The above was the title of Alex Hern’s newsletter today. For those that don’t subscribe he’s the topic in full. BTW, I recommend subscribing, it’s free and it’s good
Elon Musk’s chaotic first week as chief twit has crystallised fears that the site is in a death spiral. Here’s a handy guide to other platforms – from a Slack-style chatroom to the anti-Twitter
Mastodon … the flagship service
Another Twitter exodus has begun.
Since Elon Musk first made a bid to acquire the social network, some users have expressed concern at the direction the site could take under his ownership. A narrow focus on “free speech” that seemed defined specifically to please his rightwing American supporters, a predilection for misinformation and a fundamental refusal to acknowledge the concerns of those with more experience running a social network all boded ill.
But the chaotic first week of the billionaire maven has crystallised the fears. Thousands of Twitter staff have been laid off, in such an ill-thought-through process that “dozens” have been asked to come back (£) after managers realised they were actually crucial to help the site function. Musk has apparently begun wielding his personal power in increasingly self-serving ways, with a fact-check disappearing from under one of his own tweets and users receiving permanent bans for mimicking him in protest. Advertisers have started to pull back spending, creating the serious possibility of a death spiral, as a collapse in revenue forces ever-greater interventions from Musk, leading to deeper collapses in revenue.
And so users are turning elsewhere. But the menu of options is confusing and unappetising. Here’s a guide to what else is on offer:
What is it? The flagship service of the “fediverse”, a federated social network that operates on common protocols to ensure compatibility between thousands of distinct servers, each running one “instance” of the network. It is to Twitter as email is to messaging apps.
Why might I head there? The fediverse is as close to a like-for-like alternative to Twitter as you’re likely to find. It’s comparatively large, with more than a million monthly active users, which means you can probably find your niche. It’s familiar, with most of the same basic posting concepts ported over wholesale from Twitter and few additions such as content warnings that feel thought-out. The federated concept means it could scale very large, without ever losing its indie feel. And Musk was rattled enough to take a photo of his screen and call it “masterbatedone” (tweet since deleted).
Why might I steer clear? The fediverse is confusing. It can take a while to get your head around the concept of following users on different servers, and simply tracking down people across the distributed network is hard. That’s before we get to concepts like defederation, where one server bans all users of another, and the problems of volunteer moderators having absolute power over their own server. (A warning: don’t assume your DMs are private on the fediverse.) And it’s not totally clear how the service will scale beyond a certain size. “It’s like email” sounds reassuring, until you remember that your email service is almost certainly run by one of five massive companies for a reason.
What is it? The anti-Twitter. A social network set up for – and by – people who like the basic offering of Twitter but explicitly hate the site, the software industry and almost everything about it except the basic idea of posting.
Why might I head there? If the fediverse, and the entire concept of decentralised social media, is too much, then Cohost offers a simpler proposition: what if Twitter was run by good people, who just wanted to build a chill website? If we’re honest, the answer is: “Something that feels like mix between Twitter and Tumblr with a user base that is almost entirely software developers”.
Why might I steer clear? The site is already stumbling under people’s interest, imposing a two-day waiting period before new users can post. It seems unlikely to be able to absorb even a fraction of Twitter’s user base, which means that it might have to settle on supporting the niche that does manage a home there, and become the Ello of the 2022 Twitter exodus.
What is it? A chatroom service. Built around gaming, it started out as a way for gamers to coordinate voice chats and talk about the games they were playing. It’s now expanded to encourage anyone to make chatrooms, or “servers”, about anything for anyone. If you use Slack at work, the simplest thing is to think of Discord as Slack for the rest of your life.
Why might I head there? If Discord is for you, you’re probably already using it. You’ll be in a few servers already – perhaps one for fans of your favourite online game, and another where members of a niche hobby you’re in to hang out. Rather than leaving Twitter for a like-for-like replacement, you can just … stop posting on Twitter, and spend more time on Discord instead.
Why might I steer clear? Discord isn’t a social network; it’s more a tool for making new social networks. While you do have a stable identity across different discord servers, almost everything happens within those walled gardens. That means you can’t simply “switch to Discord”: you need to actively find the right community for you. And you’ll probably never find one that covers all your interests, so get used to hopping between servers for a while.
What is it? Come on, you know WhatsApp: the world’s largest messaging app, the one Meta subsidiary that people have good things to say about, the place that you first heard about the lasagne they were making in Wembley Stadium.
Why might I head there? Look inside yourself. Does social networking really need to be public? Sure, the upside is that sometimes a nice stranger pokes their head in and says something interesting, but the downside is that you post about something you thought was innocuous and become the Main Character for the day. So why not just bring your best internet friends into a few group chats, and do all your posting there instead?
Why might I steer clear? Posting in a group chat is great, but making one isn’t. It’s like inviting a colleague to your birthday drinks for the first time: What if your other friends don’t like them? What if they think you’re being strangely forward? And even once you’ve made the group chat, it can be hard to use them to expand the network outwards. For that, public social media is the way forward.
What is it? OK, you’re pulling my leg. You definitely know email. This is an email!
Why might I head there? You might have missed it, but email newsletters are having a renaissance. Even large media organisations are getting in on the game. But you don’t need to sit down and write an essay every week to have a newsletter: what if you just … wrote down all the tweets you were going to send, and emailed them to the people who follow you? Services like Substack, Buttondown and Ghost make that easy.
Why might I steer clear? The social norms for email are different and, while it might be possible to send out an email that just says, “IF THE ZOO BANS ME FOR HOLLERING AT THE ANIMALS I WILL FACE GOD AND WALK BACKWARDS INTO HELL,” people might unsubscribe. And though hitting reply and chatting with the author might be fun (try it now!), it’s not the same as a conversation on a public social network.
What is it? Twitter.
Why might I want to stay there? Network effects are real. With 350 million users, there’s not going to be a replacement for Twitter that has everyone on it, and there probably never will be. If the site dies, it dies, but if you don’t want to hasten its death you don’t have to.
Why might I steer clear? See top of post.