Six months of Twitter under Elon Musk; also, the current state of Twitter alternatives

Twitter on smartphone in front of map

In late October, billionaire Elon Musk officially bought ownership of Twitter for a whopping $44 billion. Since then, it’s been a nonstop parade of chaos for the social network, with no end in sight. While some of it’s purportedly in the name of making Twitter profitable, much of it can be chalked up to Musk’s mercurial behavior and personal whims.

Since it’s the six month anniversary of the actual Twitter purchase (and a year since news broke of Musk planning to buy Twitter), I thought I’d look at how Twitter’s changed, and its current status. Below is a list of some of the major changes, antics, etc. that Twitter has gone through in the past six months. While I’m sure I’ve missed or glossed over some points, it’s hard to keep up with all this, given Twitter’s current leadership.

Racists, trolls, and Trump return to Twitter; advertisers and users exit

Trump's banned Twitter account
Donald Trump’s (formerly banned) Twitter account. (Twitter / screenshot by author)

Not long after Musk’s buyout of Twitter was complete, Musk started loosening moderation rules, allowing numerous previously banned users (racists, homophobes, etc.) back on the platform. There’s also been an increase in hate speech on Twitter. The results of this? Donald Trump himself had his “lifetime” ban overturned shortly before Thanksgiving. (This is also the time I decided that was the last straw, and stopped using Twitter.) As of this writing, Trump’s yet to actively return to tweeting, due to an exclusive deal with alt-right social network Truth Social that’s set to end in June. Since Trump’s running for re-election in 2024, I imagine he’ll readily return to using Twitter.

Since last fall, there’s been an exodus of advertisers and users. According to Vox, by February, over half of Twitter’s top 1000 advertisers stopped advertising on Twitter. Out of the top 10 advertisers, only six were still active by February. Also, as of last week, Twitter now requires advertisers to either pay for Twitter Blue (more on that below) or spend at least $1,000 a month to advertise on the platform.

Racists, far-right groups, and trolls are thrilled, of course; unlike Parler or Truth Social, their favorite targets (i.e. people like me) are actually on Twitter. (One reason why those alt-right social networks failed.) But needless to say, advertisers don’t want their ads to show up next to such individuals. And without ad revenue, things look bleak for Twitter in the long run; Twitter Blue won’t cut it.

Twitter API cut off for most non-paying users

Musk has also cut off Twitter’s API for most users. There’s now only a limited free tier, for up to 1500 tweets a month; the next step up, Basic, costs $100/month, and allows more tweets; and finally, an Enterprise tier at $42,000 per month. Others note the odd price point’s probably a tie-in to “420,” or April 20th, a day associated with marijuana users, and keeping with Musk’s trolling side.

This makes Twitter unusable for many small third-party services and bots. It also puts an end to most third-party Twitter apps, with little warning. Some of them, such as Tweetbot, have pivoted to developing apps for federated social network Mastodon.

The Twitter Blue saga

Twitter Blue has become a saga unto itself. But to summarize, Musk has decided to start charging for blue verification checkmarks next to user names (plus some other benefits), for $8/month. (Musk initially offered this last fall, but soon revoked it for retooling after imposters and trolls started paying to imitate prominent accounts.) Legacy checkmarks have also been removed from existing accounts as of April 20 (see what I meant about Musk’s obsession with “420?”). The problem with this? Verification was often used to tell who was a legitimate or significant account. Now that anyone can buy a checkmark, it just says you’re willing to give Musk $8.

Blue accounts are also now the only way to be featured in the “For You” tab, and the only way to create polls.

The backlash to this has been great, to the point the hashtag #BlockTheBlue became prominent, with many users now blocking anyone who pays for a Blue checkmark. Some celebrities noted they refused to pay for Blue. In reaction a few days ago, Musk changed Blue’s policy; now, Blue is given to any account with at least a million followers, whether or not they paid for Blue. It’s suspected this is to try to make it harder for users to pre-emptively block all Blue accounts, since it’d now include prominent accounts.

Musk vs. journalism

NPR sign
“NPR headquarters” by James Cridland is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Flickr / cropped from original)

Elon Musk’s antipathy toward journalism is infamous. (He disbanded Twitter’s communications department after taking over; now all emails to it get a poop emoji auto-response.) This came through with the recent labeling of NPR and PBS as “state-affiliated media,” which is hardly true. Among other things, they weren’t exactly mouthpieces of the Trump administration, as would be the case for an actual state-affiliated outlet.

The result of this? NPR left the platform entirely, even going as far as to remove Twitter’s share buttons from their site. PBS, Canada’s CBC, and a few other public broadcasters also stopped using Twitter, as of this writing.

Given journalists make up a big portion of Twitter’s base, antagonizing them seems like a foolish move. Media outlets are a big reason why Twitter punches above its relatively smallish size.

Musk himself

Musk himself also makes using Twitter less appealing. Unlike other social network owners, Musk insists on being the center of attention, even if users would rather ignore him. For example, after getting livid his tweets got less attention than those of President Biden, Musk had Twitter’s algorithm tweaked to heavily promote his own tweets.

On top of that, Musk himself is, well, not a pleasant person. He’s fired Twitter workers who question any of his decision-making, like a bad cartoon boss; he engages in trolling; he clearly doesn’t know much about aspects of his own social network; his car company, Tesla, has been sued for racial discrimination; and so on. He’s basically a middle-aged, somewhat more competent version of Donald Trump.

As such, Musk’s crass behavior and personality are affecting Twitter’s usability, even for those trying to ignore him. While Facebook has flaws, at least I can use it without having to think about Mark Zuckerberg or see his posts (or complaints about such). The same can’t be said at this point about Twitter and Musk.

Twitter’s future

Twitter’s future at this point looks dim. I don’t expect it to go the way of Google+ and vanish entirely. However, between a weaker advertiser base, a smaller staff, more tech problems, and users slowly trickling away, it’s probably heading toward the same fate as MySpace or Tumblr: once-popular sites that are now a shadow of their former selves. (Tumblr’s recently made a comeback, but still pales versus its former popularity.) I can easily see Musk eventually selling Twitter for pennies on the dollar.

The state of Twitter alternatives

Mastodon social network
Mastodon logo. (Mastodon)

That said, Twitter’s got one benefit at this point: the lack of an obvious alternative. Unlike the demise of LiveJournal and Tumblr, there’s no social network with similar features as Twitter that’s become widely popular. As for the alternatives that got attention early on the Musk era:

  • Mastodon: The most popular alternative so far, Mastodon replicates most of Twitter’s features, but still has some rough, “geeky” edges. The biggest obstacle: the signup process is seen as difficult, and a turn off to many. As I’ve noted, the average person doesn’t care what “instances” or “federated” are; they just want an easy to use app. Also, there’s probably branding issues with its name; searching Google, Mastodon’s biggest server is the top result, followed by… the rock group also named Mastodon. (This is why searching Google before choosing a name for your site matters.)
  • CoHost: CoHost doesn’t offer an app, and it’s lost a lot of traction since last fall. It also seems to work more like Tumblr than Twitter.
  • Tribel, CounterSocial: No real attention since last fall.
  • Spoutible: While it works very similar to Twiter’s features, there’s no app available yet. Also, there’s been some remarks about Spoutible not welcoming adult media creators, as well as issues with romance writers.
  • Post: It seems only journalists (and a few comic creators) have taken to this platform.
  • Discord: It’s a replacement for IRC/Slack, not for Twitter, as it’s a live chat service.
  • Substack Notes: Substack Notes replicates plenty of Twitter functionality, and it’s tied to a popular newsletter platform. However, a recent interview makes clear that Substack’s moderation policies for racism, homophobia, etc. won’t be any different than those of Twitter.
  • BlueSky: Developed as a federated take of Twitter, BlueSky sounds like a strong contender: it’s federated (though on a different, new standard versus Mastodon’s ActivityPub); replicates Twitter’s features; and is easier to use than Mastodon. Unfortunately, it’s still in a closed beta with a waiting list as of this writing, and it’s unclear if there’s a web-based version (apps for iOS and Android are being touted currently). It’s also introducing another federated standard alongside ActivityPub.

Otherwise, the only other alternatives are the old stand-bys (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.). Facebook and Instagram seem to be go-tos for some leaving Twitter, such as NPR. Tumblr doesn’t seem to have picked up much traction, as far as I can tell. TikTok is still huge, though currently threatened with a US ban. Finally, a lot of the alternatives aren’t text-based like Twitter, as all the attention (and financial interests) in social media has shifted toward mimicking TikTok, or “pivoting to video”/podcasts/anything but plain text.

What should Twitter alternatives offer?

Social media smartphone apps
Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay

As for what it’ll take to replace Twitter, I think any alternative needs the following:

  • Stable and secure functionality.
  • Text-based/text-friendly.
  • A chronological feed.
  • Easy to use and set up.
  • Decent branding (a name that’s easy to Google, versus generic words).
  • Supportive of and friendly for LGBTQ folk and people of color. The famed “Black Twitter” should feel comfortable using it.
  • Strong moderation against trolls, bigots, and hate speech.
  • General purpose, not just aimed at a specific niche (politics, art, etc.).
  • Offers an app and web-based access.

A lot to ask for, I know, especially when “videos and algorithms FTW” is more in vogue. Unfortunately, out of the alternatives, nothing seems to complete fit the above criteria completely.

As far as I can tell, the best options to replace Twitter in the future (that aren’t just another old-time competitor like Facebook or Tumblr) might be:

  • BlueSky. It seems to combine Mastodon’s federated nature with Twitter’s features/ease of use.
  • A “Chromebook” (more user-friendly) version of Mastodon. As I’ve noted before, a modified, user-friendly take on Mastodon would make it more appealing and easy to use for the general public, even if it rankles Mastodon/ActivityPub purists. Just as Chromebooks are easy-to-use computers that made Linux on the desktop popular with the general public, even if they aren’t exactly Ubuntu or Linux Mint.

Otherwise, I suppose there’s simply leaning more on Facebook, Instagram, and other popular social networks, as well as newsletters and blogs. The last two let one own their own platform, and also avoid being under the thumb of another Elon Musk.

Image by Edar from Pixabay


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Anthony Dean

Anthony Dean is the owner of Diverse Tech Geek and Diverse Media Notes.

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