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July 31, 2023, 2:34 p.m.

Elon Musk can change what he calls Twitter — but can he change what everyone else calls it?

It now says “X” on the website (you know, the one that’s still at, um, twitter.com). But to the news media and much of the outside world, the name of the old bird platform is still Twitter.

The first definition for name in the Oxford English Dictionary goes as follows: a word or phrase constituting the individual designation by which a particular person or thing is known, referred to, or addressed. Note that it’s not necessarily what someone wants to be called — it’s what they’re actually known as.

Now, hopefully you have enough respect for your fellow human beings to respect their choices when it comes to their core identities. You don’t want to be the guy still calling Muhammad Ali “Cassius Clay” or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar “Lew Alcindor.” And there’s no quicker way to prove yourself a jerk than deadnaming a trans person.

But those are human beings. Corporations are not, pace Mitt Romney, human beings. And what they’re named is an interplay between their legal filings, their marketing materials, and their customers.

Here’s an example: In 2001, the Denver Broncos moved out of their legendary but rundown home field, Mile High Stadium, and into a sparkling new facility built next door. Its name, according to the sign out front: Invesco Field at Mile High. Broncos fans recoiled at the idea of calling it anything but Mile High Stadium, and The Denver Post put its editorial foot down, proclaiming that it refused to use the new name, which stank of mutual funds. “Outside of official circles, seldom do you hear ‘Invesco Field’ except in negative terms,” Post editor Glenn Guzzo wrote. “In this case, the community’s terminology is familiar, positive and clear. We think our decision will be accepted widely.”

Sure, the paper eventually relented; today it has no problem calling it the even more awkward “Empower Field at Mile High.” But there’s plenty of precedent: A corporation’s rebranding on paper doesn’t always become a real-world rebranding.

So, Twitter. Or X. Or whatever dumb meme-derived name Elon Musk comes up with tomorrow. One guy decided to throw away more than a decade of meaning and brand equity. Does everyone else have to follow suit?

That was the question on my mind when I started looking through the past couple of days’ press coverage of Musk and his platform plaything. One week later, what are news organizations calling the former bird site?

This is not a scientific sample, but it’s clear that Musk still has work to do in the public sphere if he thinks “X” is going to be what people actually call the place one tweets (er, posts).

Of the 26 stories I looked at, 22 used “Twitter” to refer to the company/platform/product in their headlines, versus 10 who used “X” in the same way. (Some, obviously, used both.) Fifteen stories used only “Twitter” in the headlines and not “X”; just three stories used only “X” and not “Twitter.” In the body of the stories, many refer explicitly to “Twitter headquarters” and “Twitter accounts” without even humoring their Xification. A few don’t even mention X at all.

For each article, I pulled its headline and the first mention of Twitter/X in the story’s text. Because of the news cycle I was looking at, the pieces are thematically dominated by three topics:

  • Musk annoying San Francisco by putting a big blaring “X” sign on the rooftop of old Twitter HQ;
  • Musk threatening to sue a respected research nonprofit for reporting on Twitter’s problems; and
  • Musk reinstating the suspended account of Kanye West, last seen promising to go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.”

Musk and Ye

These stories are the most meta-interesting, because Kanye West has been the best contemporary example of a failed rebrand. He announced that he was changing his stage name to just “Ye” nearly five years ago, all the way back in 2018. In 2021, he went further and had his name legally changed to the monosyllable.

Legally, he’s Ye. As a performing artist, he’s Ye. And yet…approximately no one in the media calls him Ye. When he’s in the headlines, it’s as “Kanye West,” with his new name reduced to an aside in the second graf. (His own Wikipedia entry calls him West throughout. Wikipedia’s policies state that the site “does not necessarily use the subject’s ‘official’ name as an article title; it generally prefers the name that is most commonly used.”)

The Wall Street Journal: “X, Formerly Known as Twitter, Reinstates Kanye West’s Account”; “X, the social-media platform formerly known as Twitter, reinstated Kanye West’s account on Saturday, roughly eight months after suspending it for violating company policy.” (Second graf: “The musician and designer, who now legally goes by Ye…”)

The Verge: “Well, Kanye’s back on Twitter“; “Sorry, I mean: Ye is back on X.”

The Guardian: “Elon Musk reinstates Kanye West’s Twitter account after ban”; “Kanye West’s account on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, has been reinstated almost eight months after he tweeted an image of a swastika blended with a star of David.” (Second graf: “The rapper-producer and designer, legally known as Ye…”)

CNN: “Elon Musk reactivates Kanye West’s Twitter account following X rebrand“; “X, formerly known as Twitter, has reinstated Kanye West’s account on the social media platform.” (Second graf: “West – who has legally changed his name to Ye…”)

NME: “Elon Musk reinstates Kanye West’s Twitter account after eight month ban”; “Elon Musk has reinstated Kanye West‘s Twitter account after an eight month ban.” There’s no mention of X in the story at all! (Third graf: “West – also known as Ye…”)

Daily Mail: “Elon Musk reinstates Kanye West’s Twitter account as he rebrands social media platform X“; “Rapper Kanye West is back on Twitter after nearly eight months after getting kicked off by owner Elon Musk, who reinstated his account as he rebranded the social media platform to X.” (Second graf: “Kanye West, referred to as ‘Ye’…”)

Sky News: “Elon Musk reinstates Kanye West’s X account (formerly known as Twitter)“; “Kanye West’s Twitter account has been reinstated after an almost eight-month ban over offensive tweets. The rapper’s account now shows his last post from 1 December, a day prior to when his account was suspended on platform X — the new name owner Elon Musk has given Twitter.” (Third graf: “West, who legally changed his name to Ye…”)

People: “Kanye West’s Twitter Account Reinstated 8 Months After Ban for Offensive Tweet“; “Kanye West is back on Twitter.” No mention of X in the story at all! (Fourth graf: “The rapper, known as Ye…”)

Fortune: “Kanye West’s account reinstated on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter“; “Kanye West has been reinstated on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, after a nearly eight-month suspension.” (Second graf: “The musician and designer, who now goes by the name Ye…”)

Musk v. researchers

The New York Times: “Twitter Threatens Legal Action Against Nonprofit That Tracks Hate Speech”; “Elon Musk has over the last year threatened legal action against tech competitors, employees and people who use Twitter, which he owns…X Corp., the parent company of the social media company, sent a letter on July 20 to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit that conducts research on social media…”

The Guardian: “Anti-hate speech group accuses Elon Musk’s X Corp of intimidation over legal threat”; “An anti-hate speech campaign group has accused Elon Musk’s X Corp of intimidation after the owner of the rebranded social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, threatened legal action over the organisation’s research into hate speech on the platform.”

The Verge: “Twitter threatens to sue anti-hate organization for reporting on Twitter hate speech”; “Twitter — now called X — is threatening to sue the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) for its research into hate speech on Twitter that the company claims is driving away advertisers.”

CNBC: “Twitter, now X, threatens suit against nonprofit studying hate speech and misinformation”; “On July 20, X Corp., formerly known as Twitter, sent a letter to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, or CCDH, threatening to sue the British research nonprofit.”

NBC News: “Twitter threatens legal action against nonprofit group that monitors hate speech”; “X Corp., the parent company of the social media app formerly known as Twitter, sent a letter this month to a nonprofit organization that researches digital hate speech and misinformation, accusing the group of making a ‘series of troubling and baseless claims that appear calculated to harm Twitter generally, and its digital advertising business specifically.'”

Variety: “Twitter Threatens to Sue Hate-Speech Research Group Over Claims That Hateful, Racist Content Has Proliferated Under Elon Musk’s Ownership”; “Elon Musk has taken legal aim at the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an independent research nonprofit group, over the organization’s findings that since the multibillionaire acquired Twitter (now called X) hate, racism and disinformation on the social platform has substantially increased.”

Musk v. San Francisco

Musk’s Xification gets a boost in these stories, since they mostly focus on the giant blinking “X” sign he had put atop HQ. Unlike the company, that sign is unquestionably an X, giving the new name a bit more prominence in these stories.1

The Washington Post: “Elon Musk’s flashing ‘X’ sign met with city of San Francisco’s scrutiny”; “The city of San Francisco sent representatives twice this weekend to inquire about the flashing, gargantuan ‘X’ logo that Elon Musk installed atop his social media platform’s downtown headquarters, the latest in his attempts to rebrand the company. The ‘X’ sign, representing a new logo and name for what was once Twitter, was installed Friday.”

The San Francisco Standard: “Twitter Blocks City From Accessing X Sign Atop Headquarters”; “The latest drama at the company formerly known as Twitter saw escalating complaints from neighbors about the new giant illuminated X sign atop the company’s San Francisco headquarters, while the social media giant refused to allow access to a buildings inspector, according to city records.”

The New York Times: “‘X’ on Twitter’s Headquarters Faces Investigation Over Permit Violations”; “An ‘X’ sign installed on Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters on Friday as part of the company’s rebranding is under investigation by the city for lacking proper permits, according to officials.”

CBS News: “Flashing ‘X’ installed on top of Twitter headquarters in San Francisco – without a permit from the city”; “‘X’ really does mark the spot — for a city investigation. The company formerly known as Twitter has rebranded to the letter, placing a massive light-up ‘X’ on top of their San Francisco headquarters, apparently without a permit.”

NPR: “San Francisco investigates Twitter’s ‘X’ sign. Musk responds with a laughing emoji”; “The San Francisco Department of Building Inspection has slapped Twitter with a complaint and launched an investigation after the company installed a flashing ‘X’ sign above its building without a permit. On Friday, a city inspector went to Twitter’s headquarters to alert the company of the violation and to evaluate the sign located on the roof, according to the complaint. A Twitter representative denied access but explained that the structure is ‘a temporary lighted sign for an event.'” (There are no references to the X rebrand in the story — only to the X sign.)

Forbes: “Glowing X Logo Above Twitter HQ Triggers Latest Conflict Between Musk And San Francisco”; “Elon Musk’s decision to put a giant glowing ‘X’ logo above the headquarters of Twitter’s office in San Francisco has triggered another clash between the billionaire and the city’s administration, after the two have previously feuded over Musk’s alleged flouting of the city’s safety and building codes.”

Business Insider: “Twitter HQ won’t move out of San Francisco despite ‘doom spiral’ affecting the city, Elon Musk says”; “Elon Musk says he has no plans to move Twitter, now X, out of San Francisco.”

Miscellaneous

The Independent: “Elon Musk’s Twitter bans ad showing Republican interrupting couple in bedroom”; “An ad launched by Progress Action Fund launched, showing an elderly Republican congressman interrupting a couple in the bedroom, has now been banned on X, formerly known as Twitter.”

The Verge: “X officially rolls out its ads revenue sharing program for creators”; “Twitter, which Elon Musk is currently rebranding to X, is officially rolling out its ads revenue sharing program for creators.”

Hindustan Times: “Elon Musk’s X (Twitter) gets a new tagline, an updated iOS app”; “Elon Musk’s X, the rebranded name of the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, rolled out its 10.0 update for iOS on Monday.”

Mashable: “Elon Musk’s X launches ad revenue sharing program for creators”; “Elon Musk’s X — the social media site formerly known (and still kind of called) Twitter — officially launched its ad revenue sharing program for creators this week.” (But note the story’s slug in the URL: twitter-x-creator-fund-ad-revenue-sharing. SEO remains undefeated.)

  1. I should note that I didn’t count the X-sign references in my totals for X-company references in headlines. Reasonable people can, of course, disagree. ↩︎
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     July 31, 2023, 2:34 p.m.
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