What do you think of when you see ‘X’?
The 24th letter of the alphabet?
The Roman numeral for 10?
An algebraic variable?
Something X-rated, or a kiss at the end of a text?
That letter that keeps Mulder and Scully so busy?
Unless you’ve just woken from a coma (we envy you right now), you’ll have heard that Twitter owner Elon Musk’s latest decision in a long line of controversial ones was ditching the company’s iconic blue bird logo in favour of a far more ominous X.
But what does this rebranding mean and is it a smart move, when taking into consideration X's symbolic weight?
Longstanding personal ties
Musk has always been fascinated with the letter X.
This dates back to when he tried to name his second company X.com, which became PayPal. He finally got his way when he launched the Model X, one of electric car company Tesla's earliest models, founded SpaceX (even if the ‘X’ was relegated to a suffix) and launched his artificial-intelligence app xAI.
Most tellingly of all though, he named his youngest child X Æ A-12 - or “X” for short.
So this week’s rebrand couldn’t have come as too much of a shock considering his prior form. He even formally changed Twitter's legal name to X Corp in April, and now, anyone who goes to X.com will get redirected to Twitter.com. Though according to Musk, the primary domain for the service will eventually be X.com.
This past week was only about making the aesthetic official, staking his claim to his beloved X brand. He's not alone, as evidenced by UK’s TV channel ITV's rebranding of their on-demand service to ITVX. They even made light of the situation:
Love it, loathe it, see it as another mark in Twitter's ongoing decline, X is rather appropriate as a new logo, as the letter is in tune with Musk's ambition, which he had put on the record, to turn Twitter into “the everything app”.
X isn’t everything, but it certainly covers a lot of ground...
A powerful symbol
The symbol of X has been used in a great many fields, from algebra to science and spirituality, and has something of a mysterious allure to it – leading many to consider it as the most powerful letter in the alphabet.
X represents both the known (X marks the spot) and unknown (in algebra), and has various mystical properties. Musk clearly knows this. Using it is a sign of perceived strength, and the appropriation of a multifaceted symbol can tailor to the needs of everyone, depending on context and background. He’s essentially hedged his bets and tried to appeal to a wide audience, whilst basking in the symbolic weight of signifiers and symbols like many “secret” societies do.
It is also worth noting that X is frequently associated with death and rebirth, as it is thought to mark the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. This harks back to the letter’s association with Samekh in the Hebrew alphabet, which is the symbol of a serpent swallowing its own tail – what in occult teachings is referred to through ‘S’ as the Ouroboros. It is the symbol of an eternal cycle, and of change or transition.
Something quite fitting considering Twitter’s current state of (rather chaotic) transition under Musk.
Spiritual properties and sinister undertones
Beyond transition, the letter X is often used by the Catholic church as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, while in Hinduism, X represents the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. It is also seen as a sacred symbol of the holy cross; as such, especially in dream interpretation, the cross symbolizes sacrifice or even torture.
Again, rather apt considering the hellscape that Twitter has become over the years, with the proliferation of hate speech, online bullying, and the platform being widely acknowledged as detrimental to mental health.
Which segues into X being a negatively tinged symbol. While it can be perceived as a totem of protection, warding off evil spirits - a belief likely rooted in the fact that the X looks like two crossed swords - the letter has unmistakable sinister undertones.
Historically, it can be a reminder of slavery. For many Africans and African-Americans, X is a marker of absence, because some slaveowners never gave their slaves a name. Surnames would simply be replaced with an X. This is why Malcom X took the surname X in 1952; for him, it symbolized the unknown African name of his ancestors.
It's also hard to ignore X’s aforementioned association with death. The skull and crossbones symbol has long been associated with danger, especially once it was associated with pirates. Eventually, it became the standard for labelling toxic substances, thereby increasing its association with the macabre.
As if that weren’t enough, conservative twitter has been all over X for a while. Like the frog emoji before it - a reference to Pepe the Frog - the X has become a ubiquitous symbol in MAGA Twitter, symbolising conservatives who claim they’re being shunned from major social media platforms.
Is the recent aesthetic rebrand a dog whistle to a crowd Musk wishes to woo? The possibility can’t be discarded, especially with his relaxed views on moderating the ever-burgeoning hate speech on the platform since he took over.
X as a double-edged sword
Some of the negative aspects of X are counterbalanced by certain pop culture references.
Granted, X can stand for censorship, especially with the likes of X-rated movies and pornography. Then there’s Generation X – including those born between 1965 and 1981 – which is often patronizingly referred to as a demographic characterized as unconcerned with societal pressures and money. However, other pop culture examples can provoke nostalgia and even excitement: the X-Men comics and movies; X as the shorthand for “extreme” with reference to sports and gaming; the cult 90s sci-fi series The X Files, revolving around conspiracy theories and paranoia about the US government...
Sound familiar? Maybe Elon is a fan, and if so, he’s chosen the right time to get rid of Twitter’s iconic bird. After all, the show turns 30 this year. X is frequently shorthand for something that is hard to define, but maybe the whole mysterious X rebranding isn’t as knotty as it seems – maybe it’s his homage to Mulder and Scully.
Or maybe we’re overthinking it and he just thinks the letter looks cool.
Whatever the reasons may be, Musk’s use of X as an identifier remains something of a double-edged sword. By attempting to harness the power of a rich and undeniably versatile symbol, which as you can tell from this article is a sign that seems to defy reining in by recklessly sprawling out in every direction, Musk will find that versatility can backfire.
X can symbolize divinity and harmony as a symmetrical letter, but references to death, toxicity and the concept of error (cast yourselves back to your schooldays) are never far. With this in mind, Twitter’s new logo feels oddly perfect when taking into account X as the visual representation of two paths crossing. A pair of souls meet and, having failed to establish respectful dialogue or settle on a middle-ground, continue on their original momentum and go their own separate ways. A failed connection, representing a defeat of dialogue in a splintered digital world that was intended to unite in connection, but only succeeded in fostering division.
A pretty apt encapsulation of the Twitter platform, all things considered.
You can see why he's branded it X.