Updated on June 3, 2022
The big tech news this week has centered around Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO Of SpaceX and Tesla. Musk has not only bought a 9.2% share of stock in Twitter, but has also been appointed to its board of directors. This has sent Twitter abuzz over worrying about its long-term future. (The news that Twitter’s finally getting an edit button doesn’t seem to have helped.)
Musk embodies many of the worst aspects of the tech industry (and of America’s 1%): he engages in questionable decisions or behavior on a whim; his car company, Tesla, is facing lawsuits over racial discrimination; he’s anti-union; and he’s used Twitter to engage in name-calling and trolling.
Despite all of this, Time magazine’s 2021 Person of the Year now has a seat on Twitter’s board. While Musk doesn’t own anything close to a majority stake in Twitter, being the single biggest shareholder (and a board of directors seat) does make him a prominent figure at the company. And given Musk’s previous track record, I don’t blame Twitter’s base for being nervous. That includes me, of course—I’ve been a Twitter user since 2009.
(Update, 4/10/22: Turns out Musk isn’t joining the board after all. Still, Musk owning stock in Twitter hasn’t changed.)
Given all of the above, many people are pondering alternatives to Twitter. But what are the best alternatives?
Are Twitter alternatives possible?
Twitter’s probably the most prominent social media network that isn’t Facebook. Its advantage is offering real-time, text-based updates in a short format (what some call “microblogging”). As such, Twitter’s popular among journalists, organizations, and individuals wanting to tweet updates or follow news.
That said, Twitter’s no Facebook as far as the general public’s concerned. Twitter has about 217 million active users, versus 2.9 billion for Facebook. Personal observations seem to bear this out: I’ve seen others try Twitter, dislike it (for various reasons), and quit. The same people, however, were more likely to stick with Facebook no matter what.
As such, I think Twitter’s pretty entrenched at this point (barring something happening to ruin its fortunes), and so any Twitter alternatives will have a tough time. (Just like social media also-rans Google+, Ello, etc.) On the other hand, the fact Twitter isn’t as entrenched as Facebook means there’s a glimmer of hope for an alternative. That said, any alternatives should embody Twitter’s positive aspects, without the negative ones. (So no sites like Gab or Trump’s “Truth Social.”)
Below are some possible alternatives to Twitter. I tried to avoid “just switch to Facebook,” so it’s not listed below. That said, other than Mastodon (see below), none of them are exact substitutes; just the best ones I could think of or find.
I wrote about Mastodon a few years ago. Mastodon is probably the most popular of the “federated” sites in the “fediverse.” Mastodon works similarly to Twitter, allowing people to make posts (called “toots”), sharing others’ posts, and so on. One difference is that it’s noncommercial and open source. Anyone can start a Mastodon server (“instance”).
When signing up for Mastodon, one picks a specific instance based on what one wants (similar to picking an email host like Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, etc.). Some instances are based on categories (LGBTQ-friendly, for artists, in a specific language, etc.). Others are more general. After registering a user name with the instance, one can share it with others on any Mastodon server, similar to an email address. For example, the founder of Mastodon’s user name is “@Gargron@mastodon.social.” “Mastodon.social” is the name of his instance/server he’s registered with (similar to having an email address at “gmail.com”), while “@Gargron” is his user name.
As I noted before, one of Mastodon’s downsides is it’s not as straightforward to use as Twitter. The previous paragraph alone shows why. It requires a bit more work and skill than “install an app, enter an email address/user name, then start posting cat photos.”
And like any less popular social network, not everyone one knows will be on Mastodon. That includes a lot of entities that (for better or worse) make Twitter what it is: TV networks, celebrities, musicians, major websites, news organizations, etc. I don’t see LeBron James fans flocking en masse to Mastodon, though I’d love to be proven wrong.
There’s also Mastodon’s branding issues. “Toots” might be a cute name for an obscure open source project, but it also might put off the general public. Then again, open source image editing software GIMP has some traction, despite also having a lousy name.
Some ways to make Mastodon more marketable to the general public:
- Change the name of “toots.”
- Get an official Android app. One exists for iOS, and there’s a few third-party Android apps, but the world’s biggest smartphone platform should also have an official one.
- Somehow simplify the process of signing up. That said, I’m not sure how to gloss over the “pick an instance” aspect, though the Join Mastodon page is a start.
Update (4/25/22): I’ve launched a new Mastodon account; you can find it here: https://mastodon.social/@dtgeek
Pillowfort is a privately-owned social network that offers some Tumblr- and Twitter-like features. So far, most of its base, and many of its features, seem to cater to artists and LGBTQ folk. It also offers moderation features.
That said, Pillowfort is currently in an “open beta” state. As such, it currently costs $5 (US) to sign up for the site. Users can also sign up for free via invites from a current member.
Tumblr might be one possible alternative to Twitter. While it’s gone downhill in popularity since its adult media purge a few years ago, it’s still around, now run by Automattic (of WordPress fame). That said, Tumblr doesn’t seem like it’s gotten much attention or changed much since Automattic bought it.
A few other social networks I’ve seen suggested:
- Friendica: Another fediverse social network app. However, this one’s more a Facebook replacement, not a Twitter replacement.
- Diaspora: Also a fediverse app, and another Facebook replacement.
- Reddit: Reddit might be an option. It’s popular and widely used, is largely text-based, and offers a large range of categories via “subreddits.” However, Reddit doesn’t seem to have Twitter’s immediacy; it also has had its own problems in the past. The fact that Reddit posts can be downvoted, and that Reddit discourages self-promotion (which matters to creators), might also be issues.
While I can think of a few feasible Twitter alternatives, they still don’t quite have everything Twitter offers, including its cultural ubiquity and/or real-time news updates. As such, I expect Twitter to stick around for quite awhile, regardless of what Elon Musk does. At the worst, I expect Twitter will end up in the same position Tumblr is in now: still used, but a shadow of its former self.