It’s now been a little over a month since Elon Musk changed Twitter’s name to that of his favorite letter, X, scrubbing pretty much every trace of the beloved bird from the company’s digital and physical presences. In the world of X, there are no tweets or retweets or quote-tweets—just “posts” and “reposts” and “quotes.” Various faces of the platform, formerly accessible via usernames like @TwitterSupport or @TwitterSports, now go by handles like @Support and @XSports, typically because the company has taken them by force. (In case you’re wondering what’s happened since the company took @Music from its longtime owner in order to replace @TwitterMusic, it turns out that the newly officialized handle has done little other than occasionally retweet—sorry, repost—various artists.) Overall, it’s proved a baffling exercise in transforming a distinctive, recognizable, and lucrative brand into something so generic that it’s no longer possible to identify it with ease.
Sure, CEO-in-all-but-title Elon Musk wants to craft an “everything app” with a broad range of uses, so it makes sense he’d wish to expand the company’s purview beyond something that’s come to define the basic concept of a text-based social platform. And he’s not the only one to have changed an iconic corporate name in service of broader mission, just to look at Google/Alphabet and Facebook/Meta. So now, those of us cursed with continued dependence on the former bird app—whether due to coverage needs or a simple lack of viable alternatives—are puzzling through how to refer to this thing. It’s not a big deal, some may say, just call it X. Yes, but: How intuitive is that when X has been used in so many other contexts as a stand-alone letter or Roman numeral? A few recent examples right off the bat: Fast X, X-Men, the annual X Games races, the rock band X Japan, a new discount on the Xbox Series X, Google/Alphabet’s own X Development subsidiary, the old Phil Collins group Brand X, the still-touring ’70s-era punk act X, and, most notoriously, the Xvideos porn site. Beyond those famed instances, there are literal hundreds of other trademarked properties involving the solo letter that lands you 8 points in Scrabble.
It’s not that Twitter or tweet were uncommon words before Noah Glass and Biz Stone appropriated them for their microblogging platform; just ask Tweety Bird, noted Missy Elliott collaborator Charlene “Tweet” Keys, or the ghost of Chaucer. Certainly, those words were less unique than names like Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, which riffed on already-existing concepts in fun ways. Really, it’s more akin to something like Apple, which has never deviated from its central brand in all its decades. But Twitter, also like Apple, was able to apply an intuitive association between its word and its core purposes—what Apple did with bite/bytes, Twitter did with the act of twittering online, and Google did with the act of searching online. (Notably, Apple did have some verbing success with “FaceTime” in regard to making video calls, proving a potent competitor to Microsoft’s “Skyping.”)
Indeed, that may be the key to the resilience of these brand-dispensed terms: the verbiage. Google may be a subsidiary of the Alphabet holding company, but aside from the striving companywide union, almost no one refers to anything Google-related as an Alphabet thing—not even the Nasdaq, which retains a recognizable GOOG stock ticker. Despite the search engine’s marked decline in usefulness, Google remains the standard verb for looking stuff up online. In a similar vein, you can “post” just about anywhere, but when you “tweet,” people understand what you’re doing, even if they’re no longer on Twitter: They realize you’re making a (typically) short post on a still-important information source that can be easily embedded on other websites or spotlighted on TV or screenshotted for memeing. This may speak to another likely reason new Twitter competitors haven’t taken off—they’re unable to replicate the universality of tweet, even though they’re trying. Threads is just confusing things by calling its singular posts “Threads,” in light of the word’s Twitter context. Thankfully, Mastodon has long ditched “toots,” though it hasn’t envisioned a good replacement. Here’s hoping Bluesky will likewise do away with “skeets.”
If Meta still isn’t used as much as Facebook is, there’s still a good sign for the company that, per Google Trends, people are happy to use the former when searching for Meta-related news (company layoffs, Instagram’s paid verification) while using the latter for events that generally occurred before 2021’s name change (the release of the Facebook Papers, the privacy settlement for users whose activity may date back to 2007). Despite the failures of the multibillion-dollar metaverse experiment, netizens are willing to call Meta by that name when it comes to the present—perhaps in part because Facebook never became a definitional verb in the way Google and tweet did. Here, it’s Facebook that looks a little more like Apple: a powerful noun, but a simple noun nevertheless.
So, what does this all mean for X/Twitter? If it turns out Musk-era X.com/X Corp. can quit shedding its online relevance, quit losing traffic, and remain somewhat resilient, perhaps the growing pains will subside and people will adapt, with some time. As religion professor Jana Riess recently wrote, “Language changes take a long time and may not come at all,” comparing the X-Twitter transition to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 2018 decision to stop using Mormon—a switch that hasn’t fully caught on outside the church, for myriad reasons. Indeed, head to just about any news source or aggregator and you’ll find that X is still mentioned in conjunction with Twitter, if not just called “Twitter” outright. It’s not X or X.com, but “X, formerly known as Twitter,” or “Elon Musk’s X,” or even “X” in scare quotes. As Similarweb noted in a blog post last month, “the rebranding of Twitter to ‘X’ is incomplete, with twitter.com remaining the primary web domain.” Wikipedia still says that “Twitter” (not my bolding) is “currently rebranding to X,” even though it’s “operated by the American company X Corp., the successor of Twitter, Inc.” Another tell: In just about every outside-website post embed of an X post, the display name shown refers to the social network as “X (formerly Twitter).” That’s a field coded by X, not the people embedding a given post. Seems like even the company knows that it’s chained to its more distinct, more powerful, more unique old brand for the time being—perhaps by necessity. Maybe, at some point, X will stop using its own name in its API. When X can commit to it fully, then the rest of us can.
Or maybe not. In 2015, after Google announced the Alphabet rebrand, Lowen Liu wrote in Slate that the new name was “banal to a menacing degree, a play for universality that ends up meaning nothing at all.” The same could very well be said for “X.”