What’s Next After Twitter?
The bird site meant more to me than I realized.
I’ll be the first to admit that by the time Elon Musk sealed the deal on his purchase of Twitter, I was already deeply addicted to the platform. I joined Twitter in July 2008, announcing my presence with the following tweet:
I posted a total of nine tweets in 2008 and many more the next year. For the next five years, I would mostly focus on work topics — digital and search marketing. I followed luminaries in the search industry and tweeted (a lot) about paid search and Google.
It wasn’t about building a huge list of followers for me. It was about connecting with people professionally and following industry news.
That shifted in 2012 when my 11-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. I (mostly) abandoned Twitter for about a year, until my daughter was stable and in remission. By then, my fascination with digital marketing dried up and my drive to write fiction returned. In 2013, I wrote a middle grade book about a very sick girl on a very exciting adventure.
One of the best things about Twitter is that there are niche communities within the platform. The tone of your feed shifts based on who you follow. I learned this in 2013 after I unfollowed all the digital marketing luminaries I’d once sought to emulate and began following agents, writers, and editors. Twitter became a very different place for me, connecting me — however tenuously — to the world of publishing, a world I desperately wanted to be part of.
Participating in writing prompts helped me grow my followers to a little over a thousand people, mainly my fellow writers and a few publishing industry folks. I still used the platform passively and infrequently. I didn’t engage much with other users beyond reading, sharing, or liking their tweets.
That changed when an orange circus peanut decided to run for president and use Twitter as his personal megaphone. I picked up a new hobby — doom scrolling on Twitter.
In the months leading up to the 2016 election, I found it impossible to look away from Twitter. Trump’s absurd and near-constant tweets combined with more and more journalists, celebrities, and high profile people controlling the (increasingly contentious) narrative made Twitter a much more exciting — and addictive — platform.
In 2017, after the orange clown had been elected president, Twitter increased the character count for posts from 140 to 280. That’s the same year my daughter died from the cancer she’d been battling since 2012. I dropped off of Twitte (and the face of the Earth) for about six months.
When I returned to Twitter 2018, it was to a very different place. The tweets from writers and publishers were drowned out by louder voices — Trump’s, of course, but anyone with a large following seemed to dominate my feed. I suppose the algorithm had changed, showing me popular tweets and ads instead of tweets from people I was following.
I got reeled into the Twitter drama of actors and pundits and politicians and my doom scrolling resumed. I wasn’t much more than a mute observer who couldn’t look away.
Twitter was already a daily habit for me in March 2020, when the pandemic shut the world down. At that point, Twitter became a crucial source of information about a dangerous new virus called Covid-19. I started following epidemiologists, biologists, and doctors on the front lines and my feed became focused on survival. My Twitter addiction peaked at that point — I was on the bird site multiple times a day. Two years later, I was still fully in its thrall when news of Musk’s plan to purchase Twitter began trickling into my feed.
And then, last week, there was the video of Musk wandering around Twitter headquarters holding a sink — his way of announcing that he’d done it. Twitter was his.
I feel like I’m waking up from a dream as I realize Twitter has nothing to offer me. It never did. For all these many years, I’ve been a passive user, a faceless follower contributing to someone else’s clout. In the past week, I’ve read many posts from people like me, people who used the platform to stay informed and loosely connected to a niche group.
Writers, journalists, wordsmiths — we loved Twitter for the same reason we love Medium — it’s one of the few platforms that’s about words. But this isn’t enough anymore. Even with all the smart people — the scientists and journalists and activists trying to change world — it’s not enough. Twitter is Musk’s plaything now.
While I am, frankly, furious that a place like Twitter could be so thoroughly (and easily) disrupted by a single person — I’m not surprised. Big money calls the shots around here. Twitter is a business, after all.
Elon Musk is doing to Twitter what Trump did to America —using money and fame to force his way into the center, dismantling norms, getting rid of the people who know how to run things, and making it all about him.
This sucks, yes, but it was always a danger. When something as big and important as public discourse becomes a commodity, then it’s vulnerable to the guy with the biggest bank account. Now Musk gets the ultimate last word. He gets to control the discourse. It doesn’t matter who’s got a blue check next to their name.
Those of us who came to rely on Twitter as a source of information, solace, and connection are facing a choice: stay or go?
Good lord, GO! It’s not a hard choice for me to leave Twitter. As I’ve already estblished, I’m mostly a lurker with a very small following. I’ll miss the brilliant threads from brilliant people, the writing prompts, and (yes), the drama. But is Twitter the only place for smart people? Is it the only place to connect with other writers?
The short answer is no. Yet, currently there’s also no comparable alternative to Twitter. I’m already on Facebook, but that’s for family. I’m on LinkedIn, but that’s a hellscape I try to avoid. TikTok and YouTube aren’t quite right. I’m too old for the former and just want to watch fun and informative videos on the latter.
So, I joined Mastodon, an free, open-source social network. It isn’t owned by any one person. Mastodon is decentralized and “federated,” meaning that it’s distributed across multiple servers (called “instances”) run by independent volunteers. Each server that hosts a Mastodon instance has its focus, code of conduct, and user base.
This means that Mastodon can’t be bought and overhauled by a billionaire manchild. But it’s clunky. It’s much smaller than Twitter. It requires a bit of a learning curve (this 8-minute video on YouTube is a good primer on how it works.)
Since Mastodon is decentralized, you need to either run a server or join an existing one. That’s been a barrier for a lot of people used to big companies like Twitter, Amazon, and Facebook who make the onboarding process as seamless as possible.
I found a Mastodon instance for writers which had about 2000 users when I joined a few days ago. This is…miniscule…compared to Twitter’s nearly 400 million users. But Mastodon is bigger than just the instance you’re using. You can follow anyone on Mastodon, even if they’re using a different instance, which opens up the entire Mastoverse to your home feed.
Is it a replacement for Twitter? Not even close. But that’s become one of Mastodon’s biggest benefits for me. Once logged in, the Mastodon interface is basically just a feed or multiple feeds, depending on how you set it up on your computer versus your mobile device.
There’s a home feed (people you follow), a local feed (users on your sever) and a federated feed (anyone on any server who’s on Mastodon. There’s a way to customize your feed using hashtags too, but I haven’t figured that out yet.
Posts are called “toots” (yes, toots) and they can be up to 500 characters long. The federated feed is the closet thing to Twitter’s main feed in that it’s everyone tooting at once (hahahaha) so it’s a bit chaotic.
Clear as mud?
There are no ads. There is no “retweet” function but you can boost a toot if you like it and that’s a great way to show support for other users. The lack of a “retweet” function and the nature of the different feeds makes it difficult for any one person to dominate the collective conversation as can happen on Twitter.
It’s my theory that this, along with Mastodon’s inherent clunkiness, is why people with larger followings on Twitter seem to dislike Mastodon (this is purely my own theory based on anecdotal tweets I’ve seen). Mastodon is good at fostering real connection rather than amplifying already loud voices.
Mastodon isn’t for everyone. I’ve never shied away from learning a new platform or technology, so I don’t mind that this isn’t the most user friendly Twitter alternative out there. But now that I’m learning more and getting involved, I’m intrigued.
The local feed is much more responsive and welcoming than my Twitter feed ever was. People introduce themselves. They follow back. They’ve been kind to the many new users coming over in what’s becoming a massive migration from Twitter.
I’m engaging with people more than I ever did on Twitter. It feels like a friendly, accessible coffee shop versus an everyone-for-themselves Squid Game scenario.
I know it’s not perfect. I’ve seen posts warning newcomers to vet their followers and be on the lookout for trolls, but luckily I haven’t experienced that myself (yet). And I’m still on Twitter, for now. But it’s nice to discover — and be part of — something new about the internet. It feels a bit like it did in the old days of the early web — power to the people and all that.
And an added bonus is that my Twitter addiction seems to be waning. I’m no longer doomscrolling on that demonic bird site. Instead, I’m checking Mastodon, reading and interacting with actual people, then leaving. I’m also feeling slightly hopeful that humanity isn’t completely doomed.