Om Malik: With X, it is Twitter R.I.P!

Om Malik

By Om Malik–

(Om Malik is a partner at True Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based early-stage venture capital group. Prior to joining True, he was the founder of Gigaom, a pioneering technology blog and media company) 

When you pay billions to buy something, you can do anything with it, including self-mutilation and brand destruction. It doesn’t mean you entirely understand it or can bend it to your will without breaking it. I fear that we are at a point of complete value destruction of Twitter, the company Elon Musk bought over a year ago for a whopping $44 billion. The company has dropped its “blue bird” logo and name in favor of X, a stillborn brand for over two decades. Whether something better emerges from the ashes of the bluebird remains to be seen — I am not holding my breath or cheering for a Phoenix rising from its ashes.

As someone who sent out the first tweet (outside of the Twitter team), I have followed the company as closely as anyone. One thing I have understood about the company is that it is hard to understand. It doesn’t matter who you are — its founders, managers, new owner, or media members — the company and the idea refuse to be classified and tamed. When the company went public about a decade ago, I tried to summarize Twitter:

“Twitter, at its very core, is many things to many people: that is its beauty and that is its challenge. Twitter the idea and the product is ever evolving, and so is the company, which was and still is a work in progress. Twitter is unique because it was born in the crucible of failure and grew up in the glare of the spotlight. It took from its community, it learned from its community and sometimes it did shameful things.”

Twitter is a living embodiment of a ground rule of social networks, as postulated by Robert Young, guest writer for my original blog: people and the community make and define a social platform and its culture. This truth has been lost on the respective managements of Twitter and, more recently, Reddit. None of them have learned the lessons of MySpace. Musk isn’t alone in trying to tame Twitter to suit his needs.

Since buying Twitter, Musk has made some bizarre moves — at least some made sense. I am unsurprised that he wants to use Twitter as his bully pulpit. Or that he wants to turn Twitter into a “Fox” equivalent of social media. While no one can deny that Twitter desperately needed fewer employees and a more rigorous monetization strategy, Musk’s ownership has neither made the company profitable nor better. He wants to be the champion of free speech with Twitter but has the thin skin befitting a third-world tyrant.

Twitter acquisition, at least to me, has shown that just because he is the wealthiest man in the world, he is no master tactician as the media has made him out to be. Maybe time will prove me wrong. It won’t be the first time or the last that I will be wrong about the future or my understanding of events. I also understand to be a maverick, you need to make radical moves that don’t seem obvious, but it also means you understand what you already have in your possession. In this case, Twitter and the cultural importance of the brand. Changing Twitter’s brand to “X” is a bizarre move.

However, grafting X as a brand on top of Twitter is even more of a misstep than Facebook’s rebrand as Meta. Let’s face it: technology companies often make a hash of their rebrand. Google becoming Alphabet, for example. For me, the best rebrand was when Apple Computer became Apple. They just dropped the “computer” because they were no longer making just laptops and desktops. Instead, Apple became a company selling products with computers inside.

Twitter as a brand is so embedded in our culture — its blue bird logo is on every website, every billboard, and even as part of television shows and movies. Twitter comes with its verb — a cultural achievement matched by only a few tech companies — Google and Uber come to mind. Still, to ensure I wasn’t being too harsh in my judgment, I contacted my friend David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding.

David and his team have developed iconic brands like Pentium, Powerbook, and Swiffer. “Like a great work of art, a good name should live forever,” Placek once said. He has a list of dos and don’ts regarding brands and brand names.

“If Elon had asked me, I would have advised not to do it,” David emailed me back. “Twitter is one of the world’s most recognized brands – to be sure, it has lost some credibility and has been on the downside of a roller coaster ride, but a brand that size, with its DNA of innovation, can be turned upwards.” He thought adding a sub-brand or a modifier to Twitter, like Twitter Universal or even Twitter X, would be a better approach.

Facebook has done a good job of creating a handful of sub-brands — Facebook Messenger, for example. It has kept Instagram and Whatsapp around as part of the brands owned by the company. They have survived the Meta rebrand. Twitter, too could have been a sub-brand under a parent brand, X. Instead, by losing Twitter’s logo and branding, Musk might be throwing away a valuable asset.

I am with David — X only creates more doubt about Twitter, where it is going, and, more importantly, why should “advertisers” continue to trust a company that can, at best, be described as schizophrenic and unsafe for brands.

Or maybe it is just that Elon is giving up on advertising as a revenue source. Since the turn of the century, Musk has been trying to bring to life. He had a “payments” company called X-dotcom that merged with PayPal. X went into the storage bin, Musk was made the CEO, and PayPal is now part of the modern Internet.

Since then, Musk has started Tesla and SpaceX, and more recently, he has launched an AI company called “xAI” that will use “twitter” data to help train its models. Musk has said that he wants to use X as a brand for a meta-app like WeChat that can be used to enable payments and transactions.

“Only the future will know if Elon’s latest move is both a bold and strategic or an act of desperation,” is how Placek sees it. It will be a no-thank you —after all, as far I am concerned, Musk is no longer Captain America — he is Elliot Craver. And it is his money to burn, after all.

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