Billionaire conspiracy promoter Elon Musk spent $44 billion on Twitter to implement his special brand of “free speech,” essentially bringing back all the Nazis, conspiracy theorists, and all-around deplorables that were once moderated out of the platform, relegated to darker corners of the internet.
He then proceeded to eliminate the social media site’s verification system, handing out those blue checkmarks to the Musk acolytes foolish enough to pay him $8 per month. As a bonus, those deplorables receive priority comment placement under any tweet, ensuring that a stream of vitriol, ignorance, and hate will dominate any reasonable person’s contribution.
It’s bad enough that Twitter is now a far-right social network, but Musk also decimated the company’s engineering corps, leaving a skeleton crew of overworked H-1B visa holders who are unable to leave without being deported. Whatever crew is left is increasingly unable to balance the need to implement Musk’s bizarre whims and simply keep Twitter running.
In short, Twitter is falling apart, both from a technical standpoint and from a usability standpoint. But Musk’s foibles are an opportunity, and several companies are furiously racing to become the new Twitter.
We at Daily Kos get criticized for continuing to use and embed tweets in our stories, but that network is still the best (by far) place to get fast-breaking news and information. It also remains the primary home of prominent pundits, analysts, activists, scientists, Ukraine open source intelligence, and lots of other stuff that is directly relevant to our work. For the time being, we’re stuck with it.
Musk thinks that network effect—that mass of important people listed above—protects him, and it has certainly slowed Twitter’s collapse. But his actions since taking the helm have frayed that advantage to the point that an exodus, which is already happening, will rapidly escalate the moment a viable alternative emerges.
For one, Twitter is clearly held together by duct tape and gum. As one CNN headline put it, “As Twitter failures go from bad to worse, users wonder how long it can stay online.” Even if Musk was the paragon of a benevolent CEO, upholding the strongest standards of content moderation and model behavior, Twitter’s technical glitches alone would have people seething and restless for an alternative. No one wants to fight an app to get the information they need. Some of us may not have a choice, but a lot of people don’t need Twitter the same way.
That dynamic is at play with this new report showing the collapse of Twitter referral traffic to major media organizations:
Given the friction that the Twitter experience now generates, it’s no wonder that there are fewer people using the site to find content they want to read.
And if you look closely at the absolute numbers, you’ll see something else Musk refuses to acknowledge: Media orgs don’t get an appreciable percentage of traffic from Twitter. It’s low single-digits at best. It’s even worse for brands, which is why advertisers were able to so easily walk away from Twitter. It is a great place to build a personal brand and to join a trending hashtag to advocate for something you care about, but no one built a business from Twitter the way they do on Facebook or Instagram. And while Facebook advertising is still considered essential to the big brands, Twitter’s benefits were far more difficult to quantify. There’s a reason the then-publicly traded company forced Musk to go through with his purchase offer. It was a tough business.
But sites have survived tech glitches before (ahem, us). The next major problem has been Musk’s decimation of any appreciable moderation. Not only did Musk readmit the Nazis and other assorted deplorables once cleansed from the network, but he gave them preferential treatment for $8 per month—a paltry sum that could never replace the billions of dollars of brand advertising lost as a result of letting those horrid people back in. By letting those blue checkmarks swarm the top of the replies of any sane person’s tweet, it made the whole experience unpleasant for many of Twitter’s biggest celebrity accounts and casual users alike.
There are lots of other outrages, like Twitter cutting off automated bots like the ones that tracked bus route delays or severe weather warnings. There are indignities like this one: “Academic researchers have been set a deadline of the end of the month to delete data they obtained under historic contracts to study Twitter, unless they pay a new $42,000-a-month contract – a demand one called ‘the big data equivalent of book burning’.” And Musk has gotten in the habit of downgrading access to content he doesn’t like, like pro-Ukrainian war coverage. Does anyone who doesn’t have a green Pepe the Frog as their profile pic want to deal with this shit?
And then there’s the very real possibility that Twitter gets sued into oblivion in the not-too-distant future. A month ago, the blockbuster “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” was posted in full on the site, and stayed there long enough to rack up 10 million views. Last night, as Twitter’s embattled tech team was distracted (see below), the new “John Wick” film was posted in full. When I went to bed, it had been up 11 hours and had racked up 3.7 million views.
But nothing brought home the need for a Twitter alternative like last night’s disastrous launch of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign. It was a mashup of everything wrong with Twitter: It featured “free speech absolutist” Musk cavorting with a literal fascist book burner, and the whole announcement went down in flames because of technical difficulties. It was a culminating event, underscoring just how exhausted everyone was with Twitter drama, and truly pining for the alternative that will render all of that irrelevant.
On that front, there are several strong contenders. The network that wins is the one that captures the elite accounts and is easiest and most seamless to use.
What is the Fediverse?
The Fediverse isn’t a site or a social network, but the jargony name for a network of federated (interconnected) servers used for universal web publishing. The Fediverse consists of various protocols, but the relevant one here is called ActivityPub, an open-source protocol for creating, managing, and moderating content across a network of decentralized servers.
[ActivityPub lead author Christine] Lemmer-Webber drew a direct line from problems on other social networks to the development of a network where local controls are built in. "Queer people built the Fediverse," she said, adding that four of the five authors of the ActivityPub standard identify as queer. As a result, protections against undesired interaction are built into ActivityPub and the various front ends. Systems for blocking entire instances with a culture of trolling can save users the exhausting process of blocking one troll at a time.
In theory, it’s really cool stuff!
Mastodon has been the biggest proponent of this approach, and it looks great on paper.
Yet this decentralized approach is Mastodon’s weakness, as setting up an account requires things such as “picking a server,” which is not a thing that anyone should ever have to think about when creating a social media account.
The Mastodon team, while seemingly super cool, is tiny, and they don’t have table-stakes features such as replying to their version of tweets, or direct messaging. At the very least they are working to reduce some of the complexity, but Mastodon’s CEO has refused venture capital to help spur growth. That adherence to his independence and freedom from money interests is laudable, but it also limits its ability to truly seize this moment. As of late March, Mastodon had two full-time employees, a handful of part-time ones, three contractors, and they were hiring three additional full-timers. Even a Musk-decimated Twitter has around 1,000 employees, and had 7,500 before Musk took over.
Weirdly, the Fediverse is getting a boost from Meta, the behemoth behind Facebook. Their Instagram app is imminently slated to get Twitter-like functionality, and surprisingly for a company like Facebook, they are also going the decentralized Fediverse route. Social media researcher Lia Haberman reports that, “The decentralized app is built on the back of Instagram but will be compatible with some other apps like Mastodon.”
The ability to instantly build off an established base will be a huge advantage, while also boosting Mastodon by enabling Fediverse interoperability. This news is just as big for Meta as it is for Mastodon. Apps will be able to compete not on their own built-in network effect, but on design and features, with users benefiting from that universal access. I could see people starting on Instagram’s product, then jumping ship as Mastodon or another competitor matures. It’s not clear to me how users could port their followers, but assuming that’s in the cards, holy crap.
Ultimately, that’s the beauty of the Fediverse: We would no longer be tied down to any one company. Our accounts would be portable, allowing us to move to whichever service best serves our needs. So, say Instagram’s product has an overload of spam, shitty moderation, or they decide to allow Nazis? We move over to a competitor that has tighter moderation standards.
As I’ve already noted, the winner of this Twitter-replacement sweepstakes will be the place where the media and celebrity elite migrate. Most of those already have robust Instagram presences, making it easy to have that built-in follower count from Day One.
And while I don’t see it as an imminent option, Tumblr (remember them?) has just announced they will be implementing ActivityPub support. There are definitely interesting things brewing.
Until the Instagram leaks shook up the scene, the buzz was all with Bluesky. Ironically, it was once a Twitter side project and is backed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, but is now an independent company slowly dribbling out invites to join. Several high-profile Twitter accounts, including the jokester troll Dril and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have already joined to great fanfare, and the demand for coveted invite codes is sky high. (I still don’t have one!)
However, unlike the two aforementioned options, Bluesky isn’t on ActivityPub. Instead, it has developed its own decentralized protocol. That lack of interoperability with Mastodon didn’t matter a couple of months ago, but could now prove a challenge. Why would AOC use Bluesky, when the Instagram version would allow her to immediately start with 8.6 million followers?
Also, did we really need a new standard? Time to trot out the most classic of classic XKCD comics:
That said, Bluesky has reportedly done a great job of replicating the Twitter experience, and that will go a long way. But if the Instagram product is any good at all, Bluesky will likely be forced to pivot to the ActivityPub standard, and that would be a great thing.
You can read more about Post here. All I will say is that I checked it out and hated it. And as far as I can tell, it wants to be the whole game, rather than tying into the Fediverse. That ship seems to have sailed.
Using Twitter is still a necessary evil for many of us, me included. But given the pace of alternatives suddenly emerging, those days are numbered. I fully expect Twitter to be obsolete by the end of the year, a $44-billion boondoggle that’ll resemble little more than a glorified Parler or Gab. Yet another ‘unscheduled rapid disassembly’ overseen by Elon Musk.
Like CNN, Musk will learn the incredibly obvious lesson that so many fail to grasp: You can’t build a business catering to right-wing deplorables. For the rest of us, it’ll truly be a relief when we can finally depart to greener pastures.
We speak with Anderson Clayton, the 25-year-old chair of North Carolina’s Democratic Party. Clayton has a big-picture plan for 2024, and explains the granular changes needed to get out the vote on college campuses and in the rural communities of the Tar Heel State.