screen time

Making Sense of Mastodon and Other Twitter Alternatives

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Davide Bonaldo/SOPA Images

The Elon Musk–led era at Twitter is off to an alarming start with mass layoffs, sudden feature changes, and at the center of it all, a man who truly cannot stop posting. The platform is largely the same as before, but it’s been only a couple of weeks. Musk’s message has been consistent on one thing: Major change is coming whether you like it or not. If you like it, you’ll pay him $8. If you don’t, too bad.

The sudden acquisition of a major social and professional space by a volatile Twitter-addicted billionaire has plenty of users wondering whether it’s time to make plans for the future. Fair! Whatever their reasons for worrying, they all end up with the same question: If not Twitter, where? Is there a better place to tweet than Twitter? Here’s where people are looking now.

The Mastodon “Fediverse”

In form and function, Mastodon is a fairly direct replacement for Twitter. Once you’re set up with Mastodon, you’ll see a familiar feed with familiar features. You can follow people and get followers. You consume posts in a feed. The equivalent of a retweet is a “boost,” and Mastodon’s version of the tweet is a “toot,” which sounds profoundly silly, but then so did its inspiration and, wow, look at us now.

These striking similarities conceal something fundamentally different from Twitter, however. Twitter is a centralized platform run by a single company and, now, a single man. Mastodon isn’t a platform but a tool for creating platforms: There are thousands of servers created and hosted by Mastodon users and connected in a large, loose federation known as the “fediverse.” It’s a bit like Reddit in that different communities with somewhat different rules are connected by a central structure through which they interact if they want, except Reddit is centrally owned and controlled. Others have drawn comparisons to much older technologies like email — anyone can start and run an email server, but emailers can all talk to each other regardless of the one they use. (Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is working on a service based on similar principles, for what it’s worth.)

Mastodon has a lot going for it in theory — it’s decentralized, it’s built with open-source software, and it allows people to sort themselves into servers and communities that have shared expectations and norms. Created in 2016, during another rough period in Twitter’s history, it’s seen record sign-ups in recent weeks.

Another way Mastodon is not like Twitter is that it’s not especially easy to get started. New users have to select a server (or “instance”) on which to start, which isn’t especially intuitive. While people on different instances can interact with one another, the one you start with actually matters — the last time I signed up for Mastodon was in 2018, and the instance I joined is long gone along with my account. Mastodon faces the same core problem as any new “alternative” to a social-media platform: Features are easy to copy, but what makes the originals compelling is who’s there and what they post. Many of Mastodon’s new users know why they signed up, but it doesn’t take that long to wonder what they’re doing there.

“Alt” Social

For years, conservatives have been claiming censorship by the big platforms, perhaps none so often as Twitter, which, to be fair, did ban a sitting Republican president’s personal account. Gab, Parler, Gettr, and Donald Trump’s own Truth Social all borrow features from a range of mainstream social networks, but Twitter is obviously the strongest influence.

In most ways, these platforms are cautionary tales. Twitter users who say they’re upset with the company’s moderation decisions might be telling the truth, but the reason they’re upset is that they still want to be on Twitter. Twitter is a compelling place to read or talk about politics because lots of powerful people are there and there’s lots of conflict. You might find your people, but other people are also there to be engaged with or mocked or simply observed. They’ve had years to gather up disgruntled Twitter users — people who suggested they needed to leave because of how the company was run! — and haven’t found much success.

When these sites get a little momentum — as Gab, Parler, and Truth Social have in different ways and at different times — it’s by becoming something else. Gab isn’t an alternative to Reddit or Twitter in any meaningful sense; it’s more like an extremist sub-Reddit. Parler briefly became a gathering place for election deniers, many of whom posted about attending and participating in the January 6 Capitol riots; after its removal from app stores and the arrest of many of its users, Parler relaunched with more censorship, promptly became a ghost town, and recently claimed to have entered into an agreement to be purchased by Ye, formerly Kanye West. Truth Social has lately taken on some qualities of a QAnon forum, serving as a proving ground for election-related conspiracies as well as a general Trump fan site. Like other attempts to create alternatives to mainstream social networks, these are niche communities dressed up like broad-based social networks.

Depending on your politics, of course, it’s fair to dismiss these platforms entirely. Despite their “free speech” branding, these are fairly unpleasant places for anyone who isn’t a particular sort of conservative (albeit the increasingly common sort who seems driven by social-media grievances). Some of them are run in scammy ways. They have very little, if anything, to offer Musk-motivated Twitter exiles except a cautionary tale about platform-specific “alt” services in general.

As for the people who are already there: It’s not clear what they’re getting now either. Musk bought Twitter! He did the thing! He answered their prayers! He’s tweeting right-wing memes and promising to restore free speech. He’s talking about bringing back banned accounts. The alt-Twitter of conservatives’ dreams is finally here, and it’s called Twitter.

The Old Standbys (Reddit and Tumblr)

Okay, so you think you’re done with Twitter. Maybe it’s time to check in with some other platforms from which you drifted in recent years?

If you’re a good match for Reddit, you’re probably already there. But there’s been chatter about taking another look at Tumblr, where a few million users are still happily reblogging each other in relative isolation. The platform, which was purchased by Yahoo for more than a billion dollars in 2013, was purchased in 2019 by Automattic, which runs, for $3 million — nothing to learn from that, Elon, surely. It’s ready for another look:

In January, before Musk’s announcement, The New Yorker’s Kyle Chayka spoke with some Tumblr returnees and noticed a trend.

The Tumblr users I spoke to, both new and returning, cited a few unfashionable aspects that keep them using the platform. Tumblr’s main feed doesn’t shuffle posts algorithmically based on what it determines might appeal to a user. It’s “a good, old chronological river,” Maryellen Stewart, a social-media consultant who has kept a running diary on Tumblr since 2014, said … Posts appearing in the feed are undated, and many accounts are pseudonymous, creating a respite from the frenetic exposure of other social media. Users spoke of the platform feeling disconnected from the “real world”—no President would ever try to shape world events with a Tumblr post.

Revisiting Tumblr in 2022, like joining Mastodon in 2022, is a worthwhile experiment. Both experiences emphasize the same issue. The Tumblr experience is defined by who has left already and probably won’t come back; the Mastodon experience is defined by who hasn’t joined yet and might never.

The Chat

If you’re worried about the future of Twitter, it’s worth thinking about social media’s recent past. Facebook is in trouble, but it’s not because someone made a better Facebook — it’s because its competitors offer something fundamentally different or approach the same needs in very different ways. A better question than “What’s the next Twitter?” is perhaps “What comes after the feed as a primary interface for the internet?” For the past five years, one of the most compelling answers to that question is the chat.

Particularly (but not at all exclusively) among younger users, chat services such as Discord have fully reorganized online life over the past half-decade. There are massive servers where you can chat about virtually anything you want; there are small servers where you can chat with just your friends. You can start your own! This model — which older office workers might have sampled through Slack or Microsoft Teams — is at once retro and very much part of the future.

Discord is not a direct replacement for Twitter, not least because it’s private by default. But building a routine with Discord chats, even as a lurker, can scratch some of the same itches: the sense that there’s always more to read, that you’re witnessing something unfolding in real time, that you’re tuned into the internet’s back channel. (Search here for subjects that might interest you — you’ll probably find massive servers full of people talking about them right now.)

It’s a good match for Twitter users who worry about losing the platform’s strange but compelling social and professional clusters. It’s also worth trying for people who were starting to get bored with Twitter anyway.

This post has been updated.

Making Sense of Mastodon and Other Twitter Alternatives