The X social media platform, which has been known since its “Twitter” days for short-form microposts announced a new feature for its “premium+” subscriber tier. I quote from a report by Mauricio B. Holguin at AlternativeTo:

X has just launched a new feature called “Articles” for Premium+ subscribers and Verified Organizations, allowing them to publish long-form content with a simple text-editing interface that supports embedded media and text formatting…

Twitter had previously gone from 140-character posts to 280-character posts and also added some support for longer posts than that (I am not sure if the longer posts were pre- or post-X). The new move is consistent with X CEO Elon Musk’s continuing effort to re-brand the entity that he bought as Twitter (for the low price of $43 billion). I quote from a July 2023 article by Siladitya Ray of Forbes on his decision to re-brand Twitter as X:

Elon Musk explained the rationale behind his decision to rebrand Twitter into ‘X’ in a tweet Monday evening, saying it is part of his broader effort to recast the social media platform into a so-called ‘everything app’ and claimed the bird branding did not fit that goal.

Throwing my cards on the table, I think that Mr. Musk’s purchasing Twitter was a good thing for reasons largely unrelated to the quality of the platform. From an end-user perspective, most of the issues I had with Twitter continue with X. These issues include, but are not limited to, its being a closed proprietary platform, treating users as products rather than owners of their own digital spaces, and the overall quality of the content (the latter point also colors my somewhat negative views of attempts to re-implement old Twitter in an open source, decentralized way). The everything app idea sounds like a nightmare. But there is already more than enough debate on whether X is better or worse than it was when known as Twitter. Let us focus on something more interesting: The re-branding.

Hosting long-form writing is antithetical to the purpose of the original Twitter, which was to force people to post short SMS-message-length posts. Even after raising the maximum character count from 140 to 280, Twitter was always closely associated with those short-form posts – almost as closely as YouTube is associated with videos and Instagram with photos. We can think of this as branding. Twitter’s brand was text-message-style posts. I argued (and maintain) that the format is conducive to bad writing (while granting there are some people, such as Mr. Musk himself, who are good at posting), but that is not the point here – the point is that the format was the brand.

Once you have a strong brand, it is hard to change your brand. Your customers (or products in the case of most big tech social media) develop brand loyalty. People joked for years about reading Playboy magazine for the articles. Playboy eventually decided to test whether that was true. The results suggested that Playboy’s brand was not in fact the articles (granted Playboy was probably not wrong in concluding that its brand was more sustainable in an analog world than our brave new digital world). OnlyFans’ brand is porn. It tried to change its brand a few years ago but its quick reversal suggested that once your brand is porn, you cannot change your brand. In a somewhat less extreme shift (porn is admittedly a hard brand to shake), Victoria’s Secret is trying to re-make its brand into something other than supermodel’s with rarer than rare figures prancing into the fantasies of men while wearing very little. The early returns have been less than satisfactory.

This brings us back to X. Mr. Musk spent the annual GDP of a small country to purchase Twitter – something with a very strong brand. He decided that he did not like Twitter’s brand – not because he dislikes short-form posts but instead because the scope of the brand was not commensurate with to his goal of building an everything app (or anything to justify spending the annual GDP of a small country). Mr. Musk’s purchase of Twitter, in and of itself, changed its brand in some respects. For example, people who spent time thinking about Twitter’s leadership before Mr. Musk likely thought of Jack Dorsey and his generic, stereotypical tech people from San Francisco. Now people likely think of Mr. Musk, who has a big personality to match his unfathomable wealth (he also has a big ego but I think Twitter’s previous leadership easily matched Mr. Musk in that department). Twitter transformed from a safe space for mainstream journalists into a free-for-all (actual real world outcomes may vary since most of the journalists are still there, and there are plenty of allegations of shadow bans, actual bans, and the like). Twitter went from being a punching bag of some partisans to being a punching bag of different partisans (that is an over-simplification and actual real-world results again vary). Some re-branding was done, but through it all – Twitter was still seen as a short-post microblogging platform.

Mr. Musk correctly understood that he could not turn Twitter into his dream everything app. That is – his presence alone at the helm of Twitter was not a big enough re-branding. He needed to re-brand further. He cited his decision to re-name the platform X as part of this re-branding. I return to the July 2023 Forbes article for an interesting quote:

[S]ome commentators and brands have expressed confusion, wondering why the company was ditching such an established and recognizable brand name. Others insist they plan on still calling it Twitter. Some advertisers have expressed concern that the branding change could drive away users from the platform, while others are worried that the suddenness of the change could disrupt their existing campaigns.

You will see that there is nothing confusing at all if you have read this far. Mr. Musk ditched the “established and recognizable brand name” because the brand name was inexorably linked with one small component of what he wants his platform to be and to do. In the long run, I assume he believes that turning X into an everything app will ultimately attract more paying users even if the re-branding costs some of the pre-Musk Twitter users.

Having re-branded Twitter through his purchase of the platform combined with his huge persona and re-naming it in conjunction with a new statement of purpose, Mr. Musk could begin adding new features. The re-branding was a necessary prerequisite since some of the new features are wholly inconsistent with the Twitter brand. We now return to articles. Perhaps no one would have taken article functionality on Twitter seriously, but maybe they will like article functionality on budding everything app X.

Will they?

I think not. Even though I think that re-branding Twitter as something else (I probably would not have gone with “X” but it is not my money), X still has the Twitter brand (or taint, depending on your perspective) in its DNA. X is still seen as Twitter deep down. The “X, formerly known as Twitter” jokes will never totally go away. No one is going to make an X account for the articles. They go for the news updates or to read malformed hot takes on a myriad of subjects. There are other places to read the articles. More people may read articles on X than they will on Playboy (is Playboy still a thing?), but overcoming low expectations is only necessary, not sufficient to make a re-branding a functioning reality in practice.

Of course, X is not the only platform that will run into re-branding struggles. I wrote about Substack’s efforts to out-Twitter X by adding “notes” functionality for existing users. Substack’s brand is newsletters (its brand is so tied to newsletters that I suspect many Substack readers and writers do not think of it as a blogging platform). My article on Notes argued that it was a silly idea and, contrary to Substack’s pretensions, it was very much trying to re-implement Twitter on a smaller scale (Mr. Musk seemed somewhat defensive of old Twitter’s brand in that dispute). Here I will note (pun intended) another issue: No one outside of dedicated Substack insiders will care about Substack Notes because Substack’s brand is long-form email newsletters, not tweets.

My Substack Notes take segues into a fair opportunity to re-state my unsolicited advisory to well-intentioned open source social media projects: Come up with ideas that do not brand your project as an alternative to something. Mastodon is a neat project but its brand is being an alternative to Twitter. It can add features or functionality, but it will always be viewed as Twitter, but different. The same is even more true of Bluesky, which while it may be built on some good ideas is very much stuck with the Twitter alternative brand in its UI (which is far more derivative of X than is Mastodon) and the initial involvement of Mr. Jack Dorsey. To the extent we need alternative social media as opposed to ways to make it easier for people to create and own their own digital spaces and connect with others, I encourage people with the skills and backing to think of ways to create things that are useful, unique, and have a brand of their own that does not require referencing the brand of something its prospective user-base is dissatisfied with.

I conclude by submitting for the record that The New Leaf Journal understands branding. Part of why I separated short-form Leaflet and Leaf Bud posts from my main articles is because this site’s brand is articles, not short-form. Eventually, when I wanted to try something with more short-form functionality and associated features, I created a whole side-project designed specifically for that purpose instead of trying to re-brand (and re-design) The New Leaf Journal to make Leaflets and Leaf Buds bigger.