Why Elon Killed the Bird

Three theories about Twitter’s seemingly nonsensical rebrand to X

Twitter's bird logo atop an XBen Kothe / The Atlantic

In May, Elon Musk presided over an uncharacteristically subtle tweak to Twitter’s home page. For years, the prompt in the text box at the top of the page read, “What’s happening?,” a friendly invitation for users to share their thoughts. Eight months after the billionaire’s takeover, Twitter changed the prompt ever so slightly to match the puzzling, chaotic nature of the platform under the new regime: “What’s happening?” became “What is happening?!”

This question, with its exclamatory urgency, has never been more relevant to Twitter than in the past 48 hours, when Musk decided to nuke 17 years’ worth of brand awareness and rename the thing. The artist formerly known as Twitter is now X. What is happening?! indeed.

I have three answers to that question, beyond the simple “Nothing much.” (Even with its new name, the site is pretty much the same as ever; the blue bird logo in the left-hand corner of the website is now a black X, and … that’s about it.) This X boondoggle may simply be the flailing of a man who doesn’t want to own his social network and was pressured via lawsuit to buy it, but Musk and the Twitter (X?) CEO, Linda Yaccarino, would like you to believe that much bigger things are coming.

1. Musk wants to build the “Internet of Elon.”

The first theory requires taking Musk’s ambitions somewhat seriously. In a tweet last October, he declared that “buying Twitter is an accelerant to creating X, the everything app.” Versions of these “super apps” already exist and are popular in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, so we know what this means: X would function as a holistic platform that includes payment processing and banking, ride-sharing, news, communication with friends, and loads and loads of commerce. Think of it as the internet, but without leaving Musk’s walled garden. In a leaked recording of a Twitter town hall back in June 2022, Musk hinted that China’s WeChat was a model of sorts for X. “There’s no WeChat movement outside of China,” he said. “And I think that there’s a real opportunity to create that. You basically live on WeChat in China because it’s so useful and so helpful to your daily life. And I think if we could achieve that, or even close to that with Twitter, it would be an immense success.”

If you squint, you can see the logic. Plenty of people across Twitter—influencers, freelancers, small-business owners—use the platform to sell things. Many of these people use various “link in bio” pages to direct people to their work and receive payment. X, the theoretical everything app, could streamline and consolidate these exchanges, and, like WeChat, generate revenue from them. Musk has already launched a program to share ad revenue with some of Twitter’s larger “creator” accounts, the early beneficiaries of which included many prominent right-wing shock jocks. And if he could manage to get hundreds of millions of people to live and shop and bank on his app, instead of, say, shitpost memes and argue politics with white nationalists, that would be an immense success.

To do that, X would need to build out an advanced, secure payment platform; apply the appropriate regulatory licenses to legally process payments and store money; and, of course, recruit businesses and financial institutions to use the platform. According to the Financial Times, the company began filing applications for those licenses early this year and has been at work building parts of a payment infrastructure. The bad news is that the person Musk tasked with spearheading the project was laid off—along with about 80 percent of Twitter’s workforce.

Musk does have experience in the payments business. He founded an online bank—also called X.com—in 1999, and it shortly thereafter merged with Confinity to become PayPal. Perhaps this would give his super-app idea some credibility, if not for Musk having spent the past 15 months blundering through his latest business venture in full view of the public. He has alienated advertisers with his reactionary and conspiratorial political opinions, sent the company deep into debt, and, at times, rendered the platform unusable by limiting how many tweets users can see. The platform appears to be shrinking under Musk’s leadership, according to third-party traffic data. Spam is rampant, and the most satisfied users seem to be previously banned racists and anti-Semites who have regained access to their megaphone.

It’s already a hard sell for Musk to convince people that his sputtering platform is the best place for posting Barbenheimer memes, let alone the right home for … everything, including our money. But the cognitive dissonance between Musk’s reputational hemorrhaging and his grand ambitions is easier to bridge when you consider the second way to explain X, which is that it’s a desperate shot in the dark.


2. X is pseudoware—just buzzwords and a logo.

Unlike Facebook’s pivot to Meta, which was oriented around a real (though flawed and unappealing) virtual-reality product, X is a rebrand built on little more than a vague collection of buzzwords cobbled together to form a complete sentence. On Sunday, Yaccarino described the forthcoming app as “the future state of unlimited interactivity” that is “centered in audio, video, messaging, payments/banking—creating a global marketplace for ideas, goods, services, and opportunities.” She also noted that, “powered by AI, X will connect us all in ways we’re just beginning to imagine.” (Yaccarino did not respond to a request for comment.)

Her tweet is a near-perfect example of business-dude lorem ipsum—corporate gibberish that sounds superficially intelligent but is actually obfuscating. What is “unlimited interactivity?” How will X be “powered by AI”? Does she mean generative AI like ChatGPT or standard algorithms of the sort that have powered Twitter’s “For you” feed for years? The particulars are irrelevant: The words just need to sound like something when strung together.

Musk, too, is guilty of such blabber. He has argued that his hypothetical project, if built correctly, could “become half of the global financial system.” This is the empty language of a dilettante, the equivalent of me telling you that this article, if written correctly, is on pace to win the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism, or that I am the executive wordsmith for The Atlantic’s Words About Computers section.

Musk’s and Yaccarino’s descriptions of X don’t just suggest vaporware, an industry term for a hyped-up product that never materializes. They feel like something else, too: I’d call it pseudoware. Like a pseudo-event, pseudoware masquerades as something newsworthy, even though it is not. Yaccarino’s Mad Libs–ian tweetstorm is the press release for this pseudo-event: big talk for a pivot that has so far manifested in ornamental changes. Musk’s first orders of business have been to adopt a new logo and to project it in conference rooms at headquarters. When Yaccarino tweeted that “X will connect us all in ways we’re just beginning to imagine,” I take her at her word: No one seems to have spent much time thinking about any of this.

It’s natural to wonder why the world’s richest man would spend his time dismantling one of the world’s most recognizable social-media brands in favor of an inscrutable super app nobody asked for. He could, at any moment, jet off to a private island and drink bottomless piña coladas while giggling about Dogecoin instead! Herein lies the third and most important explanation for X, which is that it is a reputational line of credit for Musk.


3. Musk needs to save face.

Musk’s reputation is dependent on people believing that he can gin up new categories of industry and see around corners to build futuristic stuff. His $44 billion acquisition of Twitter was marketed with a visionary framework: Musk would realize Twitter’s dreams of being a truly global town square and solve the intractable problems of free speech at scale. Having failed at that, Musk is, in essence, going back to basics with X—it’s an opportunity to remake the internet in his own image.

As Bloomberg’s Max Chafkin pointed out, Musk’s original X.com brand was a total failure. He was obsessed with the name and the web address, but consumers, not illogically, associated the brand with adult-entertainment sites. Musk was ousted by X.com’s board after the merger in 2000, a year before the service was renamed PayPal, but the payment company remains an important part of his legacy. X, then, is a callback to a younger version of the entrepreneur—one who is associated with success, products that work, and generous investor returns. It also represents unfinished business and a chance to rewrite an earlier phase of his career.

In this sense, X is less a brilliant vision than it is an act of desperation. Musk is behaving much like a start-up with an unsustainable burn rate—he needs a cash injection. And in order to raise some reputational capital, he needs a good idea, one that seems plausible and scalable. X checks all the boxes for such an idea. Its ambitions are so vague as to be boundless, which signals perpetual growth and moneymaking—it is, quite literally, the everything app. In this way, X is an inkblot test for anyone who still wants to believe in Musk: Squint the right way and X takes on the form of whatever hopes and dreams that person has for the future of the internet. This is the fleeting genius of pseudoware: The best feature of marketing an app for everything is that you can get away with saying mostly nothing.

But just how many people still have unwavering faith in Musk is an open question. How many people are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the man who can’t pay his rents and server bills on time? Who is going to help build this technological behemoth for the man who fired the majority of his company and allegedly owes $500 million in severance payments? And, perhaps most important, who is excited about what Musk is focusing his time, energy, and money on?

Even though X wants to be big, a WeChat clone is conceptually small in comparison with the projects that have allowed Musk to market himself as a savant: space exploration, rewiring the human brain, revolutionizing transportation to save the Earth. The most cynical view of X is that the people who still respect Musk are reactionaries who delight only when their enemies have been gleefully trolled. Perhaps, then, Musk’s dismantling of the social network is a success, so long as it makes the right people miserable. Left with few options, Musk has decided to mortgage the Twitter brand to save his own. Even by his standards, it’s a risky bet.

Via The Atlantic

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