Can Mastodon be a workable substitute for Twitter? It may never be as big. But given that a lot of us are trying to figure out how to manage our social media presence now that Elon Musk is banning journalists, shutting off access to the API and just generally acting like petulant child, I was interested to see what happened the other day when I had a chance to test comparative engagement.
Since Dec. 11, I hadn’t posted anything to Twitter other than occasional tweets letting people know I had moved and where they could find me. On Friday, though, I decided to make an exception to let my followers know that I’d written an op-ed for The Boston Globe about how local news organizations can stand up to corporate chains. As of Sunday evening, I’ve gotten six likes and no retweets. Twitter claims that my tweet has been viewed 573 times, but who knows?
I posted the same thing on Mastodon, also on Friday. Right now I’ve gotten 24 likes and 37 boosts (retweets in Mastodon-talk). And when I posted a follow-up noting that I’d gotten more engagement on Mastodon than on Twitter, that got another 31 likes and nine boosts. Unlike Twitter, Mastodon servers don’t provide any metrics on how many views you’ve received, which, folks tell me, would be pretty much impossible given its decentralized nature.
Now for some points of comparison: I have 18,900 followers on Twitter and 2,500 on Mastodon. Then again, on Twitter I have no idea how many are bots, users who haven’t logged on for years or people who’ve died. Plus my account is locked, and at this point I’m sure my followers are accustomed to my absence.
I joined Mastodon in November, so all of my followers are of recent vintage. Plus I’ve been quite active over there, using it pretty much the way I used to use Twitter. So in that respect the heightened engagement isn’t too surprising. Even so, the experience has given me one less reason to look back at what was.
I was looking at my WordPress statistics for 2022, and one number really leaped out at me. Twitter was the third-largest source of traffic to Media Nation in 2022. Search engines were responsible for 70,626 views, Facebook was second at 27,126, and Twitter was right behind at 25,371.
As you probably know, I’ve stopped using Twitter. But it shows you why walking away is pretty close to impossible for self-employed journalists and marginal operators who can’t afford to spurn any service that drives traffic to their site. Although I have a voluntary membership program for $5 a month (please consider!), my livelihood is not dependent on Media Nation.
Search, Facebook and Twitter were the big three, followed by LinkedIn at 4,047 and, in fifth place, an unexpected source: Editor & Publisher, the news industry trade publication, at 3,827. E&P has been kind enough to feature my posts in its daily newsletter on a fairly regular basis, so I guess that’s the explanation. Other notable entries in the top 10 were Universal Hub and Expecting Rain, a site for fans of Bob Dylan, who I’ve been known to write about from time to time. From there it quickly dribbles down to double and single digits.
I’ve taken most of my Twitter-like posts to Mastodon, so I was curious to see that there was nothing. The explanation, I found out, is that Mastodon contains code that makes referrals invisible, which is supposedly some sort of privacy protection. I don’t quite get it, and I’ve learned about a workaround that will supposedly make Mastodon referrals show up. I am getting some referrals from Post News, which, like Mastodon, is emerging as a leading Twitter replacement.
When making ethical decisions, we all have to decide where we’re going to draw the line. I’ve been watching Elon Musk’s behavior closely since he purchased Twitter in late October and thinking about where I ought to draw my own line.
It’s different for everyone, and I’m not going to criticize anyone else’s judgment. For Jelani Cobb, it came when Musk restored Donald Trump’s Twitter account, which had been locked because he incited violence during the Jan. 6 insurrection. I semi-shrugged my shoulders. No, I wasn’t thrilled that Musk had brought back Trump and his merry band of Q-adjacent loons, including the loathsome Marjorie Taylor Greene. But my goodness, have you seen the internet? Twitter’s a big place, and I didn’t see any particular reason why we couldn’t all co-exist in our own spaces.
Then there are the deeply stupid “Twitter Files,” promoted by house journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss, internal documents given to them by Musk that show evidence of some mistakes in moderation but that mainly demonstrate Twitter was attempting to enforce its publicly stated policies about hate speech, incitement and misinformation. There’s some big-time hyperventilating going on about one of those mistakes — the decision to suppress the New York Post’s story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. But that decision was reversed within 24 hours, and it’s worth noting that it was based on an actual policy not to share hacked information. This is a scandal? (Brian Fung of CNN has more.)
What has brought me to this moment, though, is Musk’s own behavior. In late November, Twitter announced that it would no longer take action against misinformation about COVID-19, in accordance with the Chief Twit’s wishes. And then, within the past few days, came the end of the line, at least for me. First Musk attacked Yoel Roth, his former head of trust and safety. Musk tweeted out a short section of Roth’s Ph.D. dissertation to make it appear, falsely, that Roth supports the sexualization of children. “Looks like Yoel is arguing in favor of children being able to access adult Internet services in his PhD thesis,” Musk tweeted. (If you’re interested in the particulars, see this piece at Business Insider by Sawdah Bhaimiya.)
Then, on Sunday, Musk tweeted, “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” and followed that up with a meme from some fantasy movie (“Lord of the Rings”?) of Fauci whispering in President Biden’s ear, “Just one more lockdown my king.” (Details from Jesse O’Neill in the New York Post.)
At what point does indifference morph into complicity? What we have now is the head of Twitter, with 121 million followers, tweeting out messages that are putting actual people and their families at risk. In what should have been a surprise to no one, Roth has had to flee his home and go into hiding, according to Donie Sullivan of CNN. Fauci, as you no doubt know, has been facing death threats throughout the pandemic, and Musk’s amplifying a bogus call to arrest and prosecute him could make matters worse. I realized that was my line, and Musk had crossed it.
I’ve downloaded my Twitter archive and will no longer be posting there except to help those who contact me and are looking for an alternative. I’ll set my account to private as soon as I’ve tweeted this out. I considered deleting my account altogether, but who knows what’s going to happen? Maybe next week Musk will enter a monastery and donate Twitter to the Wikimedia Foundation. Yes, that’s pretty unlikely — as unlikely as one of Musk’s SpaceX rocket ships safely taking you to Mars and back. For the moment, though, I don’t want to do anything that I can’t reverse if conditions change.
This was not an easy decision. I’ve been a heavy Twitter user since I joined in 2008. I’ve got more than 19,000 followers, and I know that not all of them are going to move to other platforms. But here are some alternatives below. You might also want to check out this roundup from Laurel Wamsley at NPR.
If you’re not doing so already, you can sign up to receive new posts to Media Nation by email. It’s free. Just scroll down the right-hand rail on the homepage, enter your email address and click on “Follow.”
The most promising Twitter alternative is Mastodon, which is a decentralized network of networks that — once you get past the clumsiness of figuring out how to sign up — works very much like Twitter. I joined in early November, and more than 1,300 people are following me there already. I’m at @email@example.com. There are various guides on how to get started. Here’s one from CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis.
If Mastodon is the earthy-crunchy alternative to Twitter, then Post News is the corporate version. Like Mastodon, Post News is promoting itself as a civil environment free of abuse and trolling. I know that some Mastodon folks are criticizing Post News for being just another venture-capital play that may eventually come to as bad an end as Twitter. They’re not wrong. For now, though, I’m looking at Mastodon as a place where I can connect mainly with journalists, academics and the extremely online, and then mosey over to Post News to engage with normal people. The interface is simple and attractive; the site is still in beta and will continue to improve. You can follow me at dankennedy_nu.
Let’s not forget that Facebook isn’t going anywhere. If we don’t know each other, please don’t send me a friend request; follow my public feed instead. Here’s where you can find me.
I’m also on LinkedIn and Instagram, but I prefer not to use those to engage the way I do on the other platforms.
There are a million takes on what has happened to Twitter that I could point you to, and believe me, there are very few that are worth reading. But this one is worthwhile. It’s by Ezra Klein, and he questions whether any of these platforms, even the nice new ones, are doing us any good.
Finally, what we need more than anything on Mastodon and Post News is some diversity, which, at its pre-Musk best, is what was great about Twitter. Black Twitter needs a home, and I really miss my non-Trumpy conservative followers and the less politically engaged. I invite you all to take the plunge. Join one of the alternatives. Cut down or eliminate your Twitter activity. And discover the joys of de-Muskifying your life.
When we learned last spring that Elon Musk might buy Twitter and transform it into some sort of troll- and bot-infested right-wing hellhole, my first thought was: Bring it on. Although I’m a heavy user, I had no great affection for the service, which was already something of a mess. If Musk ran it into a ditch, well, what of it?
On second thought, I realized I would miss it — and so would a lot of other people. In particular, Twitter has become an important service in calling out injustice around the world as well as a forum that gives Black users a voice they might not have anywhere else. My friend Callie Crossley was talking about Black Twitter on the late, lamented “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney” ages ago. Black Twitter could go elsewhere, of course, but it would be hard to recreate on the same scale that it exists now.
Please support this free source of news and commentary for just $5 a month by becoming a member of Media Nation. Just click here.
For now, I’m staying, but I’m also playing around. Mastodon meets a lot of my needs (I’m @firstname.lastname@example.org), mainly because a lot of media and political people I want to follow immediately made the move. But, so far, I see none of the non-Trump conservatives whose presence I value and very few Black users. That may be my fault, and it may change. I’m also skeptical of Mastodon’s extreme decentralization, with each server (called an instance) having its own rules of engagement. I’m also on Post News at @dankennedy_nu, but I really don’t like the micropayment scheme on which it’s staked its future, explained at Nieman Lab by Laura Hazard Owen.
Twitter really does matter. It may be the smallest of the social platforms, but it’s a place where people in media and politics have to be. I’m not sure it can be replicated. So much has been written and said about Twitter over the past few weeks, and no one could possible keep up with it all. Here, though, are three pieces that I think cut through the murk as well as any.
The first is from Dr. Meredith Clark, my colleague at Northeastern’s School of Journalism. Professor Clark is a leading authority on Black Twitter and the author of the forthcoming book “We Tried to Tell Y’all: Black Twitter and the Rise of Digital Counternarratives.” Meredith says she’s staying. In a recent interview with Michel Martin of NPR, she explained why:
We’re digging in our heels. We’ve been on this platform. We’ve contributed so much to it that we’ve made it valuable in the way that it is today. We’ve made it an asset, and so no, we’re not going anywhere. And then I see other people, honestly, who have more privilege, a number of academics who are saying, nope, we’re going somewhere else. We’re leaving for other platforms.
But I do really think that there are limits to those relationships because there aren’t many platforms that allow many speakers to talk to one another all at the same time in the same place. My use hasn’t changed all that much. I don’t plan to be one of those people who migrate. I just tweeted the other day that I’ll be the last one to turn the lights off if that’s what I need to be, because I’m certainly not going either.
Taking the opposite approach is Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, who has suspended his Twitter account in favor of Mastodon — a step that he admits has cut him out of numerous conversations, but that he believed was necessary in order not to be a part of Musk’s transformation of Twitter into a reflection of his own obsessions and ego. Like Clark, Dr. Cobb is Black; unlike Clark, his reasoning makes no mention of Black Twitter per se, although he does note its value in bringing to light racial injustices. “Were it not for social media,” Cobb writes in The New Yorker, “George Floyd — along with Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — would likely have joined the long gallery of invisible dead Black people, citizens whose bureaucratized deaths were hidden and ignored.” But that, he emphasizes, was then:
Participating in Twitter — with its world-spanning reach, its potential to radically democratize our discourse along with its virtue mobs and trolls — always required a cost-benefit analysis. That analysis began to change, at least for me, immediately after Musk took over. His reinstatement of Donald Trump’s account made remaining completely untenable. Following an absurd Twitter poll about whether Trump should be allowed to return, Musk reinstated the former President. The implication was clear: if promoting the January 6, 2021, insurrection — which left at least seven people dead and more than a hundred police officers injured — doesn’t warrant suspension to Musk, then nothing else on the platform likely could.
My own view of Trump’s reinstatement is rather complicated. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s easy to justify banning a major presidential candidate, which Trump now surely is. On the other hand, he was banned for fomenting violence — and now that he’s been given another chance, he’s likely to do it again, which means he’ll have to be banned all over again. Except that he won’t be with Musk in charge. (So far, at least, Trump hasn’t tweeted since his reinstatement.) In any case, I respect Cobb’s decision, even if I’m still not quite there.
I’ll close with Josh Marshall, editor of the liberal website Talking Points Memo. Like me, Marshall is dipping his toe into Mastodon’s waters while maintaining his presence on Twitter. And, like me, he’s trying to figure out exactly what Musk is up to. The other day he offered a theory that doesn’t explain all of it, but may explain some of it — especially the part that plays into Musk’s emotions and sense of grievance, which may prove to be the most important in understanding what’s going on.
Marshall sees Musk as traveling a path previously taken by Donald Trump. Like Trump, Musk is a narcissist who can’t imagine a world that doesn’t revolve around his every need and want. Also like Trump in, say 2015, Musk was until recently someone with vague right-wing proclivities who has hardened his views and openly embraced white supremacy and antisemitism because we liberals hurt his feelings. Trump and Musk have both taken up with horrible people because they were offering support and friendship when no one else would. With Trump, it’s Nick Fuentes and Kanye West. With Musk, it’s, well, Trump and his sycophants. Marshall writes:
I doubt very much that in mid-2015 Trump had any real familiarity with the arcana of racist and radical right groups, their keywords or ideological touch-points. But they knew he was one of them, perhaps even more than he did. They pledged their undying devotion and his narcissism did the rest.
Elon Musk is on the same path. There are various theories purporting to explain Musk’s hard right turn: a childhood in apartheid South Africa, his connection with Peter Thiel, disappointments in his personal life. Whatever the truth of the matter, whatever right-leaning tendencies he may have had before a couple years ago appear to have been latent or unformed. Now the transformation is almost complete. He’s done with general “free speech” grievance and springing for alternative viewpoints. He’s routinely pushing all the far right storylines from woke groomers to Great Replacement.
If anything good can come of this it may be that we hit peak social media a few years ago. Facebook is shrinking, especially among anyone younger than 60. TikTok is huge, but as a number of observers have pointed out, it isn’t really a social platform — it’s a broadcaster with little in the way of user interaction. Now Twitter is splitting apart.
This may be temporary. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg or (most likely) someone else will be able to reassemble social media around the metaverse. For now, though, social media may be broken in a way we couldn’t have imagined in, say, 2020. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing — although I wouldn’t mind if someone put Twitter back together again, only this time minus the trolls, the bots and the personal abuse that defined the site long before Musk came along.
I’ve opened an account on Mastodon in the hopes that it will prove to be a good alternative to Twitter, now in the midst of an astonishing implosion.
What I’m hoping for is something like Twitter pre-Elon Musk, only without the trolls and bots, the personal abuse and the piling-on. I don’t think any of us believed Twitter was a wonderful place before Musk lit it on fire. So far, Mastodon sort of fits the bill, but it’s also something different. The culture is more polite — maybe excessively so, though that might just be a first impression.
In any case, there doesn’t seem to be any going back. I wouldn’t be surprised if Twitter is essentially gone in a few weeks. You can follow me on Mastodon at @email@example.com. And for a really good explanation of Mastodon and how its decentralized governance works, I highly recommended this Lawfare podcast.