I woke up Sunday to find I had begun using the social network formerly known as Twitter. The app had updated to show the new name chosen by its owner: X. Now, underneath the friendly and familiar blue icon with a white bird, that letter alone was displayed–X–as if my iPhone was affirming that Elon Musk’s Twitter had become an error. Soon after, the bird icon disappeared, too, in favor of a white-on-black X.
The change has rolled out slowly. First the website rebranded, and then, by the end of last week, Musk had dismantled the Twitter signage on the company’s San Francisco headquarters and erected a huge, glowing X on its rooftop. (It has since been taken down.) Reprising the creeper thinking that inspired Musk to name Tesla’s models the “S,” “3,” “X,” and “Y,” such that they would combine to spell “S3XY,” Twitter also reportedly gave several conference rooms new, X-oriented names, including “eXposure” and, once again, “s3Xy.”
As my colleague Charlie Warzel explained last week, Musk has been trying to make X happen for decades now; PayPal arose from a merger with his X.com website. Now he’d like for X to be a superapp, a platform for chat, banking, news, shopping–everything. Musk’s insistence on packaging that idea, already megalomaniacal, with a logo that resembles a nerdy middle-school boy’s notebook doodle underscores a difficult truth: Nerdy middle-school boyhood, once a phase to be outgrown, has become a philosophy of life. “Anyone else look at the X icon and not even want to open this app?” the Chicago-based product designer Chad Ashley tweeted–err, posted on X. He’s right. It’s embarrassing.
Maybe that’s for the best. As a cultural practice, social media is bad–people aren’t meant to talk to one another this much–and anything that might erode the practice is worthwhile. But also, Twitter, like other social platforms and the very internet itself, is already redolent of the seventh grader’s mindset that Musk’s behavior betrays. Maybe we should be grateful that his X fetish forces us to admit that truth, so we can someday move beyond it.
In its un-rebranded form, Twitter helped make the lifestyle of posting seem benign. Before it was a company (and then an online addiction), twitter was just a word: a reference to the sound of birds or certain kinds of human prattle. What harm could come of that?
Lots. For starters, it normalized the very notion of a platform where everyone can speak to everyone, all at once. This feels natural today, but it wasn’t when the service launched in 2006. Back then, some might have had a blog, but people ordinarily posted only to small, closed online networks. That’s how Facebook still worked, and LinkedIn too, and Orkut, may it rest in peace. Social networks were initially designed around communities of trust. Twitter and then Instagram are to blame for expanding the act of posting to the world.
The shift from social networks to social media was culturally destructive. It set the expectation that everyone deserves–is owed, even–an audience for their every notion, quip, photo, or activity. This is a selfish child’s idea of living in the world, now so commonplace that opposing it seems controversial.
That ethos has consequences. The rise of public shaming online, whether in response to jokes, to affirm personal virtue, or to deepen group membership, was dependent on an infrastructure of public data from which shameworthiness could be assessed, and also on the viral spread that Twitter both invented and perfected. So was the spread of QAnon, and the planning for the January 6 insurgency. The ability to repost something instantly and without comment to one’s own network, first invented as the “retweet button” in 2009, became a vector for harassment and misinformation, allowing messages true or false, virtuous or vicious, to reach far beyond their original environments. Every other platform adopted a version of this feature because of its ability to produce engagement, and now imagining social media without it is almost impossible.
Those are influences of function–many frequently acknowledged. Less discussed: Twitter and the services it influenced also changed aesthetic life. They brought a new style to the fore: juvenile narcissism. X is its purest, dumbest distillation, a seemingly edgy but ultimately corny name that evokes mathematics and nightclubs, pornography and tabletop games.
Like many styles, Musk’s (and Twitter’s) came out of a subculture, and one that thrives online. The infinity of social media creates communities at the fringe. In the best cases, these improve the lives of people who might otherwise struggle for connection, but they can also serve as bubbles that amplify and normalize perversion. When everyone can find a group of like-minded individuals, all flavors of mindedness can end up seeming justified–including, most of all, the weird-schoolboy-mindedness of the people who happen to have invented the internet as we know it.
Online culture began in corners where weirdos could connect. Dialed into local BBSes, or logged on to Usenet threads and text-based virtual worlds called MUDs, nerds and outcasts were the first to find their tribes online. Some shared recipes or crochet patterns; others expressed their board-game, anime, or furry fandoms; while still others passed around conspiracy theories. And there were always piles and piles of naked pictures.
Across many of these communities, no matter their host, content, or members, an ethos of dorky behavior was ascendant–and it persists today. You can’t browse a subreddit for plumbing or coffee-brewing tips without running the risk of wading through a hundred nested replies containing dumb jokes, sneers, and sexual innuendo. Bizarre beliefs that once would have been confined to email forwards became widespread on Facebook. Every tweet becomes an opportunity for some miscreant, mansplainer, or literalist to pick your words apart. The Comic Book Guys took over.
Sexual desire and frustration, familiar feelings for the outcast teenage nerd, pervade the social internet. S3xy-ness is everywhere. Posts by women are dismayingly likely to produce advances, or threats, from creepers on all platforms; at the same time, sex appeal is a pillar for the influencer economy, or else a viable and even noble way to win financial independence. The internet is for porn, as the song goes.
In all these ways, online life today descends from where it started, as a safe harbor for the computer nerds who made it. They were socially awkward, concerned with machines instead of people, and devoted to the fantasy of converting their impotence into power. When that conversion was achieved, and the nerds took over the world, they adopted the bravado of the jocks they once despised. (Zuck-Musk cage match, anyone?) But they didn’t stop being nerds. We, the public, never agreed to adopt their worldview as the basis for political, social, or aesthetic life. We got it nevertheless.
Musk’s obsession with X as a brand, and his childish desire to broadcast that obsession from the rooftops in hoggish, bright pulsations, calls attention to this baggage. It reminds us that the world’s richest man is a computer geek, but one with enormous power instead of none. It calls attention to the putrid smell that suffuses the history of the internet. I’m kind of tired of pretending that the stench does not exist, as if doing otherwise would be tantamount to expressing prejudice against neurodivergence. This is a bad culture, and it always has been.
Foul nerddom is part of what invented, popularized, and profited from the internet’s commercial rise. Twitter did its part to hide all that, with its unoffending avian verbs, its adorable birds, even its charming fail whale. Better we should understand that no global attention network is ever really cute or charming, for they all are on the internet, a cesspool.
If the X rebrand disgusts you–if, like me, you’ve been made a little queasy by having the new logo thrust upon your phone via automatic update–that feeling is about more than Musk alone. He has merely surfaced what has been there all along. The internet is magical and empowering. The internet is childish and disgusting.
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