Elon Musk has made sweeping changes to Twitter since taking over in late October. He’s laid off over half the staff, announced plans to let a huge swath of previously suspended users return to the site, and sparked fears of the site crumbling or being overrun with harassment. As a result, a lot of users have started looking for a life raft, another platform where they can continue tweeting without all of the chaos. There’s just one problem: there really isn’t a viable alternative to Twitter yet.
With the moment ripe, a lot of people are trying to build one. Small companies and developers are racing to put their own twist on the Twitter formula, hoping tweaks to moderation and the tools people use to connect with one another can fix fundamental problems with the platform and, hopefully, give users a reason to jump over. Those already up in running in some capacity have quickly seen an influx of interest.
“We have had tons and tons of people on the wait list,” Nick Thompson, CEO of The Narwhal Project, one upcoming new conversation platform, says in an interview with The Verge.
Improving the quality of conversations is at the heart of some of the buzziest alternatives to surface so far. The Narwhal Project aims to provide a space where users “with different viewpoints” can have online discussions. It has a small but noteworthy group of leaders trying to make that happen, including Thompson, who’s also CEO of The Atlantic, Raffi Krikorian, the former vice president of engineering at Twitter, and Brian Barrett, the former executive editor at Wired.
“We think there are mechanics that we can use in ways that nobody else uses.”
Narwhal’s team is studying how conversations work on other major platforms — including Twitter, Facebook, Discord, Reddit, Quora, and Slack — in an attempt to come up with an amalgamation of “features that seem to work” along with “new features that haven’t been tried before.”
Narwhal isn’t publicly available yet and hasn’t shared firm details about how the service will operate. But Thompson says there will be at least one major difference from Twitter: Narwhal will focus on the quality of conversations, rather than speed.
“We want there to be a place on the internet where people have thoughtful, interesting, surprising conversations,” Thompson notes. “We think there are mechanics that we can use in ways that nobody else uses.”
Another budding platform, Post, is taking a similar approach — and it’s already letting in tens of thousands of early users. The service looks a lot like Twitter, but it intends to stand apart with “rigorous” content moderation and a focus on the distribution of “premium news.”
Post is led by former Waze CEO Noam Bardin, who describes the network as “a social platform for real people, real news, and civil conversations.” The platform will let users buy individual articles from “premium” news providers and tip creators via “integrated micro-payments,” something Musk has also mentioned adding to Twitter.
Post’s priority around civil conversations is part of what’s keeping the site from launching widely. Bardin has said that being able to actually do the robust moderation Post has promised is one of the biggest constraints for letting people onto the site. Bardin first introduced the platform on November 14th and hopes that it will reach 50 million daily active users over the span of one year. As of Bardin’s most recent update, the platform let 65,000 people on so far out of the 335,000 users on the wait list.
The service has already run into a bit of hot water, though, with Twitter users taking issue with some decisions Bardin and Post have made. The platform is funded by Andreessen Horowitz — the same venture capital group that invested $400 million in Musk’s takeover — and Bardin said it wouldn’t be focusing on accessibility to start.
While Post and Narwhal aim to reimagine Twitter, other projects are aiming to largely recreate Twitter — just better and without Musk. Hive, a nascent social platform that ballooned to 1.5 million users in November 2022, was one project that some flocked to as people celebrated what they thought were Twitter’s last days. It’s an intuitive Twitter clone, offering a feed of text-based content, photos, and videos from the users you follow as well as an option to explore the media posted by users in various categories, like memes, pets, or gaming.
The biggest name in the Twitter replacement game is Mastodon
It is, however, clearly not ready yet. The two-person team running the site announced on Wednesday that they were shutting down its servers while they worked to fix “security issues that affect the stability of our application and the safety of our users.” Even before that debacle, it was very clearly still in early access, with the Android beta feeling painfully slow and laggy. And when one of us here at The Verge signed up, they immediately got a handful of followers even though they hadn’t posted anything. That kind of raises a red flag; while Hive has some rules in place to combat spam, it doesn’t include any language about bots — and it’s unclear how well the team will be able to moderate the actual humans that use its platform.
The biggest name in the Twitter replacement game is Mastodon, which has been building its tech and reputation for years. Its interface will be familiar to anyone who’s used Twitter, with its own versions of timelines, hashtags, favorites, and retweets. The big idea behind Mastodon, though, is putting users in charge and letting them create their own (sometimes special interest) spaces, instead of a company that unilaterally controls the software and moderation — even if the CEO of that company swears up and down that he’s just following the will of the people.
Unlike the other platforms we’ve looked at, Mastodon is a mature platform that’s been figuring out moderation and technical issues since 2016. The problem is that the way it puts people in charge could make it a lot less appealing to a general audience. Instead of there being one main Mastodon site where all your friends and favorite celebrities are, it’s a distributed system. There are dozens of Mastodon instances, each of which runs on their own servers, has their own administrators and moderation policies, and is located at different websites. And while there is a way to talk to people and get at content on different instances, it’s nowhere near as simple as having to manage a single account on Twitter.com and being able to @ any public user.
“I hope that Mastodon really takes off and gets maybe even the user count that Twitter now has,” says Ruud Schilders, admin of mastodon.world, a general interest Mastodon server and one of the most popular instances with around 100,000 users. “But it should not be on one server, or ten, or a hundred. It should be on thousands of servers; that’s the idea of Mastodon. There shouldn’t be servers with tens of millions of people on them.”
Schilders didn’t set out to be responsible for a social network with over 100,000 users, and he certainly didn’t expect to have to moderate that many people. He says he started the server around a year and a half ago because he was interested in using Mastodon after bouncing off of it five or six years ago. Until late October, he only had a few users. Then, after Musk took over and started his push for a “hardcore” Twitter 2.0 and after Schilders asked to be added to Mastodon’s official server directory, mastodon.world blew up. “When all the people were fired at Twitter, there was even a bigger influx of users,” says Schilders. “Resulting in now having over 100,000 users on my server.” So far, he’s kept the service running through donations.
“If there’s a server with only Nazi people,” he says “we just block the entire server”
While that’s nowhere near Twitter’s scale (according to Musk, the site has around 250 million monetizable daily active users), there are still plenty of things to worry about when you have 100,000 people in one place. Schilders says he’s brought on several volunteer moderators, one of whom is a professional ethics coordinator and helped write a new code of conduct. When mastodon.world started, there were four rules. Now, there are 16. Schilders is also looking for moderators who can speak other languages now that he’s started to get some reports about posts written in, say, Arabic.
Aside from people’s personal block lists, he says that Mastodon admins can cordon off entire parts of the network if they need to, protecting their users from servers that have poor moderation and bad actors. “If there’s a server with only Nazi people,” he says “we just block the entire server.” That means the people from the Nazi servers can’t contact his users, and his users won’t see any of their posts.
Mastodon has gotten around a million new users over the past few weeks, according to data shared by Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s founder and CEO. Clearly people are willing to give it a try — but the service is still struggling in obvious ways. Mastodon.social, the instance run by Rochko and co., currently isn’t accepting new signups, and members of the press have complained about the platform being slow and hard to understand or even sign up for. In theory, it’s Mastodon’s moment. But if Twitter users move over, will they like having to figure out the rules and politics of each instance they want to join or knowing that the administrators of those servers can read their DMs?
There’s also one big obvious problem for all these services: Twitter. While the general public might put up with an alternative platform’s flaws or be willing to wait to use it if there were no alternative, the truth of the matter is that Twitter hasn’t crashed and burned yet. You can still use it today, and most of your friends will probably still be on it. Sure, there’s a very good chance that Musk’s technical and moderation decisions have made it a crappier place for you, but the alternatives will have to prove that they can be better, not just another site with Twitter’s same problems.