A few weeks ago, the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, took the stage at an unusual event in San Francisco, with virtually every Twitter employee in attendance. Looking down at his phone, he read aloud some direct messages he'd been trading with Elon Musk--inviting Musk to speak, in fact, at that very event.
"I kinda hate speaking events," Musk had replied, literally two minutes after the initial invitation. "But maybe for you all. I do love Twitter and I think it is a force for good."
As rumors about Musk's appearance had spread among Twitter employees, their excitement had built. But now, literally minutes before some hoped that Musk would appear, Dorsey reported: "Unfortunately, he got extremely, extremely busy, and isn't able to make it."
Twitter wouldn't comment beyond Dorsey's remarks, and my efforts to reach Musk via both Tesla and SpaceX went unanswered. But two things are very clear.
First, literally an hour before the speaking slot at this event, Twitter didn't know who was going to wind up speaking instead of Musk.
And second, the person they found to fill in--Jon Carmichael, a Twitter photographer who describes Musk as "my biggest source of inspiration"--turned the experience into a truly life-changing moment.
'I was so devastated.'
In retrospect, it's not such a big surprise that Musk wasn't able to make it. The Aug. 2 event at the Moscone Center in San Francisco came basically halfway between his "pedo guy" tweet and his "funding secured" tweet--to say nothing of the fact that Musk was crushing to try to meet Tesla production goals at the time.
He had a lot going on. But, his absence apparently created a vacuum--and an amazing opportunity for Carmichael.
You may have seen Carmichael's story: he's the photographer who flew on a Southwest Airlines 737 during the Great American Eclipse last year, and who captured what's been called the most amazing photograph ever taken from a commercial airplane. He was at the Twitter event to photograph it--and thus he learned a bit before others that Musk wouldn't be there.
On the rumor and hope that Musk might speak, Carmichael had decided to give him a truly breathtaking gift: the first print of his now-iconic eclipse photo (which almost nobody had seen yet, on Aug 2). It was "printed on crystal with laser," as he told me, "and back-mounted onto Dibond, which is like aluminum."
But then, Musk didn't show.
"I worked very hard and spent a lot of money on this gift for him, and I got to the event and last minute, Elon [wasn't there]. And I was so devastated," Carmichael told me. "So I thought, maybe I should give this to Jack. You know, Jack Dorsey, the CEO."
'We're changing the whole program'
An hour before Dorsey wound up taking the stage to talk about Musk not being there, Carmichael in a ballroom just above. He has literally started to write a note to Dorsey explaining the gift.
"All of sudden, I'm in this giant ballroom by myself and here's Jack Dorsey walking right toward me," Carmichael recalled. "He's never by himself. He's always extremely busy."
"Hey Jack," he called out.
"Yeah, what's up?"
Carmichael gave him the Dibond print of his photo that he'd originally intended for Musk.
"It's heavy, and he opens it up and goes, 'What is this?'" Carmichael told me. "I said, 'Oh, you remember The Great American Eclipse last year? ... This is a photo I took.' I told him the whole story."
A year ago, millions came together and witnessed one of the most beautiful moments in history. My dream was to capture this from a unique view to remind us of our place in the universe and to stay united in our humanity. Thank you @Twitter for sharing that vision. #eclipse108 pic.twitter.com/AjSzf27xxQ-- Jon Carmichael (@photographerjon) August 21, 2018
Dorsey was blown away by the photo. And with 45 minutes to go before show time, he told Carmichael that he wanted him to do the speech.
"And he goes, 'Okay, here's what's going to happen. In 45 minutes, I'm going to be introducing you on stage to share this story and this image with my entire company. Can you do that?'" Carmichael recounted. "And I'm like--internally, I'm freaking out."
'This is my first speech I've ever given'
We'll just give away part of the ending here. Carmichael rose the occasion like nobody could have predicted. Right at the start, he confessed with a smile: "This is my first speech I've ever given," and the audience was pretty much immediately won over.
(A video of Dorsey talking about Musk, and then Carmichael's entire internal presentation to all of Twitter's employees, is at the end of this post.)
"It was just the most beautiful moment I could've ever imagined," Carmichael recalled. "It was so moving. I got multiple standing ovations. This was my first unveiling [of the photo] to 3,500 people ... three weeks before I was going to unveil it publicly, on the one year anniversary of the eclipse."
And as a result of his talk, Carmichael said, Twitter completely bought in. The company flagged his photo on the platform so that nobody could share it until he officially unveiled it.
And when he did actually share it,--on the anniversary, it came in the form of a streamed broadcast to all 32 Twitter offices around the world.
A life-changing experience
There are many ironies in Carmichael's story, including the fact that he had his hopes dashed twice in its course, only to find that what he'd hoped would happen wasn't as advantageous as what actually did happen.
The first example was that he'd originally entered a contest to get a seat on a special Alaska Airlines eclipse flight to photograph the eclipse--but he didn't win. However, it turned out that the Southwest flight he found, and that he flew on as a regular passenger, offered a far better vantage point to create his photo.
The second disappointment was his excitement over the idea of meeting Musk. But had Musk been there to speak, that would have meant Carmichael never would have had his chance on stage. And then Twitter wouldn't have been as involved to use its publicity machine and help him share the photo around the world.
"I immediately thought in that moment, this quote by the Dalai Lama," Carmichael recalled. (In fact, the Dalai Lama was briefly one of his photography clients.) "And he says, 'Remember, that sometimes not getting what you want can be a wonderful stroke of luck.."
Carmichael says his ultimate goal is to try to the use his photo and his story to inspire more interest in astronomy and the idea of another total eclipse. In 2017, he said, tens of millions of people lived within a half hour of where they could have experienced totality, but didn't make the trip.
"I'm really passionate about that, because this was such a uniting moment in our history and it was such a beautiful moment, too," he said. "So in six years I want that to be even bigger."
Six years: The next total solar eclipse visible over the United States will be on April 8, 2024.
So if you're moved, and you take the opportunity to go and observe totality yourself in April 2024, just remember the chain reaction: You might never have seen it, if Elon Musk had been able to give a speech at Twitter in August 2018.