole has something special: an online Twitter friendship with the man himself.
In January 2018, when he was studying software engineering at a university in Pune, India, Pathole tweeted at Musk about the sort of problem you get when you have too much technology:
“Fixed in next release,” Musk replied.
“I was just blown away saying, well, this is, this is, this is surreal. This is not, this is not real,” Pathole said, smiling at his recollection of that day. “But now … it feels like you’re not talking to this multi rich billionaire dude who owns multiple tech companies… It feels natural. It feels like you’re having a conversation with a distant friend of yours.”
“It feels like you’re having a conversation with a distant friend of yours.”
Since then, Pathole and Musk have tweeted at each other with some regularity, and have occasionally swapped DMs, Pathole said. A BuzzFeed News analysis of Elon Musk’s Twitter feed found that Pathole’s account is one of the five that Musk interacts with the most, along with space and Tesla-focused accounts like @Erdayastronaut and @teslaownersSV. The billionaire has mentioned Pathole’s handle “@PPathole” more than 400 times and Pathole now has over 155K followers on Twitter, a significant number of whom are likely here for the Elon content. His unlikely friendship has garnered a handful of articles in the Indian media.
On a video call, Pathole came across as a polite, earnest, well-meaning geek who absolutely reveres Musk, and his Twitter feed reflects that. Much of Musk and Pathole’s Twitter correspondence feels like the chatter at a weekend meeting of the local rocketry club — lots of talk about the latest Tesla features, video games, and what tech people call blue sky thinking mixed up with in-weeds nerd stuff about SpaceX’s rockets, igniters, payloads, and landing gear. In his replies to Pathole, Musk sounds like an excitable science major (albeit with billion-dollar toys) rather than the obstreperous personae that much of the internet is accustomed to.
For some, Musk’s presence on Twitter has been overbearing to the point of being toxic. He has frequently targeted women — journalists, scientists, politicians such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and even Twitter’s top lawyer Vijaya Gadde— whose accounts have subsequently been trolled by an army of Musk superfans. Musk’s inconsistently absolutist position on free speech, and his claims that Twitter’s moderation policies have a “left-wing bias,” have also prompted fears that the platform will become even more of a free-for-all if his $44 billion acquisition, announced last month, succeeds. Since news of the proposed acquisition was made public, Musk has veered between gleefully trolling his detractors and promising that Twitter will simply uphold the speech/censorship laws in each country where it operates.
(On Monday last week, Musk appeared in what felt like a hostage-style video with Thierry Breton, the commissioner for Internal Market of the European Union, where both men said that they were in agreement on platform regulation without really specifying the regulations in question. The next day, he said he would allow Trump back on Twitter.)
Pathole was initially completely in support of the Twitter acquisition, but as Musk’s ardor for the platform has wavered, so has Pathole’s. Last Friday, for instance, Musk tweeted the deal was temporarily on hold because he disagreed with how Twitter measures spam on the service, and has now said that the deal won’t move forward unless Twitter publicly offers evidence that spam and fake accounts are less than 5% of all accounts. Musk believes the number is closer to 20%; Pathole has suggested, with little evidence, that the number is actually closer to 50%.
“Exactly,” Musk tweeted in response to Pathole’s claims.
For supporters like Pathole, the billionaire’s mercurial Twitter presence makes him seem comfortingly normal. He says it is Musk who is the true victim of hate, lies, and misinformation.
“He gets bullied a lot… A lot of big players hate him,” Pathole said, citing Sen. Warren accusing Musk of not paying his taxes, Bill Gates allegedly shorting Tesla stock, and the persistent rumor in the nether regions of the internet that Musk’s family owned an emerald mine in Zambia — something Musk has repeatedly denied as being untrue.
And while it isn’t hard to understand why a legion of young engineers might be inspired by the world’s richest engineer, it is harder to figure out why Musk, who currently oversees three companies and may soon run a fourth, takes the time to reply to them.
“I’m basically a nobody,” Pathole said. “And for Elon, this super famous rich dude takes out his busy time to interact with a guy like me — who is nobody — inculcates that quality in you, that you should be humble, you should be down to earth, no matter how big you are.”
Musk did not respond to a BuzzFeed News email asking him what accounts for his unusual Twitter correspondence with Pathole, but just as Tiktok’s hypnotic lure lies in its uncanny ability to make a completely random account briefly massively famous, the @elonmusk account works like a one-person engagement engine: If you are clever, or funny, or interesting, or weird, or mean, or Tesla-obsessed, or SpaceX-devoted, or quirky, or just a glass of chocolate milk, Elon Musk might engage with you, and then a decade of social media engineering will do the rest. Your mentions will blow up, your follower count will skyrocket, and your brain will be flooded with tiny gratifying dopamine hits every time someone likes, retweets, or dunks on your interaction with Elon.
“I’m basically a nobody.”
And then a day later, once the rush has faded, you will tweet at Elon again. And since he’s interacted with you before, there’s a better chance that he might do so again.
“The Twitter algorithm is such that the people who you interact with the most…will automatically start popping up or show up upfront and show up in a much more distinct way on your Twitter feed,” Pathole said, describing what sounded like a sort of slow-cooked, algorithmically enhanced bromance. Once Musk had replied to Pathole’s first tweet, “He started seeing my tweets, he started liking my tweets, he started retweeting my tweets. And so that is how we started growing, we started having a lot of interactions. And that is how it happened.”
Twitter doesn’t have one singular algorithm that defines what users see, though Pathole’s experience mirrors that of many people on the platform. Musk has said that he will open-source Twitter’s algorithm in the interests of transparency and to combat perceived bias, though experts warn this could create a whole new set of problems.
Last month, Pathole put in his papers at the giant Indian software company where he works and is now prepping for an exciting new chapter: studying for a Master of Science in business analytics at the University of Texas in Dallas. It is all part of his plan to hopefully pick up the skills needed to play some kind of role in the ultimate Elonian quest: to make humanity a multiplanetary species.
As our interview winds down, I asked Pathole what he thinks society on Mars will look like. Who does he think should be the first people to get there?
“Definitely people who will specialize in building stuff,” he said. “Engineers.” ●