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YouTubers might be just the renewable resource that Elon Musk needs

Elon Musk speaks at a news conference on June 14 in Chicago. (Kiichiro Sato/AP)

Joe Rogan was smoking what he said was a joint as Tesla founder Elon Musk sat across from him. Musk was appearing late Thursday night on an episode of Rogan’s popular podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” which was also streamed live on YouTube. They were into hour two of the interview. 

“You probably can’t because stockholders,” Rogan said, gesturing to the joint.

Musk looked unconvinced. “I mean it’s legal, right?” he said.

“Totally legal.”

“Okay,” Musk said, and took it from Rogan’s hand.

As Musk inhaled, Rogan asked another question: “Do people get upset at you if you do certain things?”

Much of the media, Musk’s stockholders and a team of Thai cave rescuers know from experience that the answer is often yes. But on YouTube, Musk’s folk-hero status predates his current moment of crisis — and has become just the sort of resource Musk needs to find a supportive audience and friendlier questions when he needs them.

Tesla’s shares drop after execs resign, video of Musk smoking marijuana circulates

Musk’s interview on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” particularly the joint moment, eventually reached an audience larger than YouTube. In the media’s hands, it became a story about Musk’s growing instability — and the effect it might have on his leadership of Tesla. Tesla stock dropped Friday morning, the day after the podcast aired. Tesla’s chief accounting officer, Dave Morton, resigned the same morning. Although Morton’s reasoning didn’t mention the podcast, he cited “the level of public attention placed on the company” as a factor in his decision.

But YouTube responded much more favorably. Rogan, who has more than 3 million YouTube subscribers, has built a second career via his popular podcast as the cool uncle of the libertarian-leaning parts of YouTube culture. Rogan has interviewed major YouTube stars like Philip DeFranco, other comedians like Bill Burr and a host of right-wing personalities — Candace Owens, Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos, for instance.

The marijuana moment was a perfect example of two things that community loves: thumbing their noses at mainstream authority, and performing authenticity. The video of the podcast had more than 1.5 million views as of late Friday morning, and nearly 80,000 likes.

As Musk smoked the joint — and also picked up a glass of whiskey — he and Rogan returned to talking about the future and safety of driverless cars, Musk’s cultural presence and a dream Rogan had about what would happen if there were 100 Nikola Teslas in the world at the same time. Suddenly, Musk laughed.

“I’m getting text messages from friends saying what the hell are you doing smoking weed,” Musk said. He went on to say that he almost never smokes.

A few weeks ago, Musk granted a 17-minute interview and factory tour to Marques Brownlee, a respected tech-reviewing YouTube personality with more than 6 million subscribers. Brownlee is also known as a Tesla superfan.

The friendly interview was published a day after a very different interview with Musk in the New York Times, in which Musk was “struggling to maintain his composure” as he discussed an “excruciating” year running his company.

Both came a week after Musk did this tweet, suddenly announcing he was thinking of taking his company private, including a bonus apparent weed joke:

Brownlee isn’t Musk’s only longtime YouTuber fan. Multiple super successful YouTubers buy up Tesla cars — and merch — as if they’re Jake Paul fans snapping up $60 hoodies. “I Bought a Tesla!” is such a common video title for YouTube’s richest creators that it has also become a clickbait in-joke. And when Musk decided to produce and sell 20,000 flamethrowers through his Boring Company, more than a few of those lucky (?) recipients were YouTubers.

These 11-year-olds came to see their YouTube hero. Jake Paul was there to sell them hoodies.

Here’s vlogger David Dobrik opening his flamethrower, for instance. It’s been featured regularly in his videos since then:

As Musk continues to live in a cycle of continuous controversies, it makes sense that YouTubers — and their audiences — would embrace him. Like them, Musk has influence and power from a somewhat unconventional source. Like them, he seems to feel misunderstood by mainstream audiences. And like them, he has an army of devoted fans, ready to come to his defense, against any of his haters.

more reading: 

More than 800,000 people paid $10 to watch a bunch of YouTubers box each other

Roseanne Barr launched her new YouTube career by yelling an explanation for her Valerie Jarrett tweet

How Elon Musk used the Thai cave saga to pioneer a new form of viral tourism