The question last week in Silicon Valley was whether Elon Musk, charismatic founder of electric car king Tesla, is the new Steve Jobs. Today all the Tesla talk is about the fire. What fire? A single instance of a Tesla model S sedan erupting into flame after an accident in Seattle. The video went viral and the company’s stock, up more than 400% since the beginning of the year, quickly shed nearly 7% of its value. Which begs the question: were stockholders under the impression that the car was fireproof?
They couldn’t have been. No production car in history has been fireproof and Tesla made no claims to have ended the automobile’s long relationship with occasional conflagrations. Yet the powerful image of the gleaming Tesla–an uncompromising symbol of prosperity and the future–laid low by an age-old nemesis like fire caused such dissonance in the perception of the Tesla brand that it jarred its market value. For a moment in time this fire, an utter anomaly, took over the brand: for 24 hours (and counting) Tesla became synonymous with the car fire. “Did you see that Tesla?” asked by the water cooler immediately drew this response: “the one on fire?” In other words, the very thing Silicon Valley invented (and then used to power its way to unprecedented global influence) is exactly what it, too, has to fear: the network effect. Now the Tesla brand people will try to reverse the conversation, even capitalize on it by talking about how rare an event like this is for a Tesla (and also point out that it’s not so rare in general–that about 300,000 cars catch fire a year). But it’s unlikely they’ll be able to devise a method for capturing the public’s attention that’s as powerful as a flaming car. Once a meme is released into the online bloodstream, it lingers. The Tesla was on fire in the same way that everybody knows Tylenol was once poisoned. You can invent a new present (as Tylenol very successfully did), but no piece of information gets entirely eradicated. It’s the fear of everyone who has ever been videoed during a less-than-shining moment. And it’s a reality we’ve only begun to inhabit.