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Sergey Brin and Elon Musk are Silicon Valley frenemies

Sergey Brin and Elon Musk are Silicon Valley frenemies


Some divorced man melodrama

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An image of Elon Musk on a blue illustrated background.
Kristen Radtke / The Verge; Getty Images

I’m sorry for what I’m about to do here, but let’s talk about some divorced men. I think Sergey Brin is attempting to smear his ex-wife, and I think he’s using his history with Elon Musk to do it.

Musk allegedly had an affair with Brin’s wife, leading to their divorce. (ALLEGEDLY.) Then, at a party, Musk fell to his knees, begging for Brin’s forgiveness, “according to people with knowledge of the incident,” The Wall Street Journal writes. What a story!

I notice that Brin’s still duking it out with his soon-to-be ex-wife

Except: I find this sourcing weird. How many people? Two sources are different from 10 sources on this, or 30, you know? And what kind of knowledge? Were they there? I understand wanting to protect one’s sources, certainly, but I need more context on this to understand how seriously to take it. Can I be certain that Musk, who is often late to trends, was not simply attempting to Ice Brin?

I’m asking these pointed questions because I notice that Brin’s still duking it out with his soon-to-be ex-wife Nicole Shanahan in court. Brin’s lawyers contend she is asking for too much — a rumored $1 billion, according to the WSJ. I don’t know how the WSJ sourced this story, but I do think it’s more likely to benefit him than her. If he demonstrates she’s unfaithful, he gets to keep more of his money. And if she’s afraid of further news about their marriage making it into the papers, she might be more likely to settle quickly.

Shanahan has denied an affair with Musk, and an anonymous source close to her has told the New York Post that she’s a “pawn” in “billionaire playboy games.” I am a little skeptical of single-source anonymous reporting, but NYP rarely misses in celebrity coverage, possibly because of its extremely strong relationships with publicists. (Page Six isn’t what it was, but it’s still formidable.)

If Brin’s people are indeed behind the leak, that makes Musk’s reaction funnier. Musk says he’s seen Shanahan twice in the last three years — and never alone. “Haven’t even had sex in ages (sigh),” he adds. After all, he may have been denied entry to a Berlin sex club just last April.

It’s a little weird to deny that a photograph is evidence of a friendship, then post a photograph as evidence of a friendship

To prove that things are copacetic between himself and Brin, Musk posted a photo of them at the same party in reply to a Wall Street Journal editor who’d tweeted the story. An odd choice. I remember an earlier picture Musk had been asked about: one of him with Ghislaine Maxwell, the right-hand woman to Jeffrey Epstein who received a 20-year sentence for sex trafficking. Musk says she “photobombed” him.

It’s a little weird to deny that a photograph is evidence of a friendship, then post a photograph as evidence of a friendship. Musk had it right with the Maxwell photo denial: a photo of two people at the same party doesn’t mean much.

Look at the photo with Brin: Musk in the foreground; Brin in the background, not making eye contact with the camera, possibly not even aware he was being photographed. The two are under a tent, and Brin is holding a plastic cup — a party of some sort. There are two other people in the photo who appear to be either children or very short adults. One is wearing Overwatch cosplay. I have spent too much time trying to identify the trees in the background to figure out a location. (Yes, I emailed experts. They said the trees were too low-res to identify.)

It is certainly proof Musk and Brin were at the same party, which Musk says was on the afternoon of Sunday, July 24th. Whether it is proof of friendship is harder to say.

As for the date and location: according to the Twitter account that tracks its movements, Musk’s jet flew into San Jose’s airport on July 23rd and left on the evening of July 24th. In response to Musk’s tweet, a chef named Andrew Gruel (cool aptonym, very Dickens!) says that he could attest to Musk and Brin’s attendance at the party together, where they were served lobster deviled eggs. Gruel is based in Huntington Beach, California, where he left the patio at one of his restaurants open during Governor Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order, perhaps a point of commonality with Musk.

“Nicole and Sergey’s divorce has absolutely nothing to do with me,” Musk emailed the New York Post. (This is also, for what it’s worth, the second celebrity divorce in which Musk has been accused of homewrecking; Johnny Depp claimed that Musk began a relationship with his now-ex-wife, Amber Heard, a month after Depp and Heard were married.)

Brin might still party with Musk, but it sure seems like his lawyers hung Musk out to dry

Brin invested at least $500,000 in Tesla, according to Tim Higgins’ book Power Play. Brin may have invested an unknown amount in 2006, according to Insider. According to the recent WSJ story, Brin “has ordered his financial advisers to sell his personal investments in Mr. Musk’s companies,” though the story did not determine the size of the investments or if any sales had occurred. 

I think I know why! Because all of those investments, if sold, would then be part of the negotiations that Brin and Shanahan are engaging in around their divorce. The point of the WSJ story is to smear Shanahan, not tell her where all the money is! Brin might still party with Musk, but it sure seems like his lawyers hung Musk out to dry just to get to Shanahan. 

Why that aggression toward Musk? They have history. There’s the possibility Musk nicked the name “Autopilot” from Google, first of all. Apparently, Larry Page and Brin were thinking of buying Tesla while letting Musk stay in charge, according to Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk. This didn’t come to pass, largely because of Musk’s P.T. Barnum-like self-promotional abilities. “With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Musk was⁠—at a minimum⁠—either inspired or scared” into self-driving cars, wrote Edward Niedermeyer, another Musk biographer.

By 2018, before Brin left Google, it was clear that rivalry was brewing between Tesla and Google’s self-driving car division, Waymo. In January 2021, Waymo’s CEO John Krafcik said, “For us, Tesla is not a competitor at all.” Waymo even ditched the term “self-driving” to refer to its autonomous vehicles in 2021, saying, “It may seem like a small change, but it’s an important one, because precision in language matters and could save lives.” This does seem like a dig at Tesla, which calls its driver-assistance program “full self-driving.”

Tech-bro frenemies are a staple of Silicon Valley

Now, to be clear, the majority of the Waymo / Tesla beef started after Brin left Google. And Brin and Musk definitely do seem to be at the same party. But I gotta say — unless Brin and Musk agreed on leaking the WSJ story together to screw Shanahan as part of a tech-bro conspiracy — they seem a lot more like frenemies, particularly since Brin hasn’t said anything publicly to clear this up.

Tech-bro frenemies are a staple of Silicon Valley. Musk’s long relationship with Peter Thiel, who manufactured the coup at PayPal that shoved Musk out is a prime example. All of these guys need each other and maybe also kind of low-key hate each other. Seems stressful! But it kind of looks like everyone will get what they need here except possibly Shanahan, which is also very Silicon Valley. 

As for Musk’s woe-is-me tweets about attention: lol, lmao. His entire game with retail shareholders is about capturing attention. My guy loves it! Remember the McLaren? Remember the song, “Don’t Doubt ur Vibe?” The fake robot? Musk seems like an obvious student of NASA scientist (and Nazi) Wernher von Braun, and Twitter is where he does his version of “Man Will Conquer Space Soon.” He needs attention. After all, isn’t that what he’s buying Twitter for?

Which may mean Brin and Musk are still friends after all. I am fairly sure at this point that Musk can’t tell the difference between good attention and bad attention. As long as he’s the center of attention, he’s happy — because attention sells Teslas.