Alternatives to Twitter
Since Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter on October 27, 2022, its status as a stable social media platform seems to be rapidly imploding. Reportedly, Twitter has restored thousands of accounts that were previously banned by the company’s own moderation teams, and half of Twitter’s top advertisers have left the platform. In response to these developments, I’ve been looking into alternatives to Twitter.
I joined Twitter in 2009 and have had ~8,600 followers for the last few years. Twitter has already transformed once, becoming more about breaking news than engagement as I describe in my post: Why 2017 was a tipping point for Twitter. ~150 of my followers have left the platform since Musk’s purchase five weeks ago.
Time will tell whether the exodus will become a rout, which could happen if Twitter becomes too toxic or unreliable.
Alternatives to Twitter
Alternatives to Twitter include Mastodon, Discord, Post News, Counter Social, Hive Social, and many more. Each platform offers a different experience due to often subtle design decisions.
In this post, I’ll share my findings and thoughts. This is not an exhaustive review (which would at this point need to be book-length). And it’s biased toward platforms I like. Regardless, I hope this summary will be a useful introduction. I’ve included references to helpful resources for you to learn more.
Before we dive into detail about individual platforms, it’s important to understand a few important structural factors that impact user experience and the long-term evolution of these services.
Ownership, openness, and profit
Most social media companies are for-profit corporations, whether publicly or privately owned. Twitter was a public company until Musk bought it. Meta (formerly Facebook) is a public corporation but Mark Zuckerberg controls over half the corporate votes. An anonymous individual, describing himself as an “American patriot” owns Counter Social. Post News, launched a few weeks ago, is funded by venture capitalists Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), Scott Galloway, and others. Several large venture capital companies own Discord. Hive Social is owned by its founder, Raluca Pop, and an angel investor.
Of the above platforms, Counter Social is (probably) the only one that owners who’d like to make money don’t control. Meta’s and Twitter’s main income source is advertising, though both services also make money selling the data they collect to third parties. Since going public in 2013, Twitter has only occasionally turned a profit, and one has to wonder if the recent significant pause in advertising by its major customers bodes well for its financial future.
Why should you care? Ernie Smith explains why ownership and openness matter when choosing a social network alternative to Twitter.
Of course, the distinctive thing about all of these networks is that each ultimately is centralized, rather than being built on an open protocol. And that means that they are built to generate value for their founders. They are built for onboarding, not for long-term growth, which means that they lead with cool features, not with promises of sustainability.
And that’s where commercial networks often falter. The financial incentive has created problems over time that have helped to complicate the shape of social media. The immense value of any given social network has ultimately been in data, rather than by offering services to the creator. And that has meant leaning hard on data-mining or advertising-driven business models—and companies that don’t do that ultimately find themselves out of the conversation entirely.
—Ernie Smith, Don’t Fall Into The Well
This brings us to Mastodon, which is different.
Mastodon is not owned by anyone; it’s free, open-source software written by Eugen Rochko and released in 2016. I’ll share more about Mastodon below.
As Ernie puts it:
[Mastodon] has a great lead feature that none of its competitors have yet replicated—its adherence to the open web. Unfortunately, alternative networks can throw marketing money at all sorts of other features trying to convince you that those features matter more. But the only feature that truly matters at this moment, even more than how “hip” a network is, is if it talks to every other network. If it’s open, even better.
Whether Mastodon survives and thrives remains to be seen. But its open network plus community ownership is a strong plus in my book.
Size isn’t everything, but the network effect has its advantages. Ideally, we want our social media platforms to include our tribes. All other things being equal, a larger network is more likely to have folks we want to communicate with on it. Here are current estimates of various platforms’ active users. Take these numbers as a guide rather than a selection criterion, because a smaller niche network may fit you better. (For example, Discord’s members are mostly gamers.)
All social media platforms have their own web interfaces and apps that mediate their users’ experience. Platforms continually upgrade user interfaces, functionality, and features, generally (but not always) for the better. Most platforms aim to be as easy to use as possible.
However, there are four specific factors that affect a social media platform’s experience:
- the prevalence of advertising;
- content moderation policies and effectiveness;
- how platform feeds display and prioritize posts; and
- the platform’s search capabilities.
Twitter (and Meta and Instagram) depend primarily on advertising. The other platforms mentioned in this post are blessedly free from ads.
Content moderation policies and their effectiveness on these platforms are huge and controversial topics. With Musk’s purchase of Twitter, reports indicate that content moderation has been gutted, with the firing of many Twitter employees and outsourced contractors. Musk has said that such work can be automated, but there’s widespread skepticism that this is possible. Meanwhile, the EU has warned Musk that Twitter faces a ban unless he abides by its strict rules on content moderation.
All social media platforms face this problem, and there are no easy answers. As we’ve seen with Twitter and Meta, what is acceptable to post is a moving target, one that’s intertwined with changing political, social, and cultural norms. As platforms like Mastodon, Counter Social, and Hive Social grow rapidly, they will also have to evolve and scale how they perform content moderation if they are going to meet their founders’ goals as a safe-enough space for conversation.
What you see on the platform
How much control a user has over what they see on the platform is an important aspect of the user experience. You have probably had the experience of seeing content (and ads) on Meta that you have no interest in, nor any simple way of banishing from your feed. Conversely, I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a post in my Meta feed but couldn’t find it later, or had to hunt for posts I’m interested in.
Twitter’s feed also has similar problems, though there are workarounds. The other platforms I’ve mentioned can provide chronological unfiltered feeds, so you don’t have to worry about missing stuff. And each platform has its own way of allowing you to focus on specific content, or block content you want to skip.
Finally, search capability is one area where the monolithic platforms currently have an advantage. It’s easy to globally search for a word, phrase, or hashtag on them. Mastodon, a federated service, makes some compromises about search. If you search for plain text, you’ll get posts you’ve written, favorited, or been mentioned in, as well as matching usernames, display names, and hashtags. So, it’s harder to find things on Mastodon unless (as the help recommends) members use appropriate hashtags extensively.
In the early days of Twitter, the famous “Fail Whale”, indicating that the service was down, was a common sight. For the last few years, the platform has been very reliable, with only a few glitches per year. Whether this will continue after Musk’s firing of a majority of the company’s employees is an open question.
In my limited experience, rapidly growing platforms Mastodon, Counter Social, and Post News have been doing pretty well coping with their explosive growth. (Post News is currently limiting new signups from its waitlist to handle the increased traffic.) But all three services can be slow at times, though I don’t see much difference in responsiveness between them and Twitter.
Right now, Hive Social is currently offline due to security concerns. With only three employees and a sudden jump in new registrations, that’s perhaps not surprising.
OK, maybe you skipped the above to see what I think about individual platforms. Remember, this is based on my experience to date, and everything in this space is evolving fast. I’ve listed the platforms in my most-to-least favorite order. Here goes!
Mastodon has been around since 2016. Unlike the other platforms mentioned in this post, anyone with a certain amount of technical expertise can set up a Mastodon server. Currently, there are thousands around the world. Though there are some servers with large general memberships (such as mastodon.social which I’m currently on), most focus on specific communities or interests, such as tech, gaming, LGBTQ, region, activism, art, music, journalism, etc. Mastodon is a federated social network of these servers (which are also called nodes or instances). This allows users on different servers to interact with each other. (Here’s a good explanation of how Mastodon’s federation works.)
You have to choose a Mastodon server. Many popular articles about Mastodon describe this as a barrier to joining the platform. Actually, it’s not something that you need to really worry about unless you’re especially interested in immediately finding a server that reflects a community about which you feel strongly. That’s because you can change the server you’re on at a later date, bringing your followers with you.
If you do want to pick a community right away you can use the tool Mastodon Instances. Or, the official JoinMastodon page lists available servers, categorized in various ways, and shows you which ones are currently open to join.
To find out more about a mastodon server from the server itself, go to its “about” page at https://[server name]/about/more, e.g., https://mastodon.social/about/more. This page includes rules of conduct for the server, additional services provided, and other useful information.
Still worried about this step? Here is an invite from me to the largest mastodon server: mastodon.social. Even if this server is currently closed to new accounts, this invite will get you in!
Once you’ve picked a server to join, getting started is like any other social media platform. You create an account on the server and set up a profile. On Mastodon, profiles contain up to 500-character bios and you can add a display name, avatar, header image, and up to four links to relevant websites.
Things I like about Mastodon compared to Twitter
No one owns Mastodon, it’s free, open-source software
This is a huge plus in my book. The beauty of federated social media platforms is that they are loosely-joined collections of communities that are responsive to users’ wants and needs, rather than the dictate to make money, or the whims of an erratic billionaire. Mastodon servers run mainly on volunteer time, with infrastructure funding coming from donations. (I support my server, mastodon.social, via Patreon.)
Federated servers allow you to choose a community that fits you, while still allowing connection across all servers
I summarized how this works above. For more information, these Mastodon introductions, listed easiest first –> most comprehensive, (1, 2, 3) should be helpful.
Currently, I avoid seeing Twitter ads on the web by using Tweetdeck. (Mastodon’s “advanced web interface” looks like Tweetdeck; turn it on!) But the mobile Twitter app is filled with ads, which I don’t appreciate.
(Don’t get me started on Facebook ads. They are only tolerable on the web because I’ve installed F.B. Purity, a labor of love that I recommend.)
500 vs 280 character limit
Twitter started with a 140-character tweet limit which was raised to 280 characters in 2017. It’s often still not long enough for me. Mastodon’s 500-character limit is refreshing.
Twitter, which has become much more a site for breaking news than a place to converse has always, understandably, been concerned that people would edit tweets post-publication to change what they originally said if it later became foolish or embarrassing. Given that people can still delete their tweets, this doesn’t work very well.
Mastodon allows you to edit published posts. I like this a lot! This feature lets me fix typos, add better hashtags and images, etc. There’s one other advantage for me right now. Currently, I crosspost my tweets to Mastodon using the Moa Bridge service. Mastodon’s editable posts allow me to tweak tweets into Mastodon posts that are more “Mastodon-like”, which typically means adding and adjusting hashtags.
Tweetdeck-like “advanced web interface” that allows you to follow #hashtags and lists
Tweetdeck is my favorite way to access Twitter. Mastodon’s “advanced web interface” provides something very similar.
Content warnings when needed
I like this feature. It speaks to Mastodon’s commitment to providing functionality that supports creating safer spaces for users.
One feature that Mastodon provides…is the option to attach a content warning to your posts. When a content warning is included, the status content will be collapsed by default, and only the CW will be shown, similarly to an email subject line or a “read more” break. This can be used to add a summary or subject for your post, to collapse long posts, or to otherwise provide context or setup for the body of the post.
When media is attached, a checkbox appears to allow you to “mark media as sensitive”. This hides the full media behind a blurred thumbnail by default. Adding a CW to a post automatically marks the media as sensitive as well.
Favoriting and boosting (aka retweeting or reposting) are two clearly different actions
On Twitter, you can “like” or retweet a post. Twitter displays publicly a count of a post’s likes, which makes the platform a place where many users try to get their posts liked a lot. You can also quote tweets, allowing you to add a comment to another’s tweet. This is often used on Twitter to publicly dump on a tweet you don’t like, perhaps boosting your standing with your followers.
On Mastodon, you can “favorite” or repost (aka “boost”) someone’s post. The favorites count doesn’t appear on post timelines, so it’s not a status symbol of how popular what you say is. The only people who know you’ve favorited a post are you and the poster. Favorited posts are thus a way for you to remember posts you like. They are searchable.
If you want to promote someone else’s Mastodon post, you repost it. There’s no equivalent of tweet quoting.
Mastodon’s design distinction between favorite and repost discourages the self-promotion that sometimes runs rampant on Twitter.
You can migrate your account to a different server
As far as I know, there are no social media platforms that allow you to export or import your posts and followers to or from another platform. But Mastodon makes it pretty easy to move all your account data from one Mastodon server to another. You might want to do this if you discover a server that better fits your requirements (for example, one for users who speak your native language and post mainly in that language) or because your server doesn’t have as many members as you would like.
You can have accounts on multiple servers, so it’s easy to try a new server and compare your experience there before choosing to change servers.
Mastodon is my favorite alternative to Twitter, and I’m spending more and more time on it. It feels like the early days of Twitter: a fresh, relatively uncrowded, environment where I’m continually meeting new interesting folks. I’ve had many more personal interactions on Mastodon than any of the other alternatives I’ve tried. If the future of Twitter worries you, I think Mastodon is the place to go.
I joined Counter Social—founded in November 2017—in April 2022 after the news that Musk might acquire Twitter became public. I like the platform a lot, though Mastodon has stolen my attention recently. There was some initial concern that Counter Social’s sole(!) anonymous(!) owner “The Jester” espoused right-wing politics and had a history of hacking targets that he felt threatened America in the past. However, unlike Musk’s recent brazen moves, I haven’t seen any sign of a political thumb on the posts I’ve seen flowing past on Counter Social’s “Community firehose” stream.
Counter Social is free to join. It receives some income from $4.99/month optional “PRO” accounts but otherwise it seems that The Jester funds it himself.
Things I like about Counter Social
Counter Social members are darn nice!
This sounds silly and may change, but the Counter Social community currently comes across as the nicest large bunch of community folks I’ve seen on a social media platform. Now of course, what I call nice (a mixture of charmingly personal posts, eclectic artwork, restrained mainly left-wing statements, favorite music and movies) may not be what you think of as “nice”. New users are welcome. Browsing my feeds is…soothing. Can you say that about any other large social network?
Like Mastodon, Counter Social uses a similar but more attractive “Tweetdeck-like” interface. Posts (aka “toots”) can be up to 500 characters, though you can’t edit them after you’ve posted them. You can’t see who has favorited or reposted a post until you click into it, and reply counts are shown as 0, 1, or 1+ which discourages people from writing posts solely designed to get lots of interaction.
Like Mastodon, searching is only on hashtags and usernames. There’s no plain text searching of posts like Twitter does. You get columns for friends’ posts and notifications and can create additional columns based on hashtag searches.
Counter Social has added to the interface a few features which you may like, such as a CNN ticker tape news feed and eight other news channel video feeds.
No ads and content warnings
Like Mastodon, as described above.
Praiseworthy, innovative approaches to reduce bad actors and disinformation
Counter Social has deployed a number of sometimes controversial anti-disinformation methods. The platform bans IP addresses from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Pakistan (that’s the controversial bit), as well as a proprietary list of “over 100K VPN endpoints and Tor exit nodes that are known to be used by nefarious actors”. Counter Social has also teamed up with Bot Sentinel to reduce disinformation. And users can mute and block other users and flag posts for review.
I don’t know how Counter Social does it or whether my experience is typical, but the platform seems to do a great job keeping nasty stuff off my feed.
Concerns about Counter Social
No one really knows if “The Jester” is actually one person. Even if he has a small team to help, the platform has been remarkably responsive, except when the service had to handle half a million new user signups in a few days in May 2022. Today it chugs along, though I wonder how many of its millions of registered users are actually active on it currently. Presumably, The Jester (or a hacker) could abruptly shut down Counter Social. What happens if The Jester has a heart attack or loses interest in supporting the platform? Such concerns have made me hesitant to invest significant time in Counter Social.
Reading The Jester’s Wikipedia entry does not give me a reassuring feeling about the guy. Given that an anonymous individual (assuming that’s true) controls Counter Social raises obvious questions. Is the site secure from hackers stealing users’ personal information, login credentials, or private messages? Can we trust The Jester’s statement that the platform only collects IP and email addresses, and does not “collect information that identifies, relates to, describes, references, is reasonably capable of being associated with, or could reasonably be linked, directly or indirectly, with a particular consumer, household, or device (‘personal information’)“?
We don’t know the answer to these questions. On the other hand, what assurance do we have that Musk is not now rummaging through the vast hoard of data that Twitter has acquired over the years? Ultimately, you’re going to need to decide whether you trust using this service. My approach is that I don’t post anything that would embarrass me if (fat chance) it was widely publicized. And I don’t use private messaging on any service for vital information.
Counter Social conclusions
In one sentence: Counter Social is a really nice place to visit but I’m not sure I want to live there.
Discord is primarily an audio chat and instant messaging platform that became wildly popular with social gamers. So why am I including it here as an alternative to Twitter? Because Discord now makes it easy for communities to get together. In 2020, Discord shifted its focus away from video gaming toward creating and managing all-purpose public and private online forums for posting and chat. And in September 2022, the company introduced Forum Channels which support organized discussions, stored posts, and message threads: everything you need for an online community.
I joined Discord in July 2021, and currently use it in two ways. First, as a place for occasionally staying in touch with a small group of event production professionals, via a forum set up with four text channels. And second, as an interface for a Midjourney Discord server, which I use to create illustrations for some of my blog posts.
Discord is free to use for forums. Many gamer members spring for “boost” [$4.99/month] or “Nitro” subscriptions [$9.99/month], and Discord receives a 10% commission on games sold through game developers’ servers.
What I like about Discord
The Discord forum channel interface is easy to use. It provides a simple and attractive way to display and organize asynchronous conversations into threads. I like how a forum can have owner-created channels to cover broad categories of conversations relevant to the community. For example, the forum I mentioned above has channels for messages from the owner, requests for help, job opportunities, and general posts. My Midjourney public server has over a hundred channels that cover announcements, service status, rules, FAQs, getting started, polls, support for trial and paid users, various chats about the service, image showcase channels, and many channels where Midjourney images are constantly being requested and generated.
Concerns about Discord
As you might expect, Discord has been and can be used for nefarious purposes, such as cyberbullying, private use by extremists, and pornography and sexual exploitation. All social media platforms with private forums have these problems, which is why content moderation policies and the effectiveness of their implementation are so important.
In June 2022, Discord introduced an automated service to help forum moderators deal with inappropriate content. Discord also provides resources for administrators in its Moderation Academy. Otherwise, Discord relies on user reports to catch service violations.
It’s hard to beat Discord for a free, fully-featured, easy-to-use community messaging service of any size. Given its robust funding by gamers, I doubt that the service will fall out of favor any time soon. And because gamers who desire fast response time use Discord, the owners are likely to maintain reliable service.
The youngest social media platform in this roundup is Post News. It’s so new there isn’t even a Wikipedia entry for it yet. Launched hurriedly last month (November 2022), the platform currently has 400K users on the waitlist and 140K who have been invited in and activated their accounts. I joined Post News a couple of weeks ago and have been checking it out.
The “Chief Poster”, Noah Bardin, was the CEO of Waze for 12 years and the company is financed by well-known venture capitalists. The platform ultimately aims to be a place where big names, especially journalists and “publishers” will congregate and opine on issues of the day.
“Post News is trying to capitalize on the ‘virtual watercooler for journalists’ side of Twitter. The platform describes itself as a place to access ‘premium news content without subscriptions or ads.’ News publishers and independent writers are encouraged to share their articles on Post News under a paywall. The idea is that this would allow users to pay for individual articles from a variety of news sources. It’s an alternative, or a supplement, to paying for individual subscriptions to specific news sources.”
—Amanda Silberling, Post News, a Twitter alternative, gets funding from a16z
Only a rudimentary payment system using points is available to date. Time will tell if subscribers are willing to pay for individual articles in sufficient quantities to sustain the service.
Concerns about Post News
Unfortunately, I have many more concerns about Post News than things I like. Pitched as a “fun” place that “introduce[s] you to big ideas and cool people” Post News is, so far, underwhelming. It has a bare-bones web interface that pales in comparison to Mastodon, Counter Social, and Discord. Perhaps that makes it easier to use, but I’ve found even the simple interface glitchy with minor annoyances that Post News will probably fix soon.
Accessibility features that are standard on Mastodon and Counter Social, like alt text image descriptions and content warnings, are missing. Post News is US, English only, has no app, and you can’t add a video or animated gif to a post. Like Twitter, you can’t edit a post once you’ve posted it. The interface only supports a single feed of everyone’s posts. Post News allows you to flag perceived trolls but is still working on muting posts and blocking individuals.
The platform vibe
Post News has a broadcast-style feel to it. The platform seems to be attempting to create a hierarchy of news producers and news consumers, and that’s probably a deliberate choice. But what I find depressing is that the platform’s consequent vibe is a curious mixture of the trivial and pompous/promotional. It feels like a place where people are mostly trying to impress others. You can comment on posts, but comments are rare and there’s little evidence of conversations.
Post News is like a party where the guests are awkwardly posing instead of just having a good time.
The future of Post News
It’s very early days. Post News may well eventually become a viable marketplace for folks with great interesting ideas and the capability to express them well to grow an audience and make some money in the process.
However, I’m skeptical that this will turn out well for folks who put their significant content on the platform. Because, as I wrote in 2017, posting your original content exclusively on someone else’s platform puts you at their mercy. Third-party platforms change their feed policies (Meta, Twitter, LinkedIn) all the time, and if they go out of business (e.g., Geocities, Vine, MySpace, Friendster, Orkut, Google+) your content vanishes from the internet. I still strongly recommend you maintain control over your content by posting it on a website you own. That’s my two cents.
Things I like about Post News
The two things that I like about Post News are that posts can be of any length and that it supports plain text search. That’s about it.
Post News conclusions
I am clearly not a fan of Post News in its current state. But it still has plenty of time to improve. To be fair, I will be checking back on how it develops, especially to see if it can attract significant numbers of interesting and influential thinkers and writers who chose to post exclusive content there.
I was going to explore Hive Social before I wrote this review, but it’s been down for a week for security updates. So, I’ll summarize here what I like and dislike about this platform based on what I’ve read rather than from direct experience.
Many users describe Hive Social as a mixture of Twitter and Instagram apps. It’s been downloaded about two million times, though the current week-long outage may reduce future growth. Like Twitter and Counter Social, the service allows NSFW posts as long as posters categorize them with a content warning.
What I like about Hive Social
Like Post News, Hive Social has no ads and no character limit on posts. I’m a fan of “neutral” feeds on social media platforms, and Hive Social only offers a chronological timeline. Like most social media platforms apart from Meta, you can follow another user without them having to “friend” you back. The owner says the platform has “zero tolerance for bigotry and hate”, though, like Post News, moderation is currently restricted to reporting by other users.
Concerns about Hive Social
Hive Social’s sole owner with a minuscule staff raises similar concerns to Counter Social; what if the service is shut down or its data misused? Perhaps due to the service’s rapid growth, there are reports that the app crashes and service can be slow at times. Hive Social has no web interface, which is annoying to old fogeys like me. Finally, you have to wonder about the problems that are bound to arise if Hive Social continues to grow, given it currently has no moderators, no security team, and no staff focused on regulatory compliance.
Hive Social conclusions
Hive Social (when it’s back up and running) is probably a nice place to hang out if you’re young and aren’t especially interested in maintaining a long-term history of your social media interactions.
Some parts of this review of alternatives to Twitter will be out of date in a month, while some will stand the test of time. (Now if I could only know which parts were which!) And there are likely to be still more entrants in the Twitter-competitor space, such as Spoutible which is due to go live in February 2023.
Currently, Twitter continues to be a useful place for sharing my content and connecting with meeting industry peers. But its future is uncertain, and having taken some time to explore alternative platforms I thought I’d share my findings with you.
I hope this summary review is helpful and welcome your thoughts, comments, and experiences with these alternatives and any new platforms that appear. Please share in the comments below!