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  1. Technology
27 July 2023

The risible origin story of “X”

Elon Musk tried to rebrand a company “X” before – and lost his job.

By Paris Marx

The platform known as Twitter for the past 17 years will now be called “X” – and its billionaire owner Elon Musk expects us all to play along. The sudden change may seem like it came out of nowhere, but there’s a deeper history to this plan and Musk’s obsession with the letter X.

In October, when Musk was on the verge of taking over the social media platform, he was open about the fact that the $44bn acquisition would serve as an “accelerant” for his plans to build “X, the everything app”. In his view, X will not just be a place for us to exchange short posts about whatever we want to talk about; it will also become an online bank and payments platform, a place to shop, and surely whatever else Musk decides should be added to it. And given the hype of the moment, the firm’s CEO, Linda Yaccarino, says it will all be “powered by AI” – because why not?

But this leads to an important question: if Musk has been planning this rebrand since before he took over Twitter, why has the process been such a mess nine months later? Despite what Musk might say publicly about his plans, his tenure at Twitter has been defined by chaos. After taking over, he rapidly cut the company’s staff in half (and then kept cutting), and some of those employees have been very open about how quickly priorities within the organisation shifted based on Musk’s whims. The X rebrand is no different.

A competent executive would have been planning for this scale of overhaul for months, with teams in place to design a new visual identity for the X brand and prepare a seamless transition from the existing bright blue, bird-themed style to whatever was to follow. But Musk did nothing of the sort. On 22 July he started tweeting about plans to “bid adieu to the twitter brand”, then told his followers that if someone made a logo he liked, he’d roll it out the following day. That’s exactly what happened.

Sawyer Merritt, the co-founder of a clothing company who gained a large Twitter following by tweeting about Musk and his companies, posted a video showing a white X on a glitchy black background. Musk reposted it not long after, and on 23 July that version of the X started appearing on the website and app.

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However, the X in the logo is a Unicode character, meaning it’s unlikely Twitter – or X Corp, as the company is now called – will be able to claim ownership over it. Merritt also explained that the logo didn’t come out of nowhere: it was previously the logo for a show he co-hosted on the Callin platform called X Pod where the hosts praised Musk’s corporate endeavours. Callin is a podcasting platform co-founded by David Sacks, one of the small circle of advisers Musk brought in to guide him once he took over Twitter. Now that former podcast logo graces the front page of a platform that is visited by hundreds of millions of users and is owned by the man its hosts worshipped.

[See also: Why Elon Musk killed the Twitter bird]

If we want to guess at how users will respond to this change, which abandons almost two decades of brand recognition and a verb – “tweet” – that’s entered the public lexicon, we can look to history. This isn’t the first time Musk has tried to make X.com a reality.

In 1999 he launched on online bank with the same name. It eventually merged with Confinity, a company founded by Peter Thiel and Max Levchin that made a product called PayPal. Musk became the CEO of the combined company, and immediately started making a series of bad decisions. He sought to rewrite PayPal’s code base to align with X.com, losing millions in the process as development on new features came to a halt, and began the process of rebranding PayPal as X-PayPal with the goal of phasing out the old name altogether. But Musk faced an internal revolt.

Focus groups told the company they trusted the PayPal brand but not X. They perceived the latter as a seedy name and said it reminded them of porn – not the associations you want for a bank and payment processor. But Musk charged forward anyway, until the board replaced him with Thiel while he was on his honeymoon. In the following months the X.com financial services were wound down and the entire company was renamed PayPal.

The biggest difference between 2023 and 2000 – besides the vast fortune he’s accumulated – is that now Musk surrounds himself with sycophants who can’t depose him no matter how bad his ideas, and wouldn’t dare to tell him he’s wrong for fear of being sidelined. Twitter has already been on a persistent, yet chaotic, decline since Musk took over and changing the name to X won’t alter its course. Some commentators want us to believe that this was always Musk’s plan: to destroy Twitter and remake it as a space for right-wing extremists. But that gives him far too much credit.

Musk isn’t an evil mastermind with a grand plan for Twitter. He’s a guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time to ride a wave of growth in a nascent industry, and who the media turned into the figurehead of the ascendant Silicon Valley. They created the myth of Musk’s genius, and he’s prospered from it ever since. In the past couple of years his mask has slipped, and he’s revealed himself not as the builder of the future, but as a bumbling fool who thinks he knows far better than everyone else when the evidence continues to pile up that nothing could be further from the truth.

For the past 23 years, Musk has been obsessed with the letter X. He tried to create an online bank with the name, but it failed. He stuck the letter on his space company, a vehicle model made by his car company, and even one of his children. Now he’s determined to finally fulfill his vision, no matter what the consequences for the platform formerly known as Twitter.

[See also: Twitter is breaking our politics]

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