Elon Musk has always had a thing about the letter X. It goes back at least as far as 1999, when he reportedly paid $1 million for the x.com domain and invested another $12 million into making x.com into an online banking site. Then while Musk was out of town, the board replaced him with a different CEO and renamed the whole thing PayPal.
On his return, Musk reportedly tried to get X back into the name, suggesting to the marketing department that they rename the site X-PayPal before “phasing out the PayPal name altogether.” This was at a point when the site had already gained such recognition that people were using PayPal as a verb. Not only did others at the company think abandoning the company brand was “insanity,” there was a basic problem with using X; the company’s own surveys showed that people always assumed x.com involved pornography.
That’s a problem that still exists, but it’s far from the only issue as Musk shreds another household name to satisfy his X fetish. His bigger problem with trying to rebrand his property is that other people already have claims to the use of X for just about everything he’s trying to do, and none of those people are likely to step aside without demanding payment. All of this only serves to underscore what has to be the biggest question in all of this: Why did Elon Musk buy Twitter in the first place?
As it turns out, Mark Zuckerberg also has a piece of the X pie. As Reuters reports, Meta, in addition to owning Facebook, Instagram, Threads, and WhatsApp, also owns a federal trademark to use X for “software and social media.” Considering that Meta is just about synonymous with social media at this point, they may have a copyright for every letter in the alphabet and a good assortment of cuneiform impressions. Anyway, they’re unlikely to give up their X without protest.
Microsoft, as part of developing its XBox video game platform, also has some easily understandable investment in X, owning copyrights related to using X in communications between players that might easily be seen as extending into the kind of messages sent using X-Twitter. Microsoft is also unlikely to give up a core piece of its own branding without being handed a check with many zeros.
Those are just two companies on a very extensive list. In selecting a name this short and this not at all unique, Musk opens X-Twitter to endless lawsuits and litigation. For a guy who frequently comments about the need to bring costs down on his media platform, selecting a new name that is going to mean millions spent in litigation and millions more spent buying out necessary rights seems like a sub-genius-level move. Maybe you have to look at it in 4D.
Oh, and about that other problem: Here’s a brief summary using what Musk insists on calling a “xeet” from his platform.
That seems like it might be concerning, but then, maybe this has been the plan all along. Maybe Musk’s target for X-Twitter is not Instagram plus PayPal so much as the all new PornHub. That certainly seems possible. Because, getting back to the biggest issue, why would Musk buy Twitter just to wad it up and throw away everything of value?
He didn’t buy it for the technical platform. Not only is the base platform not that complex to begin with, as is ably illustrated by the dozens of clones, but Musk’s first move was to fire most of the technical team and make life intolerable for those who remained. Musk himself has complained about the wire-and-spit underpinnings of the site while at the same time making huge demands for new features on an unreasonable schedule. It’s a formula for fragility, and both site statistics and user experience show that X-Twitter is barely hanging on.
He didn’t buy it for its advertising base. Musk has done everything he can to alienate those advertisers with erratic moves, disgusting statements, and a vision for the company that seems less planned out than the scheme of the average Scooby Doo villain. Things happen at X-Twitter, and then other things happen, but if there is any consistency or logic behind those things, it is undetectable to mere mortals. Combine this with support for racism, misogyny, bigotry of all kinds, and a willingness to indulge the most ridiculous conspiracy theories, and it’s no surprise that advertisers went screaming for the exits. Oh, and ranting at advertisers for leaving is really not the best way to get them back. X-Twitter has become the number one place to find all those weird low-budget scams that used to populate the dusty commercial slots on Tucker Carlson’s show. Even the pillow salesman who gobbled up those advertising slots is facing bankruptcy and can’t ride in to save the day.
Musk couldn’t have bought it for the user community. The moderation team that built that community was toast from the moment Musk carried a friggin’ sink through the door. Since then, he’s done all he can to drive away the user base, testing the limits of so many alternatives as everyone scrambles for a new bulletin board to call home. A thousand programmers at Thread and Blue Sky have to be grateful for the work, but it’s hard to think that was the plan. Meanwhile, the corpses of X-Twitter accounts vanish beneath a rising tide of bots and Russian propaganda farms.
He certainly didn’t buy it for the near-universal brand recognition. A name as well known as Twitter has value even if the product is radically changed. There are people still slapping Kodak and Atari onto just about any kind of consumer electronics, counting on some random nostalgia-connected neurons to trigger a spark of interest or trust. Even if Musk were more interested in online banking than a message board, holding onto the Twitter name and ID while the parts shifted around below the surface would still retain some value from his purchase. Only … nope.
Musk clearly didn’t drop $44 billion on X-Twitter for the technology, the users, the advertisers, or the brand. What else is there?
The most cynical view might be that Musk bought Twitter for the express purpose of killing it. Even a casual observer can read every move he has made as directed toward destroying the platform’s potential as quickly and efficiently as possible while maintaining a thin pretense of not sabotaging his own enterprise.
But really, that’s giving Musk too much credit. It’s still saying that he had a plan when he opened his mouth and committed to spending more than twice as much as Twitter was worth at the time. What’s much more likely is that Musk never had a plan for Twitter. Considering the vagueness of his statements and the grandiose scale of what he’s pushing now, it’s clear he doesn’t have a plan for X-Twitter.
As Democratic strategist Elizabeth Spiers explained to X-Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino (whose sole job seems to be trying to sound enthusiastic about whatever mess Musk just stepped in), what’s been said about the new direction simply makes no sense.
Linda, Elon hasn’t even been able to deliver a functioning Twitter. He hasn’t made it profitable; it is far less usable than it was; and he has basically destroyed trust and safety—not just for users but for advertisers, too.
Spiers gives a must read A-to-Z debunking of the idea that X can become some kind of global banking industry supergiant.
So Musk has thrown away Twitter’s users, advertisers, technology, and branding in exchange for a name that he’ll have to defend in court for years and a vision that can’t be accomplished. Sure, owning the most successful microblogging platform means that Musk can get his latest fart joke in front of millions, and he has managed to slip a single paycheck to some of his favorite Nazis. But is that it? Really? For $44 billion?
It’s almost like this guy is just … a twit.