Discover more from The Honest Broker
We Have Entered the Self-Loathing Stage of the Internet
Or why web platforms keep changing their names like criminals in the Witness Protection Program
When I first heard that Twitter was renaming itself as X, I thought it was a joke.
Not a funny joke, just a goofy one. Elon Musk has a taste for schoolboy humor—and on many occasions has posted something undignified for a laugh. I assumed X was another example of this.
Who could take that name seriously?
Just consider the significations of X:
The crossbones you put in front of a skull on a bottle of poison;
A mistake on a test, marked by the teacher in red;
How you sign your name if you can’t read or write;
Something you haven’t figured out in algebra;
A movie that’s dirty, raunchy, or offensive in some manner;
A mark on a map where stolen wealth has been buried by pirates or criminals;
The street name for an illegal drug (MDMA) with various adverse long-term effects—including depression, anxiety, and impairments of cognition, memory, and learning;
A symbol of betrayal (i.e., a double cross);
A former spouse or lover, who walked out the door one day, and is probably suing your ass for custody or support right now;
In marketing language, an inferior product, as in “Brand X”;
A radioactive ray so dangerous that it killed the people who invented and developed it.
Given these associations, nobody in their right mind would replace a familiar, proven brand name with X. Mr. Musk must be joking again. Or so I thought.
But I thought wrong.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, media & culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
If this were an isolated event, I would dismiss it as just one more quirk on the part of an eccentric CEO. But these horrible rebrands are now standard practice in Silicon Valley, especially among dominant Internet platforms.
Why did Google change its corporate name to Alphabet? Why did Facebook change its corporate name to Meta? These were two of the best known brand names in the history of capitalism. Why get rid of them?
And consider this bizarre coincidence. The very same month that Twitter became X, Instagram launched its own text posting option. But it refused to use the familiar Instagram name, instead calling this new feature Threads.
Threads is another word that has all sorts of negative connotations. It refers to something old and torn. It’s associated with poverty and an embarrassing appearance.
Do you remember the carefree early days of the web? Brand names were innocent and playful—they sounded like something from a nursery rhyme: Yahoo, Google, Tumblr. Twitter was one of those cutesy names.
Its symbol was a chirping bird. So sweet. So innocent.
But nowadays, web platforms take on names straight out of an H.P. Lovecraft horror story—Threads, X, Ghost, Twitch, Discord, etc.
Today’s writing prompt: Use all of those words in the opening lines of a story. Then send it off to an editor at Weird Tales.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to say that I almost always oppose rebranding. I’ve seen these marketing makeovers up close, and have even participated in them. They are always desperate measures.
You only do rebranding as a last resort—when the old brand name is so tarnished and hated, that everybody is embarrassed by it. Otherwise, you’re just confusing customers and adding meaningless expenses (for new business cards, signs, displays, etc.).
The brutal truth is that rebranding is often a sign of shame and self-loathing.
That’s why, for example, the secret police in the Soviet Union kept changing its name.
Hmm, maybe there’s a larger connection here. The KGB was an organization devoted to mass surveillance. Which is the same way dominant social media platforms make their money nowadays.
Let’s consider a more personal example of name changes related to shame.
When I was in elementary school, the toilets were located in a place called the lavatory. That’s a lovely euphemism—derived from the Latin word lavare (to wash). But let’s get real. There was probably more smoking than washing going on in those lavatory stalls—maybe they should have called them fumatories.
In any event, the word is eventually infected by its actual meaning, and needs to be replaced.
So a few years later, these same locations were redesignated as restrooms. The etymology here is even more bizarre. Does anybody go to these rooms to rest. Where is the bed? Where is my pillow?
If you take a longer term view, you discover that the room where this bodily function takes place changes its name every few decades. Consider the frequency of usage of various expedients.
The toilet is like the KGB—it requires constant rebranding.
As you see above, restroom is now flattening. A new term will soon rise to replace it. Hey, maybe we can call it the X room.
This linguistic phenomenon is widespread, and covers a range of situations. You are uncomfortable about the thing itself, but you can only change the name. That’s why rebrandings are always warning signs.
There are, of course, exceptions. But I’m always suspicious when a country changes its name. Or when businesses or individuals change their names. Or a department in your company changes its name.
Consider the case of the personnel department in a large business. Around 50 years ago, it got renamed as human resources. But the usage of the term “human resources” started declining around 2000—and I don’t think it’s pure coincidence that this department started becoming heavily bureaucratized around then. In many companies, HR evolved into the mouthpiece of government regulations, idiotic corporate directives, and various control and surveillance-flavored programs.
So it needed a new name. Just like the KGB and the toilet—or Meta or Alphabet or Twitter.
And—surprise!—Human Resources got rebranded. The person running it is now often called the Chief People Officer, or the Chief Experience Officer, or the Chief Talent Officer.
This is the same reason why the high school principal at my old school is still called the principal. The coach is still the coach. The counselor is still the counselor. The teacher is still the teacher. But the janitor has been rebranded—as a custodian or sanitary engineer or some other such title.
Ted’s rule: When your job gets rebranded, that’s a sign you’re never getting a promotion.
I raise this because it tells us something about the current state of the Internet.
The early days of the web were a time of energy, excitement, and promise. We have now entered the phase of shame and self-loathing. If the early web reminded us of Dr. Seuss, we’ve now entered an H.P. Lovecraft horror tale. And even if the whole management team has prestigious degrees from Miskatonic University, the end result is still that we’re all living in a virtual Arkham.
So this is more than just a quirk of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg. The businesses themselves feel tainted. And the users of these platforms increasingly exhibit the same symptoms of self-loathing—almost as if viral media spreads actual viral contagion.
I believe this is the reason why the new Threads social media platform started losing users almost from the start. Something about the whole experience feels wrong. And I’m not the only person who reacts that way.
The number of active users has collapsed by a staggering 82% in just five weeks. The amount of time they spend on it is now less than three minutes per day.
This is what the self-loathing stage of the web looks like. A huge company can spend billions on creating something shiny and new, and convince more than 100 million people to sign up. But it doesn’t feel good, and people are soon rushing to get out of Arkham.
We are still learning about the psychological costs of a web-driven life. But we already know that teens who spend more time on these platforms experience “greater psychological distress, less life satisfaction, low happiness levels and more anxiety.” One study showed that just 10 minutes of passive browsing on Facebook is enough to stir up negative feelings.
Was that true back in the simpler days of Tumblr and Yahoo and Excite? I don’t think so.
Most of us experience some part of this dysfunctional virtual world—we are forced to, unless we cut ourselves off from all the online platforms. Yet the situation has gotten so ugly, that many people are now tempted to do just that.
In the old days, people went on retreats to meditate and find themselves. Nowadays they do it just to get away from the bloody phone and web. People actually fantasize about throwing their phones away.
Can you blame them?
All this suggests that we can’t really understand the tech powerhouses that control us without grasping the self-loathing that is now built inside the dominant internet platforms.
If you research this disorder, you get insights—although maybe some of this is stuff you would rather not know. But it helps you grasp the essential nature of the dominant search engines and social media platforms.
For example, self-loathing is often linked to narcissim—which surprises many people, because hating yourself too much and loving yourself too much seem to be opposites. But this ugly paradox is now embedded in the Internet.
And, of course, there are all the other risk factors related to self-loathing—poor body image, eating disorders, sleep disorders, self harm, loneliness, depression, all the way to suicide. As far as I can tell, every one of these symptoms has risen in tandem with social media usage.
That’s why it makes perfect sense for huge web platforms to change their names. It doesn’t make economic sense. It doesn’t make marketing sense. But it makes psychological sense—and is an obvious sign of the ugliness at the heart of the beast.
In an extreme case, you might even change a company’s name to X or Threads. But Cthulhu by any other name still smells just as bad.
Let me close on a happier note.
There are solutions to the mess we’re in, and I hope to write about them in the future. But they have nothing to do with rebranding. When the thing itself is the problem, you can throw all the letters of the Alphabet at it, but you’re just dealing with symbols. A real fix needs to dig much, much deeper. And X only marks the spot.