As a GenX’er, I’m young enough to be internet savvy, and also old enough to remember when it was difficult to find people who shared similar interests. We were limited to people we met at school, at work, or in the neighborhood, and for any “advanced social interaction” we had to make the effort to join clubs which probably required us to leave the house. Unless we were lucky enough to have a super popular interest that naturally brought people together and/or had the wherewithal to meet up in person, our reach was limited.
Of course, the internet removed those barriers and made it easier not just to find people who like the things we do but it did so with an escalating ease over time. There had been BBS and AOL/CompUServe chat rooms in the late 70’s and throughout the 1980’s. Back when I started blogging, circa very late 90’s, the social discovery mechanism was “web rings”, self-selected inter-site navigation centered around common themes. Instant messengers had their own ecosystems which was more like modern social media, in that you usually had to know a person in order to know more people. With the rise of the web, people were already used to getting connected online, which is why social media was really always a “when” and not an “if”.
I never remember the why or when of the social media platforms I have joined throughout the years. I ended up on Facebook because it was the 300lb gorilla and was looking to reconnect with people I’d lost track of. I ended up on Twitter because it seemed like the thing to do at the time. Some platforms were extensions of a trend, like Google Wave ne Google Buzz ne Google Plus, the final form which gave me and my mutuals far more real estate to post our thoughts to (and was a far superior community organization tool, regardless of the self-promotional humor that always followed in the wake of it’s name-drop).
We tried Anook for gaming, and Discord, and even Guilded, but the Old Guard Platforms — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and, for some reason, LinkedIn? — still had a hold on people. Being the earliest platforms to arise, people landed there, built their networks, and set down digital roots. They had history on their side and as I’ve written before, once a community has a repository of history it’s nigh impossible to convince them to leave it all behind and start anew.
Unless, of course, people see a moral imperative to ditch their old stomping grounds and seek greener pastures. Last week, Twitter sold out for a stupid amount of money to the world’s richest edgelord, setting off a social media diaspora that I don’t think we’ve ever seen the likes of before. I don’t have numbers, but I’ve seen folks who do mention that the migration away from Twitter is not insignificant. Many people aren’t sticking around to see how badly and how quickly one human being can destroy a company, but it’s become more than that. As we just received word that up to/at least 50% of the Twitter workforce has been/will be/might be fired/laid off (I’m not sure what the story is at this point), the destruction of the platform isn’t just “people don’t like the new management”. Decimating the pool of people who know how Twitter works, and those who make Twitter work certainly means that the Blue Bird has finally slammed into a plate glass window and is suffering its death-throes on the pavement below. The new management is ensuring that many people don’t like the new management.
While we still have connections to the friends we’ve made through Twitter via Twitter, many of us have started seriously looking for alternatives. The problem with alternatives at this stage in the game is that there are no alternatives. Again, people have not seen the benefit of spreading themselves thin when — at the time — Twitter was “just fine”, and that “we [didn’t] need another social network”. Any company that tried and that didn’t offer specific features that Twitter did not probably gained a little traction, but then folded or faded into obscurity when folks decided that they didn’t need those features after all, and it was easier to stick with what they knew. Social networks are only good if you can find people to interact with. We all did it once, sure, but we’ve gotten complacent and would rather go down with the ship of friends and fools than start from scratch, it seems. Maybe we get what we deserve.
Some of us have been madly trying to sign up for any and every new contender for Twitter’s apparently soon to be vacant throne. We are the usual suspects, the ones who have tried other platforms, and have tried to get other people to try other platforms. We’ve been looking for ease of use, the ability to communicate amongst ourselves, the ease with which we can find new people, and feature sets. The tl;dr is that we and others have been using Twitter for so long that we cannot divorce our opinions of any other option from our Twitter experiences. Every button, every color, every post-feed of every new platform is filtered through our view of how it compares to what we know and what we love about Twitter, and we allow these differences to be roadblocks rather than speedbumps — or benefits. It’s still easier to liberally mute and block on Twitter, as many accounts have exhorted us to do, than to admit that we’re just rearranging deck chairs.
Here’s a round-up of some of our findings on alternatives to Twitter. I’m looking mainly at platforms that people might not be familiar with, so no Facebook, no Insta, no — I don’t believe this is actually in the list — LinkedIn. Most importantly, this is not a comprehensive list; I suspect that we’ve yet to see the real avalanche of contenders, but those might take years to materialize.
I can’t really talk about Cohost, but not in a “Fight Club” kind of way. They’re the only platform I’ve signed up for that has a waiting period. They say “two days or so”, but it’s been three for me, and according to the actually useful queue tracker on the settings page of my account, I am currently 915th in line. I was 4000+ when I started.
I think Cohost looks to be more like Tumblr than Twitter. With my limited access (maybe), I had to click into a user’s profile, and then I was only able to see their posts and replies to those posts. I’ll have to report back on this one once I get actual access.
Tribel seems to operate very much like Twitter in that we get a column of posts from users around the world, but unlike Twitter, this platform is very interested in obsessively categorizing everything you do. In order to post anything, even a cat picture, you have to select at least one category to post to; posting without only shows the content to your friends list.
There’s a ranking system on Tribel based on how much engagement a post(er) receives. The more interaction a post or user gets, the more stars they accumulate, and the more popular they are. The sidebar on the left shows the top — for lack of a better term — Tribel influencers on the platform, so elevated because if other people like something, then maybe you should too!
Unfortunately, Tribel’s mission statement of being “free of hate, bots, and fake news” sounds like a repudiation of what Twitter is on target to become, so shouldn’t be surprising to hear that Tribel’s communities look to skew Left, sometimes way Left, as mentioned by this article in The Daily Beast. The platform was founded by Omar Rivero, whom the article identifies as the founder of Occupy Democrats. The pedigree and mission of this site is not up for debate.
MeWe came to my attention out of nowhere, but its mechanics were familiar. It looks a lot like Facebook but has controls that allow it to operate very much like Google Plus. Considering a lot of my contemporaries have fond memories of our shared time on G+, this seemed like a slam dunk. A private group was made, invites were sent out, and we found that the layouts, the privacy, and even the live chat were all solid bonuses. This site looked to be a viable replacement for us Twitter migrants.
That is. until I did some digging into MeWe’s history. A Mashable article labels MeWe as a “social network competing with Parler”, where Parler is the alt-Right’s attempt to “take their ball and go home” home for those booted off of Twitter for violating every standard of decency and some that were non-standard. Rolling Stone called MeWe a place “Where Anti-Vaxxers and Conspiracy Theorists Thrive”. The reason why alt-Right adherents flocked to this platform is apparently because the founder Jeffrey Edell wanted a platform for “free speech” (with a very-small-font footnote added later “but not where anything goes”). The platform is investor and user funded (there is an optional $5USD/month paid tier for some additional features), so they proudly tout that they are not beholden to advertisers. Considering part of Twitter’s speculative demise centers around the effect that relaxed moderation will have on advertiser presence, it seems like a serious dogwhistle invitation for those who felt slighted by Twitter.
I will use “Mastodon” as the pronoun here, because of the underlying complexities of the platform. Mastodon is just one aspect of the open source “Fediverse”, which allows for different applications to communicate between one another in a freakishly seamless manner. Mastodon is not the only app using the Fediverse, but it is the one most often mentioned when talking about alternatives to Twitter, Facebook, and others.
Mastodon has a learning curve because of the Fediverse, server choice, and the sheer number of options available compared to Twitter. One of the major stumbling blocks that I think turn off some people is that the Mastodon ecosystem has a very Liberal user-base that has integrated many wishlist features into the software, and into the culture. Images can be marked as sensitive, and it’s considered proper form to provide alt tags to pictures when posting. There are agreed-upon rules for following and following back that users would like people to adhere to. Posts can be tagged as sensitive for a variety of reasons, including “eye contact” which — I get that such a thing can cause some folks stress, but seeing it so prevalent as a kind of unwritten rule, even for artwork, is a bit…jarring, I guess, for someone who has never had to think of such a thing (yeah yeah, privilege and all that). And woe to those who violate the rules, for retribution can be swift and merciless.
No Solutions; More Problems
The Twitter situation is untenable. I have no idea what the end result will be. Maybe things won’t ever get as bad as the worst prognostication wants us to believe it will be. Maybe it’ll get worse, but not so bad, not that I can offer an example of what that would look like. It’s possible, considering the fortitude of the platform’s new owner, that if it does end up tanking because of his decisions that he decides he doesn’t want to own it anymore and sells it at fire-sale prices. Whomever picks it up at that point could decide the fate of the platform once and for all.
At this point I personally have four overarching issues with my social media participation.
Too many people are still on Twitter as if nothing is going on. Everyone’s personal bar for bullshit is set at a different height, sure. Some people have fears that if they do leave, they wouldn’t know where to go, wouldn’t grok a new platform, or couldn’t find new friends and would leave most existing friends behind. But there’s a lot of people operating business-as-usual, thinking that if they just block and mute that they can cultivate a walled garden of their own and won’t have to deal with the ramifications of the shifting focus of the platform. Twitter is a train, and the users are riders. Users go where the train goes. There’s no option to stand still and still get the benefits of the train. You’re either on and have accepted the destination, or you’re off and have to find another ride.
Of the alternatives, MeWe is the best technical option. It has a lot of features that remind me of G+ in that users can circle wagons and make their own private groups free of outside influence. We have everything we need inside that insular community. However, every article I’ve read about the platform focuses on the Right-wing adoption. There are a lot of groups on the platform that do patrol their users and do eject those who want to go all politically psycho and which are interesting and nice places to hang out without Right or Left sentiments taking over every conversation, so while it’s entirely possible to create a space there devoid of any political bullshit, it’s now got a reputation that immediately removes it from contention for many people.
Mastodon has the most popular traction which, by virtue of critical mass, makes it the heir-apparent for those leaving Twitter. Every instance is currently inundated with refugees who are trying to find their footing (not to imply that I am an old hand). Lots of “hello world” posts. Lots of people posting like they’re doing the instances a favor by showing up. Lots of people who are there to talk about topics that are way, way beyond my ken, and a lot of posts I just can’t digest because I don’t speak their language. Lots of people trying to run their account like they did on Twitter, which is not going to end well for them on account of the existing social infrastructure having risen as a kind of “anti-Twitter”. Finding people isn’t as easy because of the official and unofficial rules that may or may not be enforced depending on the day or phase of the Moon, and the weird underlying technology that is prevalent but also sometimes obtuse. Right now, a lot of people are shouting into the void, making it look and feel like everyone is talking, but no one is answering.
Finally, it may just come to pass that there is no alternative. The option will be to either suck it up and go down with the ship, at which point I’ll have to trade addresses, email or physical, with people I want to keep in contact with like it’s 1994 or something. I had learned to curate my social media interactions so I could use it for good, and not be bothered by a lot of the stuff other people who didn’t curate were complaining about. It’s been an enjoyable tool throughout all of these years and hasn’t usually felt like a burden or a stain on my soul the way some outlets make it sound. If there’s no viable alternative, then for many, myself included, we might just have to “do without”. That’s a position that many self-satisfied pundits have advocated for through many years as platforms became houses of polarization, but it never had to be that way. In some cases, we will lose more than we thought we would when looking at these platforms as the problem; it’s always been the way people used them that was the problem. Tech is inert without purpose, and sadly we abused our privileges and got ourselves into this mess.