Elon Musk’s Dream of An Onion-Like Media Empire

“Elon Musk wanted The Onion; he got Thud,” reports the Verge, telling the wacky story of how Elon Musk gave $2 million to two former editors from the Onion to create “an ambitious, offbeat satire startup” that would focus on the real world instead of online, “with fake brands, fake products, and fake museum installations.”

To Musk, satire is almost a “public good,” [forner Onion/Thud leader Ben] Berkley said. It’s something that can be used to nudge people in the right direction and make life a little more tolerable, and that may have been what really drew him to the project. “If it’s on a global scale and it convinces people to change their mind about something or reconsider something,” Berkley said, “it might have a small impact that could have a larger effect down the road….”

Unlike The Onion, Thud never planned to have a regularly updating homepage where all of its work came together — its projects were all envisioned as being independent, floating out on the internet for you to stumble across. That’s where part of the trouble lay. Thud came together in large part around the idea that it would have Musk behind it: both as a backer and a promoter. Berkley notes that Musk has a huge Twitter following of nearly 27 million people; losing him meant losing an enormous avenue for distribution.

Without a homepage for repeat visitors, Thud also lacked anything that could even begin to resemble a traditional business model. There was no subscription to sell and no articles to run ads on. Only one of Thud’s first four websites — for a fake, always-firing gun — sold merch: T-shirts and hats that went for up to $30 a piece. The option to buy them was later removed.

Musk pulled his funding in December, the article reports, and by May, Thud had shut down for good. Though early on Musk at one point “floated the idea” of hiring former Onion editor Cole Bolton at SpaceX, towards the end Musk “was starting to get worried about how [Thud’s projects] could reflect on him during critical times for Tesla and SpaceX,” Bolton tells the site.

“You know, his companies that are obviously quite a bit more large and, I would say, important than Thud.”

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