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26 July 2023

Why Elon Musk killed the Twitter bird

The tech billionaire wants “X” to become the centre of the internet.

By Rachel Cunliffe

When it comes to the worst rebranding in history, the competition is fierce. In 2001 the Post Office briefly tried to remarket itself under the confusing new name “Consignia”; in 2009 Pizza Hut shed the word “Pizza”, announcing it would be henceforth known simply as “The Hut”. Neither lasted long.

In both cases, a well-known organisation took a brand that was highly recognisable around the world and helpfully had what it did in the name, and decided to trash it. The reaction was bafflement and ridicule; the U-turns were swift. Yet neither debacle comes close to Elon Musk’s bizarre choice overnight on 24 July to give Twitter, the globally renowned social network he bought for $44bn in October 2022, a sci-fi makeover and rebrand it simply as “X”.

X what? X everything. Where the iconic blue bird once sat, there now looms a sinister black X, making the site look like a sleazy underground dating app or the homepage of a fringe political movement (which, in a way, perhaps it is). Musk – who has made the X his profile picture – tweeted an image of the X projected onto an office block with the caption “Our headquarters tonight”. Or perhaps that should be “Xed” an image, as the site’s disrupter-in-chief also declared that tweets would henceforth be known as Xs (although the site itself hasn’t caught up with the new rubric). Never mind that the Oxford English Dictionary recognised the modern social media definition of “tweet” as a noun and verb in 2013, meaning Musk is abandoning a brand so ubiquitous its jargon has been common parlance for a decade in exchange for a single letter that is impossible to trademark. This is his vision, and he seems determined to stick to it.

That vision long pre-dates Musk’s purchase of Twitter. In fact, it pre-dates Twitter itself: in 1999, seven years before “the bird app” appeared as an alternative to Facebook, Musk tried to launch an online bank under the name X.com. It was this company that merged with Peter Thiel’s Confinity, later renamed PayPal, which was bought by eBay in 2002, making Musk more than $100m to devote to his future Tesla and SpaceX endeavours. The X rebrand of Twitter evokes these ambitions. The statement put out by Linda Yaccarino, the company’s CEO as of June 2023, did not contain the words “social network” or “social media”. Instead, she announced that “X is the future state of unlimited interactivity – centred in audio, video, messaging, payments/banking – creating a global marketplace for ideas, goods, services and opportunities”, continuing that “X will be the platform that can deliver, well… everything”.

The fact that the letter X is often used as a placeholder for something else seems not to be an oversight, but the point of the rebrand. Twitter (a word long associated with gossip and chattering – the clue’s in the name) had a purpose as a micro-blogging platform, used by journalists and activists to break news and share stories, and by millions of people to connect with one another around the world. X is something else entirely, not a website on the internet, but an attempt to be the internet. That’s the idea, anyway.

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It has been clear since Musk bought Twitter that many of the things that attracted users to the site – getting news in real time from verified sources and enjoying the serendipity of a feed populated by people they have chosen to follow because they post interesting content – were irrelevant to him. His first move was to fire 70 per cent of staff, many of them dedicated to making the platform safer to use; his second was to charge users for verified status, then amplify the posts of paying users.

This is baffling if Musk’s aim is to maintain the thriving “digital town square” he once said he hoped to provide. But it makes more sense as a strategy if his aim is to build an online cult. If there is a community of users so dedicated to Musk and his cyber-dream they will pay $8 a month for the privilege of a blue tick next to their name for no discernible reason, who knows what else they will do? Bank with his platform? Trade crypto on his platform? Shop and read news and talk to friends and find jobs and date on his platform?

That is, after all, what WeChat, China’s mega social networking conglomerate, has achieved. With more than a billion active monthly users, this “app for everything” combines text and voice messaging, social media, videos, mobile payments, and business services.

[See also: Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen: “I wouldn’t wish Mark Zuckerberg’s life on anyone”]

While tech giants outside of China haven’t monopolised cyberspace in quite the same way, the race is on to own the internet – not just one part of it. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, not only owns Instagram and WhatsApp but has offered payment services since 2019 and has just launched Threads, a micro-blogging rival to Twitter.

For millions of people in developing countries, Meta’s “Free Basics”, which offers subsidised online access to its sites, essentially makes Facebook the centre of the internet. Beyond that, Mark Zuckerberg’s ambitions for the Metaverse seem limitless.

Jeff Bezos’s Amazon might not have a social network, but it has attempted to colonise just about everything else: online grocery shopping, credit cards, cloud storage, streaming, film and TV production, and gaming. TikTok, the social network of choice among Gen Z, is capitalising on its success as a way to publicise books and moving into actual publishing. Then there’s the myriad AI and tech companies run by Google’s parent company Alphabet. Who knows what’s next?

This must all be somewhat galling for Musk, who has spent nearly a quarter of a century dreaming not just of living on Mars, but of building a one-stop shop for the internet – potentially under the brand X. His motivations for buying Twitter were always murky – $44bn is a lot of money to spend simply to “own the libs” – but it might have looked like a convenient shortcut on the way to total online domination. Perhaps the aim was never to nurture and grow Twitter, but to gut it and use the empty husk to relaunch something very different.

If so, it looks set to be a disaster. Twitter is tiny compared to its rivals, with just 450 million monthly active users (Facebook has nearly three billion). It has never had the scale or reach of the tech giants. Its early influence was always down to the enthusiasm of its users and its status; more recently, it has become associated with toxic abuse and fake news. The changes made by Musk since October, whether for financial or strategic reasons, have sent high-profile users fleeing to other networks and made the site progressively less pleasant and more glitchy to use (the announcement of a limit on the number of tweets users could read was a low point). Nothing about Elon Musk’s tenure so far suggests he has the slightest idea how to turn what he has bought into the juggernaut he envisions it might become.

As if to illustrate the point, police were called to the company’s San Francisco HQ the day after the relaunch because workers were attempting to dismantle the “Twitter” sign on the building without adequate warning. X does not stand for “everything”. It may quite soon turn out to stand for nothing.

[See also: Big Tech can’t erase politics from social media]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special

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