Changing the name of Twitter to "X" looks to be a "because-I-can" type of decision on the part of Elon Musk — one analyst suggests it was purely ego-driven and likely "going to go down in history as one of the fastest unwinding[s] of a business and brand ever." And while Musk can order all the graphics and signs swapped out that he likes, he actually doesn't have the power to erase a verb and a noun from our contemporary vocabulary.
In his quest to makeover Twitter in his own image, Elon Musk abruptly got rid of the iconic blue bird we've associated with Twitter for 11 years, and as of Sunday the Twitter interface displays an "X" in its place. "Not sure what subtle clues gave it way, but I like the letter X," Musk tweeted on Sunday at 3 in the morning, with a photo of him at some sort of launch event for the Tesla Model X.
As the Associated Press points out today, after Musk sold his first startup, Zip2, to Compaq Computer in the 90s, he "set out to create a one-stop digital shop for finance called X.com — an 'everything' service that would provide bank accounts, process payments, make loans and handle investments." He ended up becoming CEO of PayPal, and as the Washington Post reports, he was obsessed even back then, circa 2000, with changing the service's name to X.com.
The company had focus-grouped it and found that customers liked the name PayPal — it sounded friendly — and disliked X.com, which, obviously, sounds like a porn site. Then PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel orchestrated a coup while Musk was on vacation in September 2020, and he took over as CEO, and the whole X.com thing was relegated to history.
Until now! But rather than a nascent payment-processing service, the new X.com — and yes, that redirects to Twitter — is the same social-media, micro-blogging platform that's been around for over a decade and a half under the name Twitter. And forcing everyone to call it something new won't be as simple as swapping out some icons and buttons. And, for real, how do you make an entire planet — at least the portion of it that is aware of Twitter at all — stop calling a tweet a tweet?!
Basically, you don't, as the Associated Press suggests, speaking to a few language experts and pundits. The word "tweet," which was was already in common usage as a verb and a noun before Twitter went public in 2012. The AP Style book included "tweet" and guidelines for attribution of tweets way back in 2010. The Oxford English Dictionary added "tweet" in 2011, and Merriam-Webster followed in 2013.
"Getting into the dictionary is an indication that people are already using it," says Rutgers University English Professor Jack Lynch, speaking to the AP. "Dictionaries are usually pretty tentative or cautious about letting new words in, especially for new phenomena, because they don’t want things to be just a flash in the pan."
Is Musk's plan really intended to erase the word "tweet" from common usage? Surely new CEO Linda Yaccarino is behind the scenes advising him that this probably won't happen — and the logical next step, which could further damage Twitter's engagement numbers, would be to get rid of the "tweet" and "retweet" buttons, and replace them with what, "X" and "re-X"?
A branding expert Musk is not.
Analysts were already saying Monday that this rebranding decision was likely sacrificing between $4 billion and $20 billion in intrinsic brand valuation that Twitter had built up over the past decade and a half — even if Musk has already damaged the brand over the past eight months.
Nick Bilton, the author of Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal, tells the AP that Twitter likely isn't going away, even if Musk wants to erase it. "Language has always come from the people that use it on a day-to-day basis. And it can’t be controlled, it can’t be created, it can’t be morphed. You don’t get to decide it... I think that it’s kind of become a fabric of society. And even Elon Musk may not be able to break it."
But is the endgame here just to start fresh anyway, scrap Twitter's reputation as a social platform and all of the baggage that comes with that and turn the whole enterprise into something else? Perhaps an app that makes money in other ways and where no one will be yelling about toxic hate speech and misinformation?
Musk said last year that he was eager to make Twitter into an uncensored, "global town square" where the free exchange of ideas would be vital to democracies worldwide. I'm not sure how that squares with being an "everything app" that handles payments and ride-hailing and food delivery or whatever. Would political dissidents really want to be expressing their true opinions on the same app where they do their banking and make their mothers' doctor's appointments? And would anyone want to link their bank accounts to an app where they can be publicly castigated for being a minority or having a controversial opinion? Remember that plan Facebook had to launch its own crypto coin and become a payment processor and bank? Guess where that went.
It also should be noted that Musk could easily have set up a new parent company called X Corp. — which he already has — and kept Twitter as Twitter, the same way Facebook now exists under the Meta umbrella, for better or worse. But he seems dead-set on scrapping the legacy of Twitter itself, come what may.
At this point we should probably just be letting Elon do as he will and stop wasting our breath being exasperated about it. He may end up changing his mind in a few weeks anyway. Stay tuned.
Top image: A photo illustration of the new Twitter logo on July 24, 2023 in London, England. Elon Musk has revealed today a new logo for Twitter, which constitutes the letter 'X' as part of a rebrand of the company. (Photo Illustration by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)