Elon Musk’s X Rebrand Is Catnip to the Press

From a Jack Shafer Fourth Estate column on politico.com headlined “Elon Musk’s X Rebrand is Toxic Catnip to the Press”:

We’ve established that the press loves Twitter. It loves to tweet, it loves to read about itself on Twitter, it loves to warn about the potential dangers of Twitter, it loves using it to keep up with the news. And it can’t stop writing about the site, this column being a perfect additional example (in case one was needed). Whenever a Twitter-replacement-of-the-week pops up to replace it — Mastodon, Post, Bluesky, Threads, et al. — the complainers whine that it’s not enough like Twitter.

Concurrently, we’ve established that the press also hates Twitter, and did so before arch-villain Elon Musk piloted his money barge out of the San Francisco Bay at full speed and leveled the company’s Market Street headquarters with his $44 billion purchase. Even before Musk renamed the site after his favorite letter, instituted rate limitations, vanquished the original blue checks, set down new moderation policies, fired 80 percent of the company’s staff and engaged in his “For You” monkey business, the press hated Twitter for being a time sink, for spreading misinformation and boosting bullies, for serving as an alternative news source.

If you accept the fact that the press corps is conflicted over Twitter, then you should have no trouble accepting that no matter what Elon Musk might do with the site, the press would be bawling about it because that’s the nature of its relationship with it. It’s no defense of Musk to assert that no matter what he does or doesn’t do with Twitter, he’ll be keelhauled for it.

For example, if Musk had purchased Twitter and did nothing but kept the lights on, the complaint would have been, “Musk is letting the site atrophy.” “Where are the new features?” “He’s an absentee owner!” “Why did he even bother buying it?” Even if he had limited his changes to remodeling a few features and tossing new coats of paint on the hallways, traditionalists would have called for the department of historical preservation cops to arrest him. Twitter users by their nature tend toward conservatism. They want things to remain the same so they can recycle their complaints more effectively.

But as we’ve seen, Musk’s big moves at the company have brought out the boo-birds, too. Musk has been condemned for charging for Twitter Blue, for restoring the accounts of the formerly banned, for suspending access to its API, for capping the number of tweets users can view per day, for rebranding Twitter as X, and all the rest. Even though Musk owns a controlling interest in Twitter, giving him every moral right to do with it as he pleases, his attempts at a makeover have earned him nothing but grief from the press.

Musk’s inability to win for losing resembles the status of the owner of a major sports franchise. Dedicated sports fans, who share a lot with your average reporter or press commentator, scream bloody hell whether their team leads the league or is a doormat, whether its management hoards its current roster or spends wildly on new players. Tickets, no matter what their price, are too expensive. The food is bad. The manager or coach is a bum.

This perennial dissatisfaction can be rooted in reality. For instance, the Kansas City Royals are an execrable team with a horrible front office. But the vehemence of the average sports fan — and the average Twitter observer in the press — stems not so much from objective conditions as they do from overidentification. Sports fans think of themselves as part of the team they love-hate. “We lost last night.” “We traded for Shohei Ohtani!’ “We’ll do better next year.” Likewise, the press overidentifies with Twitter, thinking of the service as an extension of their beings, which it sort of is, a place where they can polish and display their egos, their sacred space around the cosmic water cooler where they can defend and project their superior status.

Twitter has become the press corps’ mirror, the venue for their daily affirmation by each other and the masses. Did people retweet their clever quip? Did the latest piece they wrote and tweeted out get many comments? Have they gained important followers? Or lost some? Are they being shadow-banned? Twitter has become the press corps’ universal measure of status, and no matter what Musk or anybody else does or doesn’t do with it, they’ll squawk.

Ever since Musk took tenancy at Twitter, press sages and scolds have been urging their colleagues to resign their accounts and spend their time on more worthwhile diversions. While there are good arguments for this — you might get more work done and avoid unnecessary street brawls — there’s a way to use Twitter or follow a sports team without thinking of it as a personal appendage. Just as you don’t have to watch every game and listen to every sports talk segment on your team to “follow” a team, you can dip into and out of Twitter judicially. Twitter can be great, but it’s not so great that it deserves the keys to the car and the right to drive us wherever it (or Elon Musk) wants to take us.

The best policy for the press would be to detach itself from Twitter the way a drinker who overenjoys his nightly bourbon should when he starts to view everything through the bottom of his glass. So what if Musk is destroying Twitter? That would be a fine response for the press corps to whatever novel or nutty thing he’s done with the site this week. Let him spend his billions and concede that in becoming X, the destroyer of Twitter, he just might be doing us all a favor.

Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.

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