TL;DR – Massive changes at Twitter are causing users to explore alternatives amid deep concern over the platform’s future. There are a few platforms lauded as alternatives, but only one currently offers a large user base, feature set, and community to make it a viable alternative.
I have spent more time than I care to admit researching alternatives to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. At different times, I have been dissatisfied with decisions made on all three of these behemoth platforms. Most recently, after Elon Musk acquired Twitter, he subsequently made decisions that have generally diminished the quality and appeal of the platform. Between selling verification and significantly reducing staff in critical service areas, the core of the Twitter platform has taken a substantial hit.
I have been a regular Twitter user since 2008. I am not an influencer. My following never topped 2,000 users. My posts on Twitter covered a variety of topics, but mostly food, travel, technology, and marketing. It has not been critical to my livelihood, but I have enjoyed the 14 years I have spent using Twitter. I have made connections with people near and far, and I have observed world events through hashtags and trending topics. While I haven’t depended on Twitter, it has been an incredibly useful tool for learning, expanding my world, and staying in touch with current topics.
With the recent changes to Twitter, I, along with many others, are left wondering what the future of the platform will look like. We are concerned that it will be overrun with misleading information, radical ideas and opinions, fake accounts, and that it could be misused politically and socially. For one example see the insulin tweet incident.
Free speech is a cornerstone of democracy and this right should be defended. But free speech has limits, so it needs to be moderated. This moderation of free speech has been the topic of much discussion. As a society, I believe we have arrived at some semblance of agreement on free speech in physical spaces. As the age-old example goes, a person can’t yell “fire” in a crowded shopping mall. Individuals and groups have the right to gather in the public square and voice their opinions about any range of topics that I may or may not agree with, but their rights should not infringe upon my rights.
In the digital space, free speech and moderation seems to be a bit more challenging, however. A voice in a public square can be identified and held accountable for actions. A voice in a digital space cannot always be identified. A shroud of anonymity in the digital space creates a different interpersonal dynamic that simultaneously makes a person feel more free to speak their opinion but also less accountable for their actions because their true identity may never be known. This dynamic opens up a range of complexity that makes online moderation both necessary and challenging.
This brings us back to the notion of verification. Twitter verification has been methodical and clearly defined. If a person has the verified badge beside their name, their identity has been validated as a person of notability and the account is confirmed to be who they say they are. Verification has added credibility to statements, claims, news stories, and the like. With the notion of selling verification, an entirely new range of possibilities enter the picture. For the low, low price of only $8 per month, anyone can pay up and make claims — true, false, inflammatory, political — the list goes on.
The crux of the problem is this: selling verification creates an ecosystem of diminished trust and opens possibilities for misinformation and chaos.
Many people — notable and normal like myself — left Twitter in the wake of Elon Musk taking ownership of the company. There is no small amount of chatter on the platform about where people are moving their content. Mastodon has seen considerable growth. Discord is another option currently being discussed. Diaspora is another. Reddit, CounterSocial, and Tumblr are all in the conversation, too. But each platform has its shortcomings.
What makes Twitter… well… Twitter?
Twitter as a platform has several characteristics that make it appealing for a large audience. There are 6 overarching characteristics or features that define what Twitter is. These characteristics/features have made Twitter appealing for the masses, a successful social media platform, and an essential tool during emergencies and civil unrest.
All-Inclusive Microblog Ecosystem
At its core, Twitter is a microblog that allows users to post short (<280 characters) messages with images, videos, hashtags, and links. This ecosystem is all-inclusive, so any user with a login has access to interact with any other user. In the early days, this was a novel idea, and no small amount of attention was given to the idea that we commoners were in the same digital space with celebrities and international figures. More recently, Twitter has enabled threads to give users the ability to post longer-form content.
Twitter users utilized the platform as a live format to post about things happening at that moment in time. From sporting events to political and social events, Twitter was the go-to platform to get a live look at what was happening around the world. Millions of users voted for American Idol or The Voice contestants using Twitter
However it may be qualified – civil, combative, friendly, argumentative, or otherwise – Twitter created an online space where any Twitter user in the world can have interaction and conversation with any other user in the world in a public forum.
The ability for users, even those without a login, to view content on Twitter is a cornerstone of the Twitter platform and a feature that has been central to its success. Users can share links to tweet for anyone in the world to view, with or without a Twitter account. This has raised the visibility of Twitter as a platform and helped it become a known source of information.
Categorization & Communities
Using the # symbol, hashtags emerged in the early days of Twitter as a way to categorize content. More recently, expanding on the concept of hashtags, Twitter also created Communities to provide a longer-lasting space for groups of users with particular interests to join and interact with others in conversation centered around common interests.
Twitter recognizes topics that users are posting about with frequency and curates those topics in the app under a trending section. This allows users to see what is most popular on the platform – globally, nationwide, regionally, and within certain defined topics (sports, entertainment, etc.).
Together, each of these characteristics helped Twitter gain a prominent place in the social media landscape. Now that substantial changes are taking place at Twitter and users are leaving for other platforms, a void may very well develop where Twitter once stood. There is no direct replacement for Twitter. For people considering other platforms, it’s important to understand these characteristics and how alternative social media sites compare.
Federated Social Media Systems (Mastodon, Diaspora, Discord, and CounterSocial)
If any system is being elevated as a replacement for Twitter, it’s Mastodon, but I think there are inherent issues with Mastodon and other federated systems that prevent them from being acceptable solutions. Federated-style systems operate different communities or channels on separate servers. A federated network is great for its distributed approach, but conversation is also fragmented across different spaces.
A federated configuration also makes joining the platform much more difficult — a user must sign up for each community/channel/server separately, which means there is no consistency among user names within Mastodon. If I were to sign up as brandon_moore on one Mastodon server, another user could take the same username on a different Mastodon server. A unified sign-on system would simplify this process greatly and introduce the consistency necessary to take hold as a Twitter replacement. A larger user base is also needed, as the largest Mastodon server has only 122k users (and growing) at time of writing.
While Mastodon has been the leader among federated systems, others like Diaspora, Discord, and CounterSocial are also in the conversation. But any of the federated systems will have considerable difficulty with going mainstream the way Twitter did. The investment of time and technical knowledge to get started will be a deterrent for many people, making it far less likely to gain users in large numbers. There are also concerns about stability and longeivity of servers. Just because a server exists today does not mean the server will exist in 3 months (server operators agree to provide a 3 month notice before shutting down https://joinmastodon.org/covenant), no matter how many users or how large the audience. Finally, the level of security may vary from server to server, which comes with its own cadre of privacy concerns.
Reddit has a longstanding reputation as a place to share ideas, conversation, and debate. It has emerged as part of the Twitter replacement conversation, and of all the other options available, I think it has the easiest path to being the most functionally viable candidate. I think of Reddit more as a website than an app, but Reddit’s mobile app offers an interface that has both a feed of posts I’ve subscribed to receive and a feed of popular content on the site. Content on the site is published with enough frequency to provide new content by the minute and seemingly endless scroll, if that’s your thing.
Unlike federated systems, a Reddit user has the same username across the entire system. A user may join communities and follow individual users in order to curate a personalized feed, much like Twitter. No matter the community, a single username is used across the entire Reddit ecosystem, providing consistency and mobility throughout the communities. Most Reddit posts are publicly-accessible, with the exception of those in private communities, and open for comment. This makes it easy to share most content to other platforms, even users who aren’t signed up for Reddit.
Reddit content moderation can be somewhat inconsistent and unexpectedly strict depending on the community. Some users have complained that Reddit moderators are able to exercise their power with too much latitude, making it a challenge to remain engaged in community discussion.
Ah, Tumblr, our old friend. Tumblr has been around since 2007 and was one of the first major microblog platforms. It boasts a large user base of 463 million blogs (https://hostsorter.com/tumblr-statistics/) and it’s easy to sign up for an account. With this many blogs, content is always fresh and users can scroll endlessly.
Though users can create text-based posts, most of the content is image- or video-based, making it more like Instagram than Twitter. There is a section for trending information, but content tends more toward entertainment and amusement than information and news. The timestamp for each post is hidden from the default view, so it’s difficult to see which content is most recent versus the content that is dated.
Tumblr certainly has its place and a large, seemingly loyal user base. But I don’t see Tumblr stepping in to replace Twitter as a platform for news and information, at least in its current state.
Boasting a user base of 6M+ users, Minds appears on the surface as a promising platform. But they also state 8M+ conversations, which doesn’t seem like a strong ratio of users to conversations. I was able to easily and quickly register for an account, though the email confirmation and welcome message were both filtered to my spam folder. The Minds interface looks a lot like Twitter, right down to the Explore tab on the left. The platform promises no algorithm on the fully-open source platform, so everything is a “live” view of content.
There were 5 trending tags highlighted, all oriented to politics (it was election day when I signed up), ranging from 43 posts under #election day to 318 posts for #midterms. This makes me think there isn’t a tremendous amount of content being published on a regular basis by the 6M+ users. A refresh of trending topics didn’t reveal new posts over a 10-15 minute period, so it is likely to feel a bit lonely. Posts can be shared out to other platforms, including individuals who are not signed in to Minds.
Minds offers a unified ecosystem, the ability to search for specific content, access to trending topics, and chat functionality. It looks and acts much like Twitter, but the amount of content generated by users is lacking. Minds operates on ad-based revenue (they call it Boosts) and subscription revenue to the Minds+ level, which enables users to generate revenue for themselves for as little as $60 annually or $7 monthly. Again, much like the direction Twitter seems to be headed.
Similar to Minds, Cohost offers a single website for posting content. But new users will need to be patient. There is a wait period between the time a new user signs up and when they can publish their first post. During this waiting period, a user may interact with content on the site – likes, shares, and follows – but may not post any content themselves.
Content on Cohost can be shared publicly to any user with or without a login. But the website does not have the volume of content to make it a contender as a Twitter replacement. On U.S. Election Day when I was testing the platform, there were only 3 posts tagged #election.
Finally, a point about the Cohost UI. The site is designed with flat design cues, but not in a modern way. The site lacks the design elements and polish necessary to make a strong first impression — Cohost feels like it was designed 10 years ago.
The list of platforms mentioned above is not a comprehensive list, of course. There are other players in this space that tend toward more niche audiences. In order to be a true Twitter alternative, the user base should be diverse and less specialized. Users on the platform can then find their communities for more specialized conversation. Among the niche players are Plurk (mostly international and anime-oriented), Truth (right-wing politics), Parler (right-wing politics), and Tribel (leftist politics). If these platforms were to diversify the user base and post content regularly enough, they may become more viable alternatives to Twitter.
That’s a long list of alternatives to Twitter. In the end, the platform I think has the most potential to be a Twitter competitor today is Reddit.
Federated systems are too difficult at sign-up and have such a fragmented ecosystem. Most other systems either lack the Twitter-like content, have a small user base, or are missing both. For most casual users, the amount of content being generated on a site is one of the reasons a platform takes hold and becomes “sticky”. If a platform seems stagnant, users are much less likely to return.
Reddit matches up well with most of the characteristics of Twitter. It’s an ecosystem all unto itself. New content is added frequently, keeping the feed fresh and curated with trending topics. Chats and comments create conversational and social features for users to discuss and debate ideas. Communities allow users to easily find and contribute to conversations of interest, making it a source of news and information similar to the way Twitter has functioned in the social space. Users with and without a login can access most of the content, so it’s easily shared in other spaces.
Certainly, Twitter users are still deciding what they will do in the wake of this transition to a new CEO. The platform stands to lose a fair number of users. Among the viable competitors in this social space, none are more well-suited to replace Twitter than Reddit.
Brandon Moore, Ed.D. is Founder at Speak, a digital media agency with clients throughout the southeast United States. He built his first website on Geocities in 1997 during the days of dancing babies, <blink> and <marquee>. Brandon’s career has spanned website research and development, marketing, brand management, and data analytics. You can find him on Twitter (at least for now), Reddit, and LinkedIn.