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The State of the Twitter alts
Elon bought the Birdsite and it sent people to the exits, but is a fracture social media experience really our future?
Hey, quick programming note: I published a piece in The Atlantic a couple weeks ago about our idealized notion of debate vs. how it often plays out in media culture. Give it a read if you like. It’s a dream publication for me, and I’m proud of the writing for once!
In the past year have written a lot about Elon Musk buying Twitter. I was cautiously optimistic last April that the financial incentives would keep him from wrecking the service (lolol) and tried to describe the unique community experience Twitter fosters and why that matters. Bottom line, I’m not great at optimistic predictions even if I’m right on the substance!
Once the sale closed and all hell broke loose, I’ve been torn. I tried out Mastodon and wrote a startup guide to it that ended up being more popular than most anything I’ve written on Medium (seriously, people won’t stop sharing it). But it never quite fit despite my efforts. I’ve been reluctant to leave Twitter (you can see the angst here) for a variety of reasons. I wrote about this for The Los Angeles Times last year, that it’s not that there aren’t alternatives but instead that the alternatives aren’t the same experience, for good or bad.
New social products face the reality that social platforms are great if designed well, but if the people you like aren’t there then you won’t use them. Many of us on Twitter spent over a decade building and curating a good list of people to follow. By the time of the sale, I was following a unique-for-me mix of academics, journalists, baseball experts, athletes, celebrities, authors, and thinkers. I had built a diverse network of people who don’t see the world the way I do. Twitter wasn’t just a social network for me; it was a learning engine built to help me make sense of the day’s news and expose me to longer-term ways of seeing. And you cannot rebuild that in a day, in a month, or even a year.
It’s a puzzle. Stay for what is working well, or leave and risk losing what you built. But I don’t think it’s going to be a matter of choice for long. The past few months have made it clear Elon is going to wreck Twitter (I have multiple theories that he’s doing this on purpose, but that’s for another day). Beyond the technical problems Twitter has had after laying off the majority of the workforce, a few awful unforced errors have degraded the experience for everyone.
Ending verification badges made it much harder to trust anything on the site. Elon said the blue checkmark was created as some elite status symbol, but anyone with a sense of site history knows it has prevented impersonations of people of note. The badge was to help users navigate the site with confidence. Think about the submarine story two weeks ago, with journalists and experts sharing news and analysis in real-time; how difficult is it for a user to navigate that information environment if impersonators could spoof someone and spread misinformation? That is now Twitter all the time, around every news event or piece of information shared.
Selling verification for $8 didn’t fix the above problem. It didn’t actually verify identity in the way I had to when I got my badge (I had to send in my photo ID to get Verified the old way). Verification was a moneymaker that added no value for readers. A blue checkmark, then, retains the signal value of the old checkmark but really is just a sign you paid Twitter $8.
Prioritizing people who paid $8 for Twitter Blue in comments and the algorithm created a whole new way to game the system. Suddenly trolls and cranks were visible because they were willing to pay. Whatever. It’s his site. But in making them more visible to people who’d rather have a tightly controlled experience around whom they are reading, it just makes the site feel angrier and more caustic.
These are just three. I could go on and on about more niche problems like cutting off API access to developers who make products that help us use Twitter better, or charging for power user tools like Tweetdeck that people use. The rate-limiting fiasco that put limits on how much you could read per day was insane. The upshot is Elon has been driving away creators in droves and telling people to limit their reading, which is bad news for a site that relies on user-generated content and engagement to sell advertising.
People have been heading for the exits thanks to Elon’s antics. What we are getting, as a result, is a type of diaspora. We aren’t all going to the same alternative, and so the result is a type of fracture you can feel. Social networks map our connections to one another, and we contain multitudes. I have a lot of interests and Twitter over time let me map connections that allow me to build something akin to subcommunities across my social media use. That made Twitter great, the idea we could traverse those different subcultures in the same spot and discover new people to follow. When only 1/3 of our network shows up at the place we landed, and it’s random, you feel like there are big holes in your experience.
I’ve made a semi-firm decision that I’m going to finally walk away from Twitter before the end of the year. I’ll get into that in a bit and also why the timing will drag out, but part of it is rooted in what I’ve discovered about alternative platforms. So first, my own personal experience on different options (your mileage may and probably will vary).
Mastodon (I’m here): It has a lot of people I like there, and has been a big exit home for academics in particular. The two problems I’ve encountered there. First, because of the way it’s set up (you have a home community, essentially), search is difficult. It’s hard to find people outside your home.
Post.News (I’m here): I tried it pretty hard for a month. Honestly, it had a very white liberal vibe, and half the conversations were about how great it was to be in an enclosed space. Felt very echo chambery the more I used it. And I was too sketched out by the fact they’ve got major funding from a16z, the VC fund that includes the notoriously awful Marc Andreessen
Hive (did not sign up): I read enough about it to avoid it. There are major problems with privacy and data collection there. Anyone who asked me about this platform, I told them it was on my Do Not Fly list.
Spoutible (I’m here): I like the idea, and I like the founder. Some people I know have gone there and swear by it. I’ve been pretty much lurking there. What I have found though is it has a few subcommunities I follow around news consumption but not much else at the moment.
Bluesky (I’m here): I’ve been in for three weeks. It feels very Twitter-like in function, and it has people from all my different subcommunities; unlike Mastodon, it is very easy to search for people to follow. It’s got factors limiting the experience, including that it’s still growing slowly by using invite codes from users already in. While people are accusing the site of being an exclusive club, there are very good technical reasons to grow slowly at the start. But the fact none of the content is viewable on the outside makes it hard for creators.
That’s five right there. Facebook is about to launch Threads this week as yet another alternative. There are some other minor ones out there too.
The point isn’t which one is better, it’s to point out that we’re being given at least six major alternatives to migration, which means we are by definition going to end up fractured. You might really like one of the ones above, and that’s fine! But you’re still splitting up your social network. In the centralization→decentralization cycle that I wrote about last year, this is a normal thing after breaking with a centralized product. We’re going to go in different directions before a single service or two begins to capture us again.
This is the tension of these apps. We want community, and a niche community that is highly active can be a great experience. But it also limits us to just that community, and when you consider that most online communities are built around topics and interests, then fractures of networks end up fracturing our interests too. Gone are my intersections between academic Twitter and baseball Twitter, journalism Twitter and Star Wars Twitter. Those rich overlaps made Twitter a real type of town square experience, full of weak ties and casual conversations that feel a lot like civic life. When our experience is more fractured, it is more tribal. And look, you already can build an echo chamber around your beliefs and ideologies just fine on mainstream social networks like Facebook, but there’s more potential to break out of that on a site that has lots of people because casual relationships with others offer meaningful ways for other types of information or views to reach you.
The spillover effect from Elon making Twitter a miserable place is a migration, and in that migration, we’ve replaced a singular plaform with logins to multiple platforms. The politics social network, the news social network, the academic social network, or the baseball social network. This is overly simplified, of course, but it exists as an illustration. It’s possible your interests are easier to collapse into a single community or two, or perhaps it’s possible to find that Twitter confluence of communities by just trying really hard. The point isn’t that it’s impossible, it’s that it’s no longer easy. Nerds like me like to tinker and build digital experiences, but most people just want an app that works and lets them follow people they like.
It’s that lack of people and lack of intersecting communities that have made me reluctant to leave Twitter. To be sure, a lot of friends have left and not returned. There are holes in my experience since the migration began in November 2022. But there was still enough there to make it usable and useful. I’d still get into stray conversations about things, or have a thread on some news topic go viral. Publications still know to find me there, and I’ve written four freelance pieces in the past 8 months thanks to Twitter.
I’ve been saying the end would look like this, that there were enough people hanging around to make it work at a diminished-but-important level, and then all at once there’d be a big migration due to some big change or fiasco. I believe that the latter phase is finally underway. The changes to rate limits and Tweetdeck, plus the amplification of people on a pay-to-play basis have led to a serious uptick in people leaving. The trolls are there and they are emboldened. Abuse is on the rise and unregulated because of Elon’s twisted definition of free speech. It’s a community that is currently devouring itself, in slow-enough motion that it’s hard to see until you zoom out. On top of all that, the technical changes are making the user experience worse.
To write that I see an expiration date for my time on the platform is difficult for me. I built a lot of my early academic reputation by studying the platform, and I formed a lot of long-term relationships with colleagues there that give me a lot of joy. It’s become an invaluable tool for my own growth and learning, particularly in hearing from people at the margins who don’t have widespread access to big media microphones. I can say it has made me a better person on the balance to have used Twitter.
My hesitancy around leaving has always been more about being unsure where to land. Would I put a stake in the ground on a platform where there wasn’t anything interesting happening? Would it not be a good fit for someone who wants to figure out how to merge my interests? I haven’t been sticking with Twitter so much as waiting to figure out which of the alternatives is going to be a long-term solution.
If I had to guess today, I’d say Bluesky is where I’m headed. The past week on Bluesky has felt a lot like reassembling some of the best aspects of Twitter. It’s got the function and the people in one place, and it’s been growing a lot in the past week thanks to Elon’s antics. I have spent a lot of time on some of the alternatives, and they just have never felt like the place that will finally pull me over permanently. Bluesky has felt different from the start. There is a real and growing community there.
The reason my walking away from Twitter will be slow is twofold. First, I’m not certain about my sense of Bluesky. There’s a lot that can go wrong with a beta, and growth might level off. Second, it not being open for now is a huge drawback. My social media use is partly for work, so if people can’t access my work there then I can’t put all my eggs there. I suspect within two months it’s going to be open to the point where you can fairly easily get an invite code from someone you know; that’s how exponential scaled growth works. But in the meantime, a full migration would have to wait. But it’s going to happen if for nothing else than I don’t expect Twitter will survive the year in any meaningful form (it also should be the end of Elon-as-business-genius thinking but, well, you know how that goes).
I suspect that even if you don’t use Twitter, you could insert your main social network into the past couple paragraphs and have the same amount of wrestling. If it got bad, when would I leave? Where would I go? What if people don’t follow me there; would I have to go back? The reality is that for most of us, online life has become so entangled with offline life that quitting a platform or going elsewhere comes with other types of social costs that we either have to be at peace with or be willing to pay.
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