There is a logic to the social network's controversial rebrand as X
It wasn’t a joke. Elon Musk really is rebranding Twitter. Just as he promised in a tweet on Sunday, the company will “bid adieu to the twitter brand and, gradually, all the birds”. A new X logo has already been unveiled and the X.com domain name now redirects to the Twitter site.
But why is Musk doing this? Why acquire a social media company for $44 billion only to erase its corporate identity? Imagine Apple or Coca-Cola or Rolls-Royce rebranding as “E” or “J” or “Z”. It appears to make no sense.
Some commentators have noted Musk’s fixation with the 24th letter of the alphabet. It repeatedly appears in the names of his companies, such as SpaceX; his products, such as the Tesla Model X; and even his children. More broadly, X is a pluripotent symbol in Western culture. It variously signifies obscenity, anonymity, the alcoholic strength of beer, a kiss and Jesus Christ. In mathematics, it stands for an unknown quantity; in pirate cartography, a buried treasure.
One of Musk’s recent tweets simply reads, “Deus Ex”, cleaving the final word from the classical phrase meaning “god from the machine”. Its origin stems from Greek theatre, in which mechanisms like winches or trap doors were used to make supernatural beings appear onstage. If Twitter is the machine in this metaphor, though, then what — or who — is the god?
To answer that, we need to trace the origins of X.com, which started off as an online bank co-founded by Musk. After merging with a competitor, the company changed its name to PayPal and Musk went off to do other things. However, he has since reacquired the X.com domain name. The fact that he’s using it to rebrand Twitter suggests that he’s pressing ahead with expansion plans.
In the West, most apps are used to do a particular thing — for instance, PayPal is for transferring money, Uber for hailing taxis, and Twitter for berating strangers on the internet. But in Asia, so-called “everything apps” are used to access multiple services. The most prominent example is China’s WeChat, which plays a huge part in the country’s very online financial infrastructure. Musk has big ambitions and a track record of achieving them. If those include turning Twitter into the Western WeChat, then we need to stop sniggering and take him seriously.
After all, Twitter provides the perfect launchpad. It has hundreds of millions of users in multiple countries, a super-accessible user interface and a public profile that, unlike most social networks, does not limit its appeal to narrow demographics. If any app could become the everything app — indeed the god app — it is this one.
But there’s a problem — which is Twitter’s reputation as, primarily, a microblogging site. Far from being an asset, the familiarity of the branding is a liability. In its place, Musk needs a name that can become known for many things, not just one. X hits the spot.
So his critics are wrong: Musk has not lost his mind. Shooting the bird makes perfect sense.