For all our whingeing, Twitter was special. Mastodon could never compare | Sarah Manavis

Elon Musk’s takeover has seen an estimated million users leave the site. But was it already past its prime?

Like much of what has happened in recent years, the possibility of Elon Musk taking over and actually managing to destroy Twitter had the quality of a fever dream: something that would probably be a disaster but would almost certainly never happen. It felt likely that, even in the most dramatic case, he would succeed only in making an already bad platform slightly worse. Which is why the last 10 days have awed even Musk’s harshest critics: since he took over Twitter on 27 October, after firing thousands of staff and the company’s entire board so that he became its sole member, the site has truly begun to tank. By Musk’s own admission, the company is losing $4m a day – reportedly in large part due to advertisers fleeing.

In the few days after Musk’s takeover, more than a million people are believed to have left the site, many in pursuit of an alternative Twitter-esque platform. While there are several popular existing sites that allow users to create text posts shared to an online message board (like Discord, Reddit, and Tumblr), the emerging favourite is Mastodon: a social networking site which uniquely operates as a nonprofit, effectively pitching itself as “Twitter, but nice”. However, the idea that you can recreate a version of Twitter without Twitter’s pre-existing problems is a pipe dream. It won’t happen on Mastodon; it most probably won’t happen anywhere.

When it comes to Mastodon specifically, its most obvious hurdles are on the technical side – you cannot simply sign up and immediately appear in a communal space with other users. The platform operates as a series of siloed servers, all of which operate their own individual spaces with their own themes (such as “journalism” or “Glasgow”). While you can still engage with other users from other services, this is not straightforward, and it’s difficult for users to create a cohesive timeline of all Mastodon users. The experience is clunky.

It does have one main, general server for all users – however, within days of Musk’s Twitter takeover it had become full and closed to new sign-ups. This mass migration of users has become a problem for the site – it has only just surpassed 1 million active users compared to Twitter’s 237 million and its servers are already buckling under the weight. It seems unlikely that Mastodon’s technical structure will be able to scale overnight to handle even a fraction of Twitter’s user base.

Beyond the technical aspects, there are other reasons why these Twitter alternatives are struggling to deliver the Twitter experience. As Musk himself is discovering, it’s incredibly difficult to successfully moderate a mass digital “town square” where hundreds of millions of people are crammed into the same space. The few sites that have come closest to replicating Twitter are ones that have extreme-right connotations, such as Parler and Donald Trump’s Truth Social. However, for a platform seeking to create a more harmonious, better version of Twitter, this partisan free-for-all isn’t an option.

But one of the most underrated elements of making a new Twitter is the motivation itself: how many people actually want Twitter to exist at all? While there may be many people still eager to use some kind of micro-blogging site, there were many signs that the appetite for Twitter was waning even before Musk took over. Twitter has always struggled to draw in the user numbers of other big platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram or even Snapchat, and now recent studies have begun to show that even its most active users are logging on far less than they once did. It is already an uphill battle for Twitter-alternative platforms to re-enthuse jaded Twitter users – and that’s before they even get to the problem of replicating what it is that people actually liked about it in the first place.

It’s difficult to admit that Twitter, for all its ills, also provided something special for its users. Many found jobs, new passions, fell in love or even made friends for life using the site (I met my partner of six years thanks to Twitter and also have to credit it for launching my career). It was unique in making this easy, by forcing every user on the site into a single, communal environment that was both boundaryless and, by design, primarily existed to get people talking to each other. Few people care about the aesthetics, the ads, or the niche functionality, they just want somewhere to read jokes and communicate – crucially in a space that feels like everyone is in it. Unless we do manage to get mass migration to another platform that then recreates that ecosystem like-for-like (and by mass, I mean most of Twitter’s 400 million users), no amount of claimed similarities will actually generate what we consider to be the Twitter experience.

In theory, there should be no social media site more easy to replicate than Twitter. All you need is a space for people to post (within reason) about anything, all in one big room, with enough people there to make it feel like you’ve made it to the party. However, the problem with building a true Twitter alternative is that Twitter’s users turned this basic space into a culture that goes beyond its core functionality. It was a rare moment where so many people wanted this kind of platform, something it’s difficult to imagine repeating itself in the age of personal brands and and one-way, presentational platforms like TikTok. Twitter is unfortunately greater than the sum of its parts. When we lose the echo chamber all we are left with is the void.

  • Sarah Manavis is an American writer covering technology, culture and society


Sarah Manavis

The GuardianTramp

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