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Twitter moving from a little bird logo to an X is a radical symbolic shift. Small bird symbolism is all about innocence. Small birds do no harm. They speak to the timeless, gentle life of the countryside, of jolly industry and productivity.
Birds are close to the heavens, tied to the symbolism of the sky. The sky is where the gods and our imaginations live – hence the saying, “blue-sky thinking”.
Musk’s new logo, X, crosses out Twitter’s blue bird. Credit: Reuters
X symbolism is quite the opposite. By being so different, it signals radical change for Twitter.
We may think simple things in logos and shapes are random and meaningless, but they rarely are. Instead, they are shortcuts to deeper meaning. Shapes and colours are often an arrow to the subconscious mind and pull together a range of established associations.
Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, can help us to better understand these associations. The practice is increasingly being used by major brands to leverage those subconscious references.
In recent years, we have worked with organisations such as NAB and IOOF to study the semiotics of their brand assets, namely the star and the egg. We can only speculate about Elon Musk’s reason for liking X.
It could be a classic rebranding strategy that comes when businesses are under pressure – and Twitter certainly fits the bill with advertising revenue reportedly down 50 per cent and its advertising portal traffic down more than 20 per cent as Meta rival Threads claims the title of fastest-growing app of all time.
Musk, Twitter’s controversial new owner, certainly has a penchant for X, between his business SpaceX, the place-holder name for his “everything app” and his son whom he perplexingly named X Æ A-12 in 2020.
Semiotics analysis tells us X is highly symbolic, triggering intense feelings and emotions.
There are clear patterns around X in our culture signalling physical or moral danger. Case in point, X often turns up in pornography in the form of X-rated content. As something that signals moral boundaries, our minds are alert to it.
X can be enticing in that it marks the line between what is safe and right and what is dangerous and wrong. Crossing this boundary means you are being rebellious, breaking with norms and making your own decisions.
For Musk and Twitter, X aligns with the platform’s move to the dark side following the disabling of safety mechanisms such as content moderation.
Almost as soon as Musk clinched the troubled deal to buy Twitter, he started to lay off employees charged with fighting misinformation on the platform. He then opened up the blue tick – once the domain of verified, trusted professionals – to anyone with deep enough pockets. He dared to go where many thought he should not. He crossed the line.
Semiotic analysis also tells us that X carries the energy of danger and being unconventional: a mindset often aligned to youth. And there are other connotations that fit with Musk’s desired perception.
Did you hear that? Elon Musk called his boy X Æ A-12.Credit: Getty
X speaks to the inexplicable – the thing that is hard to put your finger on. The X factor. Similarly, the letter X is often used in maths to mean a value that is not yet known. It stands for things we cannot explain or people who are a mystery to us. Think Mr or Mrs X.
Musk’s choice of the X befits his entrepreneurial self – his spirit of challenge and success.
A common symbol of celebration is a leap in the air with the human body forming the shape of an X.
While Musk may be hoping to capture this sentiment at the helm of Twitter, it’s worth bearing in mind X is also a powerful marker of finality, from demolition sites marked with an X to the way we refer to people no longer in our lives: ex-husbands, ex-wives, ex-friends.
Of course, it’s not all bad news for X. The symbol is the universal sign for a kiss, used to cement relationships and prove commitment.
But far from the sweet innocence of the Twitter bird, X speaks to dark forces and primal defence. It alerts us, keeps us on our toes and doesn’t shun the dark side. Semioticians are watching closely to see what future the X augurs for Twitter.
Mary Winter is a semiotics specialist and insights director at branding agency Principals.
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