Twitter gets a makeover: what changes does X bring?

On 24 July, Elon Musk gave Twitter’s iconic bluebird its freedom, renaming the Californian platform ‘X’. This change of name for the social network is accompanied by far-reaching changes to its strategy, how it operates, the services it offers and its contribution to debate in society. This change of direction is not insignificant. It comes at a time of difficulty for Twitter, whose advertising revenues have fallen by half, and is part of a project to overhaul the famous social network created in 2006.

In terms of communications strategy, the voluntary change of a brand name can be motivated by a number of reasons: 1) the implementation of a new corporate strategy aimed at remobilising teams; 2) the launch of a new product or service, or a change in the company’s activity; 3) the occurrence of a scandal that has damaged the company’s image.

It’s interesting to note, in studying the case of Twitter turned X, that the social network more or less responds to these three reasons. It begs the question: what precisely is this name change a symptom of, and does it augur a difficult future for the platform in the current context of user desertion?

A newborn within the Musk nebula

Twitter is abandoning its original name to adopt the minimalist denomination of ‘X’. This letter seems to be particularly popular with E. Musk, so much so that it is intrinsically embedded in his entrepreneurial history., which later became Paypal, was already the name of the online bank founded by the 50-year-old in his youth. Some of his companies, such as SpaceX and xAI, also bear this letter in their name. Last April, the name of Twitter’s company was temporarily changed to X Corp. And this trend is even reflected in the first name of his son, whom E. Musk wanted to christen ‘X Æ A-12’. This name change takes us from the playful chirping of the blue bird to a sleek black ‘X’, a symbol charged with mathematical semantics that evokes an imaginary sense of technological progress, as well as being a figure of the intersection of activities at a single point of convergence: Musk himself.

This new name underlines the entrepreneur’s desire to change the landscape of the Internet, in the same way that Facebook, which became Meta in 2021, wanted to found a metaverse, a virtual universe within the physical universe. Through his financial investment in Twitter, the entrepreneur has shown that he is aware of the importance of a social network that contributes to the global dissemination and amplification of major events, movements and social scandals (think, for example, of the hashtags #MeToo, #PrayForParis, etc.). Having sought to enter the arena of the web giants, E. Musk now faces fierce competition in a booming social networking market with increasingly similar offerings. In the short term, the billionaire’s media stunts seem to be bearing fruit: in a post published on 28 July, E. Musk declared that X had reached a new record of 543 million monthly users.

It remains to be seen whether, despite the encouraging data put forward by E. Musk, his strategy will pay off in the longer term and in all countries.
In fact, to ensure the profitability of a company facing a loss of users and revenue, E. Musk is betting on the transformation of Twitter’s business model, which is essentially an advertising business model, into a subscription business model.

Towards a multifunctional social network… but at what price?

The new name suggests that X is set to undergo a number of changes over the coming months. Content is likely to become pay-per-use, in a bid to prioritise user accounts: those who will be able to enjoy all the benefits of X will be those who appreciate the network and use it regularly, and are willing to pay the price to get the most out of it. Ultimately, the aim is to build customer loyalty.

E. Musk has also made no secret of his intention to create a ‘super-app’ giving access to a multitude of services, including financial ones such as payment by phone, along the lines of what WeChat, a very popular social network in China, already offers. A pay-as-you-go version of the platform, first called Twitter Blue and then X Premium, has just been introduced, along with an advertising ‘revenue sharing programme’ for content creators, as announced by the head of the company earlier this year. X will inevitably include financial tools such as payments and e-commerce. Communication on the network will also be enhanced with new tools. After the increase in the number of characters in posts and the gradual arrival of journalistic articles, the social network will be adding a new feature to its collection: ‘Soon, you’ll be able to make video calls without having to give your phone number to anyone on the platform’, said Linda Yaccarino, X’s CEO since May 2023, in an interview with CNBC this summer about the company’s future. This information was confirmed by E. Musk in a post published on 31 August on X, in which the billionaire announced that voice and video calls, soon to be integrated into Private Messages (PM), would work on Apple, Android and Windows devices.

However, these tools are already offered by rival social networks: Meta, which owns Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, introduced voice and video calls on Messenger in 2015, while Snapchat integrated them in 2016. For the time being, X’s management team has not specified when these new features will be available.

However, since 25 August, social networks have been subject to the European DSA (Digital Service Act) regulation, and the platform’s new privacy policy, which is due to come into force on 29 September, tells users that ‘subject to [their] consent, X may collect and use [their] biometric data for safety, security and identification purposes’, without specifying what type of biometric data will actually be collected. ‘X’s announcement is an extension of the ongoing exploitation of social network users to obtain personal data that can be used for advertising targeting,’ Stephen Wicker, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University in the United States, told The Associated Press, at a time when the digital giants are facing increasingly strict legal rules, particularly within the European Union.

The new devices deployed on X will therefore come at a double price: firstly, a monetary cost, and, above all, use of the social network at the cost of the protection and anonymity of personal data. Paradoxically, this data collection seems to run counter to the promise of a freer Twitter so much advocated by E. Musk.

A platform in crisis seeking renewal under the Musk era

Twitter’s transformation into X is symptomatic of an attempt to renew the brand’s image, which has been heavily tainted by the controversy surrounding ‘spam bots’, fake automated accounts, the number and audience of which is difficult to assess, that mimic the activity of real people but are programmed to carry out malicious activities ranging from spreading misinformation to promoting lucrative projects. These ‘spam bots’, which E. These ‘spam bots’, which E. Musk intends to get rid of, hamper the operation of the global agora that is Twitter/X in essence. Restricting access to user content by means of a paid subscription should ensure that the entrepreneur has a real, existing audience.

In addition, the many changes introduced at high speed since last winter have left Internet users and advertisers unhappy. Restricting the use of the X Pro application (formerly TweetDeck) to certified accounts, i.e. those subject to a paying subscription, or limiting the number of posts that can be read per day depending on the status of the account and how long it has been in use… These changes, which have already been put in place or are simply being considered, have displeased users, some of whom, nonetheless, are increasingly deciding to leave the platform. E. Musk’s arrival has itself generated anger and protests. A study published on 15 August in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution shows that environmental and climate activists have been leaving Twitter in particularly large numbers since October 2022, even more so than political accounts. In April 2023, only 52.5% of the Twitter accounts of environmental activists were still active, while 79.4% of political users were. Researchers are trying to explain these desertions by the proliferation of hate speech and fake news on the platform and by the more pronounced involvement of the right-wing twittosphere since E. Musk’s decision to change content moderation. ‘If Twitter’s management hopes to attract new people to the platform, they hope that they will be enough to replace those they continue to lose,’ said Om Malik, a partner at True Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital group.

Users are not the only ones to leave the platform. X is also facing a lack of support from advertisers, which can be attributed to E. Musk’s maverick style, whose commitment to free speech is often seen as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, harassment and online hate, as well as his unconventional business practices that damage the brand’s image, or the social network’s low reach compared to other popular social networks such as Facebook and Instagram.

Ranking of the world’s most popular social networks in January 2023, based on the number of active users. Source : Statista

Does this mean we should be predicting a mass abandonment of X in favour of other alternative social networks, such as Threads, Mastodon, Spill, Bluesky Social or T2? If we see that the image of X divides the public along the classic left/right political divide, we can assume that the social network is likely to attract a new audience that was initially reluctant to join. What appears to be on the horizon is a re-composition of X’s audience on an ideological basis. However, against a backdrop of inflationary crisis and slowing economic growth around the world, the need for paid subscriptions is likely to be an insurmountable barrier for a large number of potential customers. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to Elon Musk, whose objective behind the metamorphosis of Twitter into X is probably less the promotion of freedom of expression or the quest to increase the number of users than the desire to own a powerful tool that will enable him to influence stock market prices and engage in political and economic lobbying on a transnational scale.

By Claire Humblin