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Elon Musk is making me look stupid.
He’s making me look stupid because, since he acquired Twitter last year for a fee in the region of $44bn, I’ve consistently expected him to start behaving rationally. As everyone has predicted the death of the bird-based social network, I’ve kept saying: relax. Things will end up back where they started. Musk will focus on SpaceX and Tesla, and we’ll return to the mid-value Twitter of the 2010s.
And, to some extent, I think that’s where we are. Twitter right now is much less functionally different, compared to a year ago, than people would have you think. There have undoubtedly been changes to the way the timeline is constructed — a greater emphasis, for example, on tweets by accounts that you’re not following — but that’s no bad thing. It’s a pretty similar algorithmic tweak to the one that Instagram has made, or the one that TikTok is built on. This new Twitter is less focused on closed circles, more focused on discoverability. I struggle to find a particularly strong critique of this development.
More transformative has been the total destruction of Twitter’s revenue stream. Again, I still think this was not necessarily a thoughtless action: most digital media services would rather run on a subscription-based revenue system than an advertising one. The problem has been that the subscription offering — Twitter Blue — isn’t very good, and has done a lot of damage to the core brand’s reputation. Not least, it has totally destabilised the platform’s curated sense of “trust”, an asset that Musk thinks is low value but his advertisers think is high value. And therefore Twitter has tanked with its biggest revenue stream, advertising.
I was convinced that the turning point would be his appointment of a CEO for Twitter, which he made, back in May. Linda Yaccarino — a normal person, as far as I can see — joined Twitter from NBCUniversal. Superficially, her appointment seemed to mark the end of the madcap Musk era — except, of course, it didn’t. Because this week, with Twitter threatened (perhaps existentially) by Mark Zuckerberg’s Instagram-fuelled replica Threads, has been one of the most tumultuous of Musk’s reign. “And soon we shall bid adieu to the twitter brand,” he wrote on Sunday, “and, gradually, all the birds.”
(Why does this tweet remind me of that line from The Secret History where Bunny concludes an essay by writing: “And as we leave Donne and Walton on the shores of metahemeralism, we wave a fond farewell to those famous chums of yore”?)
This slightly cryptic tweet was followed by something more definite from Yaccarino. “X,” she wrote, “is the future state of unlimited interactivity — centered in audio, video, messaging, payments/banking — creating a global marketplace for ideas, goods, services, and opportunities. Powered by AI, X will connect us all in ways we’re just beginning to imagine.” And shortly after that, Twitter’s little bird icon was replaced by a dramatic, stark X, and the process of undoing 15 years of brand-building began.
Naturally, among the people desperate for Musk to fail, there has been some glee at the execution of this change. The San Francisco authorities shut down the attempt to change the sign on Twitter HQ from “TWITTER” to “X” (though they later projected a giant X onto the side of the building). There are also reports swirling that Meta, Threads’ parent company, owns the rights to use the X brand for social media projects. There have also been plenty of gleeful recognitions of the association of the letter with pornography. Whatever: moving Twitter to X is clearly an attempt to bring the project more in line with Musk’s other business interests. In his own words, he likes the letter — not just SpaceX and X.com, but his daughter X Æ A-Xii (who is known, in the informality of her home, as just X).
So that’s one business impulse. Since its acquisition, Twitter has stuck out like a sore thumb from the other key products in the Musk portfolio. SpaceX, Tesla, Starlink, The Boring Company/Hyperloop — they’re all cutting edge innovators. Twitter is, in tech terms, regressive. A micro-blogging service? In 2023?? And so, refashioning it as X unlocks the aesthetic potential to be something more than that.
Which brings me to the second impulse: to be something more than that. It’s been quite apparent for some time — particularly thanks to Musk’s overt courting of figures like Tucker Carlson and MrBeast — that he sees the future of Twitter as much more mixed-media than it currently is. The revenue potential to competing with YouTube is huge, far bigger than the revenue potential of being competed with as a text-based service. And Twitter has consistently innovated in this direction. The addition of images to posts radically changed the service and made it the epicentre of meme culture (and effectively killed Tumblr in the process), and video and audio has only added to that (although the audio-only experiment was a bust). So Musk has really only expedited a trend that was already in evidence.
But he’s impatient. He’s impatient because Twitter is losing money (empirically, undeniably) but, more than that, it’s making his golden touch look positively silver. To some extent, he’s immune to criticism. He’s changing Twitter to reflect his personality and his preferences, and, as such, the diminution in value is grandfathered into that process. Yet, equally, it’s hard to see where the end point is; or how he gets the site into profit. And Elon Musk, since his early days at PayPal, doesn’t run not-for-profits. The fact that his biggest rival, Mark Zuckerberg, saw Twitter as being so critically weak that he rushed the launch of Threads, a direct competitor, is another ego blow. Right now, the purchase of Twitter looks — though he would never admit it — like a huge mistake. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow.
Transitioning Twitter to X, and changing the terms of the project, gives Musk a chance to reframe the acquisition as a way of gaining a foothold in the world of digital media. A foothold, he would argue, just as advancements in Artificial Intelligence radically change that industry. $44bn for a 450m users is an insane price — but just as Instagram has given Threads a tremendous market advantage, so too could Twitter give X a leg-up.
Every time I’ve predicted a return to normality for Twitter, it’s been predicated on the simple fact that Mr Musk is not just playing with his own money, but money from a variety of investors. Surely, with a suite of high-level firms breathing down his neck, sane business practices would win out in the end? Surely, given that many of these investors also have holdings in SpaceX and Tesla, they would rather he focused his energies on those, clearly more scaleable, prospects? Surely, surely, surely, the market would impose some discipline on a CEO running his business like no other modern business is run?
But no, that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. And the unilateral rebranding as X, seemingly almost at a whim, corroborates the lack of oversight being focused on Musk. Which suggests, yes, a degree of confidence in his “plans”, but, equally, a sense that the current money-losing position is not the end of the world. Maybe this is because they are all getting so rich on their SpaceX stock that it doesn’t really matter what happens at Twitter. Maybe this is because they really believe that X is the future of the digital realm. Or maybe this is because they think that most of the changes that Musk has enacted are fairly easily reversible. It’s hard to fathom their position, exactly. But what’s clear is that, at present, Musk is being allowed a lot of leash. He’s still running Twitter with a scary amount of autonomy.
So, will X be a success? Well, I have two thoughts.
My first thought is that it’s basically madness to upset the Twitter brand, which is really strong and is what, essentially, you valued at $44bn just a year ago. But, equally, the little bird mascot is super corny. Think of the logos of Twitter’s competitors: Facebook is a lower-case f, Instagram a camera lens, YouTube a play icon, TikTok a quaver, and Threads an @. They’re all much cleaner, much more on-topic, and, crucially, much less cheesy. The bird feels like a throwback to an era of corporate mascots, the Tony the Tigerisation of American business. And so I’m not hugely surprised that the next design iteration of the Twitter brand has moved away from the cartoon tweeter. All the same, the X doesn’t really have much integrated logic with the service that Twitter provides: a pen nib, for example, or a megaphone, would make more sense.
Which suggests to me that X is almost a placeholder until Twitter finds its new, multimedia and AI-based, identity. I also suspect — and here’s my second thought — that X will end up being the parent company, and that the Twitter brand will resurface sooner rather than later.
I know, I know — I’m betting, once again, on rationality. And yes, Elon Musk is probably going to make me look stupid. But the reverse ferret here is easy. You introduce the X brand on Twitter, in the knowledge that people will, for some time, continue referring to the service as Twitter. You’ve rushed this decision because your biggest competitor — Meta — has rushed their decision to release Threads. So, for the time being, X offers nothing that Twitter didn’t. But your product boffins are working hard to cook up technology that can compete with Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. A few months down the line, you’re ready to launch the X central hub, where users can access a TikTok-style short-form video content service (not, I suspect, called XVideos), a longer form YouTube style video service (not, I suspect, called XTube), and a short-form micro-blogging service. And that micro-blogging service will, I suspect, be called Twitter. Not least because, at present Twitter.com is still the 5th most-visited site on the internet. That domain name alone is worth several billion dollars.
And Musk doesn’t want X to be a microblogging service. He wants it to be something new and shiny and exciting — the Tesla of the web, the SpaceX of earth. X won’t, ultimately, be a rebranded version of Twitter, which ought to leave space for Twitter to be Twitter again.
This is why I’m reluctant to buy the idea of a “rebrand”. Assuming that he doesn’t announce next week that this was all a bit of a joke designed to (I don’t know: what’s a plausible way of backtracking?) promote SpaceX, I’d rather call this a “corporate redirection” or even a new product launch. Musk is rash, impatient and, let’s face it, at 52, possibly out of step with the internet — but he’s not stupid and he has an innate business sense. Sometimes the world follows Elon Musk and sometimes Elon Musk follows the world, but they tend to end up in the same place: with Musk’s portfolio share price rising and his wallet fattening.
But maybe X is every bit as silly as, on the surface, it looks, in which case Elon Musk will have succeeded only in making me look stupid. Again.
Feel free to give me a follow on Twitter or X or whatever it’s called at the point that you happen to be reading this.