The problem with “X”
Yesterday morning, the announcement came from Elon Musk that he has rebranded Twitter, the social media app that he bought for $44 million in October 2022, as “X”, to align it with X Corp, the parent company belonging to Musk. Musk has stated that he would like to turn Twitter, now X, into an “everything app” or a “super app” inspired by apps like WeChat, the standard social media app in China that allows users to access services such as hailing taxis, paying bills, ordering at restaurants and more. As Vox says, “for some people in China, WeChat is the internet”, and it’s easy to see that if Musk could build the social network into something like that for its customer base, then that could well be a very lucrative and powerful platform. However, there are some fundamental points which I feel that he may well have overlooked in his excitement over such an ambitious venture.
The first point is what everyone knows, namely that Twitter/X is not doing well financially since the acquisition. Musk’s policy of free speech absolutism, allowing previously banned individuals such as Andrew Tate, Jordan Peterson and Donald Trump back on (despite the latter not accepting the offer, due to his having set up Truth Social, his own social media network), has caused concern in advertisers, who have stopped advertising on the platform in significant numbers. It seems that the diminished advertising revenue, along with failed money-raising efforts such as Twitter Blue, don’t seem to be able to cover the estimated £1.2 billion per year interest cost on the original $44bn raised to buy the platform in the first place. What’s more, with Musk laying off significant parts of the workforce, and being seemingly unable to pay for servers and office space, it really does seem that Musk is failing to right the ship, and turn the platform he bought into a viable business model.
Secondly, from a design perspective, it really seem that sourcing your logo from a competition on your platform may not have been the best of ideas. Stories are already coming out that the logo resembles an existing Monotype font and a Unicode character, and that Meta might have copyright claims on the name. Even the attempt to remove the Twitter name from the headquarters failed as police halted the work, as permits had not been secured for equipment on the street, leaving the sign saying “er”, with Larry the bird still flying above it.
However, ignoring all that, the fundamental thing that I feel that Musk may have overlooked in his excitement about what he can do with Twitter/X is to focus more on what WeChat, the “everything app” that he’d like to emulate, actually is, and how it works. If you’d like a good deep dive into how WeChat (and similar apps like AliPay) work to combine services, the video below is a really good example:
The fundamental reason as to why apps like WeChat work well is that the Chinese people accept a high level of government surveillance in their country, and therefore are more willing to allow tech companies that same level of insight into their privacy as well. I’ve had friends and colleagues come back from visits to China, amazed at just how well the experience of these apps works, but also acknowledging that the likelihood of people willing to agree over here in the West to this level of insight and surveillance might be more difficult. Combine this with the decreasing level of trust that Musk is causing in Twitter, and you can already see the problems that he’s going to have in making this a reality. Even if he does manage to get all the relevant companies and protocols, and build his everything app, will people use it? I heard a quite from Athena Kugblenu, a British comedian on the Paper Cuts podcast which rather summarised how I imagine people’s current attitudes towards the platform:
“It feels immensely hackable, I don’t even trust it to keep my DM’s safe… I feel that I’d pay for something with it, and then the next day there would be 17 people with my identity.”
It really does seem that Musk has quite the way to go to reinstate trust in the platform, as well as make it into the the “everything app” that he wants to be. Perhaps we might end up using it for its intended purpose in the future, hailing cabs and booking tables at restaurants, but given the current evidence, it really does feel like he’s got very excited about the prospect, much like he has with his other ventures, and not really thought about how or why it should be made, which can lead to catastrophic outcomes.
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