As Elon Musk transforms Twitter into X, his method for persuading reluctant users to embrace his vision for an “everything app” has been more stick than carrot. Don’t like the new pay-for-verification system? Say goodbye to X’s most useful features. Remember having a timeline where you didn’t just see tweets from Musk and his friends, all the time? Bye. Not sure you want to keep dealing with all the white supremacists and spam bots? Well, keep dealing with them. And if that’s not coercive enough, the platform has recently started taking some users’ longtime handles away from them.
Late last month, the official @Twitter account rebranded itself as @X, taking the one-letter handle away from its owner of 16 years, businessman Gene X. Hwang—whose account was suddenly switched to the less elegant @x12345678998765. He received no compensation for it, though he was offered company merch and a chance to meet with management. The very next day, Twitter/X swiped the @xAI handle from its holder, a Japanese user who’d had it since 2010, and gave him @xAI_ instead (although someone else had that handle, so they were in turn left with @xAI_1). No advance notice, no choice or warning, no options for negotiation—it was all just gone. The trend has continued this month, with the longtime holders of accounts like @Sports, @TV, and @Movies losing those platforms to the X brand. If I were Bloomberg—holder of @markets, @climate, @tax, and more—I’d be very nervous.
Obviously, Twitter/X is well within its rights to do this, considering every post on the site officially belongs to the company. Still, it’s come across as a sad, desperate insult to some of platform’s most loyal users, whose early adoption of those accounts allowed them to build up much-loved personal brands and communities—and who now have no idea what to do next. Case in point: @Music.
On Friday evening, I spoke on the phone with Jeremy Vaught, a Midwest-based software developer who’d had the @Music handle for 16 years, and was suddenly forced by X to switch his account to @Musicfan (or the similarly unappealing options of @musicmusic, @music123, and @musiclover) on Thursday, a move that left him “super pissed.” How super pissed? Here’s our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
Nitish Pahwa: I’d really love to get some background from you on how you started this account, how you were able to claim the @Music handle so early on, and how you got the idea to use the account as you did.
Jeremy Vaught: Back in 2007, there was what felt like a new social media platform popping up weekly. Twitter was just one of many, but it seemed uniquely interesting at the time. I think what makes it still interesting to this day is there’s no barriers: Anybody else can see it. You don’t have to be friends with the person or anything like that.
I had started doing some podcasting in 2005, which was pretty early in the podcasting sphere. There was a pretty small group of us that did it, and a bunch started hanging out in the virtual world of Second Life. Do you recall that?
A bunch of podcasters were in there. It was great—you got to talk to the people whose voices you often hear. As a part of that, I discovered that there was a lot of live music by independent musicians, and they were streaming their voices on Second Life. They were playing live, but it was streamed into this virtual world. I was thinking of ways to bring people in to experience this and to give these artists some traction or visibility—if nothing else, something to be like, “Hey, this person is live now.” There was no other way to get that notification out.
I went to South by Southwest Interactive—the social media version of SXSW—in 2008, and I was hearing about Twitter because, the previous year, there had been screens where anybody that tweeted and used a hashtag, they showed up on those screens. It was the talk of the expo. My friends were talking about it, mentioning things like, “Hey, I just tweeted I could use a Red Bull,” and somebody showed up with a Red Bull, somebody who knew them and knew that they were in a particular talk and brought them a Red Bull. Pretty wild.
So I signed up for Twitter, and the very first thing I did was grab @Music. This was back in the day when every tweet was on the homepage—so little was happening that you could track everything on Twitter. It was only two weeks later that I decided to get my own name. Since then, I’ve just used @Music for the things that I think are interesting in music. I attempted a couple times to bridge the audience to do something to expand the reach of the account—inspire them to create an app or something along those lines. I’m a software developer, and I never had the time to act on any of that. But then it just became tweeting about music and enjoying the community that came through, since having the name @Music on naturally brought visibility.
Were there any serious attempts by other companies, or maybe even by people at Twitter, to ask if they could get the @Music handle from you, or offer you some money for it?
I’ve been offered money, not from Twitter itself, but from all sorts of people over the time. I know specifically selling a Twitter account is against the terms of service, but anyway, I never was offered enough to make it interesting. I’d like to think that a dollar per user would’ve been a nice payday.
I’ve been offered trades for other interesting Twitter handles. I think @entrepreneur was after me at one point for a while to trade with @TwitterMusic, but none of it was as interesting to me as @Music. That was a great handle to have. Right now, you can see the account got moved to @MusicFan, and there are about 450,000 followers. It had more in the past—I was close to 700,000 at one point—but when Twitter cracked down on bots, that always took a hit, which makes sense. I figured that’s probably a good thing, that the people there are real people now.
What was the experience like for you of handling that account for so long? Were there ever times you felt like you just couldn’t keep up, or was it always pretty enjoyable?
It was always enjoyable. I knew that if a Twitter account became no longer used, Twitter was likely to come get it. So at the very least, I had to do something every few days. It was never a chore. There was a lot of silly stuff: People would just tweet random things like “I love you @Music,” not at me specifically, but just into the ether. Then I would reply, “I think highly of you too.” It was fun, like, hopefully I put a smile on somebody’s face by doing something like that. It shocked me when the handle was taken away, and then I looked it up and only realized then that it had been 16 years. Putting that number on it really surprised me.
Absolutely. When it comes up in conversation, it’s super cool to have people be like, “What? You have Twitter.com/music? That’s amazing.” Twitter came out with their own Music.twitter.com handle about 10 years ago, and I half-wondered if they were going to take it back then, but they didn’t. They created @TwitterMusic and used it ever since. I guess I thought, “Well, if I can survive that, who’s going to come after it now?”
What you just said reminds me so much of the old Twitter experience, since I have fond memories of it being a jokey, low-stakes place. I’m wondering, was there ever a vibe shift for you in your Twitter use and how you experienced the platform? Like, was there ever a certain point where you felt the network was just not what it used to be?
It’s funny because so many people say Twitter’s on a downhill slide, but I really haven’t seen that for myself. Back in the day, I was online friends with all my Second Life companions and podcasting people. The group that’s sustained is my software development community. I’m still friends with all those other people, and we still interact. I feel like those communities are still there doing their thing, and they’re really not affected by the larger insanity of Twitter. I primarily see the posts from people I follow, and they’re not insane, so Twitter looks normal to me.
That was true for you up through Elon Musk’s takeover, as well?
From my personal experience, Twitter hasn’t changed that much. People are doing their thing, nobody’s reaching out to me being crazy. You have to go find it, I think.
You also subscribed to Twitter Blue on your personal account, right?
I did, but as soon as I got the email, I was just like, “This is bullcrap. I’m not going to keep Twitter Blue if they’re going to take away my @Music.” I turned it off for my music account, but I had it up until last night. In fact, I had to go figure out how to unsubscribe because when they first came out, you could only do it through iOS. I have an Android phone, but I have an iPad. Anyway, everywhere I looked, it’s like, “Nope, it’s not here.” I thought it was funny that I forgot even how I signed up for it.
Yeah, these are all small little things that you never really think about too much until something bigger happens.
On my music account, I thought to myself, Well, if I get the check mark, then that is a larger moat to protect against getting it taken away. That was definitely a thought I had when signed up for it.
You’d never had reason to believe anyone would yank out the @Music account from under you, right? Even when the rebrand started and the people who were using—
They took away @X.
Yeah, when @X and @xAI got their handles taken away.
I wasn’t, because I thought if I could survive @TwitterMusic and music.twitter.com, what are they going to do now? Seeing that email, the one that I posted on my personal account was the first whisper of any sort that change was in the air. When I read that Elon wants this to be the “everything app,” the future of payments and blah blah blah … I guess I should have paid more attention to that and been more concerned, but I just wasn’t. Thinking of it in that lens, of course the everything app is going to include music. That just dawned on me over the past day.
Were there any followers of @Music who noticed anything amiss and tried to let you know?
I’m assuming the account switch had already been done before they sent the email. There was a pretty short window in there. Also, most of the people that are on @Music, I do not know who they are. They are not personal friends, not like with my personal account. I noticed the email pretty quickly, and no, nobody reached out to me directly thinking something was off.
You’ve tweeted about this, but if you wouldn’t mind, I would love to hear from you firsthand your feelings about how all this has gone down.
It’s been emotional. It has. I lived with having it, I started it, and I’ve been running it for 16 years. That’s a long time. The idea that they’ll just take your account because they want it—I’ve always known that it’s possible. I know that on Twitter there’s nothing I own, they own it, I get it. It still sucks really bad. I had invested a lot in it. I didn’t think, “It’s gonna go in a weird way.” My father passed away earlier this year. It was unexpected, and in a weird way, it’s some of that same sort of grief, of losing something that’s been a part of you for so much of your life. I’m still wrapping my brain around it. I still don’t know what to think, exactly. There’s a lot of emotion around it.
Do you think you’ll try to continue this project in another form, or on another platform?
I’ve thought about it and I don’t have an answer. My initial thought is if it’s not @Music, it’s just not nearly as interesting.
Ever since the beginning of Twitter, there’s a phrase friends and I used that Elon started using as well, which is that Twitter is the “public square.” I still think that’s true. For me, the most interesting news bubbles up on Twitter. The software development community is still very active on Twitter, so it’s where I find a lot of stuff. I tried Threads and, I don’t know, nothing interesting is happening. Same with Mastodon—the people I see on Twitter, if they use Mastodon they just post the same stuff. There’s really no value there for me at this point.
Obviously, this sucks big-time. There’s definitely a question mark over whether what makes Twitter special gets killed in this process. I don’t think it’s happened yet, but it’s possible that it could be happening. I’m not dead on Twitter or to the idea of Twitter. I still think it’s the most interesting platform, maybe with the exception of YouTube. I have hopes that it still is the special thing that it is, but that remains to be seen. Taking people’s accounts from them doesn’t bode well.
This piece has been updated to clarify the nature of the interviewee’s SXSW attendance.