Liberals struggle to find viable Twitter alternative after Musk takeover
Elon Musk’s conquest of the Twitter-verse has sent hordes of mostly left-leaning tweeters scrambling — if not for the exits, then at least for a social-media backup plan.
Twitter’s defectors and discontents set out in waves, searching for viable alternatives. The first broke in April, when Twitter accepted Musk’s $44-billion bid for the social media company. The second rolled out in October, when he completed the purchase.
Further wavelets and ripples have followed the Tesla billionaire’s more incendiary moves as tweeter in chief: firing half Twitter’s staff, reinstating the suspended account of former President Trump and, more recently, mocking both the queer and public health communities with a five-word post, “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci.”
Some of Twitter’s disaffected have closed their accounts. Many more have kept their Twitter handles while adopting new ones on other sites, thronging the virtual gates of previously unheralded platforms Mastodon, Hive and Post.
Now, social media colonists are laboring to rebuild their networks on new sites while keeping an eye on the old one, to see how the Twitter wars play out.
“I think Twitter is falling apart,” said David Karpf, a political scientist at the George Washington University. “I’m also going to be one of the last people to leave Twitter.”
Karpf joined Twitter in 2008. He amassed a following one tweet at a time until 2019, when he penned a post that likened conservative columnist Bret Stephens to a bedbug. Stephens complained. The exchange went viral. Karpf’s following exploded.
After Musk swept in, Karpf followed the lead of many in academia. He opened an account on Mastodon, a decentralized social network launched in 2016. All but unknown last spring, Mastodon now claims more than 2 million users, a milestone announced, ironically, on Twitter.
Karpf feels that Twitter has degenerated into “the place where everyone goes to complain about Twitter.” But he is reluctant to leave.
“People have had over a decade of developing and cultivating a list of people they follow and building up a following on Twitter,” Karpf said. “And that’s not easy to replicate.”
Despite its growing user ranks, Mastodon cannot begin to recreate the rich and rowdy Twitter-verse, a community of more than 200 million active tweeters and uncounted millions of idlers.
Yet, Mastodon has captured a raft of headlines and a quotient of snob appeal, garnering write-ups in the New Yorker and New York Times.
If the exodus continues, at least two other sites stand to gain millions of Twitter refugees.
One is Hive Social, a platform run by 24-year-old founder Raluca Pop. By some accounts, Hive has reached 2 million subscribers amid the Twitter shakeout. Pop launched the site in 2019 and reportedly hired her second employee last month.
Amanda Leduc, the author and disability rights advocate, left Twitter in November, honoring a pledge she made when Musk announced his intentions. She created a new account on Hive. There, Leduc found “some of that early-Twitter energy of like-minded people connecting and boosting each other up,” she said in an email.
“I miss Twitter a lot – it was a great resource for disabled people especially and offered a wonderful way to create community. But for me it’s just gotten too toxic over the last few years, so it was safer for my heart and mind to leave.”
Overwhelmed by demand and vexed by security glitches, Hive shut down its servers in late November and hasn’t turned them back on, according to an update posted, naturally, on Twitter.
Another potential Twitter successor is Post News, launched this fall by Noam Bardin, former CEO of the navigation app Waze.
Bardin wanted to harness the nexus between social media and news, a role now largely filled by Twitter and its older sibling, Facebook.
“I believe the future newspaper is the feed,” Bardin announced, on Twitter.
Post News recently boasted of having 400,000 users on a waitlist, 150,000 of whom had been invited to activate their accounts. Bardin, too, has a small staff struggling with a crush of Twitter emigres.
For public figures who don’t want to lose a share of their audience, a social media decision point has arrived. Writer Molly Jong-Fast joined Mastodon in October. Climate activist Greta Thunberg signed up last month. Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat, tweeted the address of his new Mastodon account on Monday.
“Mike is just trying to communicate with as many constituents as possible,” an aide explained.
Observers can only guess how many Twitter users will depart over Musk’s arrival. One analysis suggests the site lost more than a million accounts in the days after he assumed control.
A more telling study, published in the journal New Scientist, examined 140,000 Twitter users who threatened to decamp to Mastodon and found that only 1.6 percent actually left.
Rebecca Zorach, an art history professor at Northwestern University, typifies the other 98.4 percent.
An avowed leftie, Zorach joined Mastodon this year. She is painstakingly reconstructing her Twitter following on the new platform, using software that allows tweeters to identify followers who list Mastodon addresses in their profiles. She has found a smidgen of her Twitter audience there.
Meanwhile, she thinned her Twitter posts and set about “blocking Musk and all his friends and anyone who supports him.” But she has not forsaken Twitter.
“What I like about Twitter is the fact that I’ll encounter people with interesting takes that I never would have encountered otherwise,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot from Black Twitter. I’ve learned a lot from climate-science Twitter. I’ve learned a lot from COVID Twitter. They’re things that wouldn’t show up in my Facebook feed.”
A handful of celebrities and big-name brands have abandoned Twitter, typically after vowing to bolt if Musk made good on his plans to roll back content moderation on the platform. The list includes actor Whoopi Goldberg, model Gigi Hadid and fashion house Balenciaga.
Other A-listers threatened to quit Twitter but left their accounts active, suggesting a possible return.
Shonda Rhimes, creator of television’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” tweeted in October, “Not hanging around for whatever Elon has planned. Bye.” Her account remains open.
Sara Bareilles, the singer-songwriter, tweeted, “Welp. It’s been fun Twitter. I’m out.” Weeks later, her account is still up.
Last week, Elton John told the world he had “decided to no longer use Twitter,” citing a rising tide of misinformation on the site. Sir Elton also retains an active account.
Such high-profile farewells “can make it seem like people are really leaving, even if they really aren’t,” said Jake Teeny, a marketing professor at Northwestern.
Twitter use surged in the days after Musk’s takeover. On November 6, the site reportedly set a record for daily users, 245 million.
“We’re sort of rubbernecking,” said Jason Mollica, a professorial lecturer in the American University School of Communication. ‘“What’s Musk going to say next?’”
Mollica opened a Mastodon account but still tweets regularly. “I stick around because I built a network there,” he said.
And therein lies the problem for Mastodon, Hive and Post. By comparison to Twitter, they feel like empty rooms.
“The question becomes, where are the critical mass going to land?” said Kelly Cutler, a lecturer of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern. “Because any kind of social media network is only as good as its userbase.”
Some observers, including Karpf at GWU, sense Twitter’s days are numbered. Others, including Cutler, see no viable alternative.
“I tend to think people want to go where people are, and where the bigger numbers are,” she said. “And right now, that’s still Twitter.”
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