Moving on from Twitter? We’ve looked at three alternatives to help you decide.
Moving on from Twitter? We’ve looked at three alternatives to help you decide.
Among the many, many smaller platforms that are currently presented as your next best alternative to Twitter, we’ve been self-testing the federated alternatives Mastodon and BlueSky and looked at announcements on “P92”. Interestingly, Twitter never counted as many users as Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok – and still if there’s a platform that has helped direct attention to alternatives outside of walled gardens, then Musk’s Twitter version is the one.
We, that’s Charlotte, Cathleen and Felix, and what follows are our personal observations after spending three to twelve months on BlueSky and Mastodon, respectively. From a research and policy perspective, we are curious to explore alternatives to the most concerning features of dominant social platforms, namely prospects to break with surveillance capitalism, digital colonialism, and the attention economy. Among the many options out there, including Post, Artifact, Substack Notes, Clubhouse and more, we’ve been particularly drawn to the potential of decentralised alternatives, but how do they fare in practice?
The one with the elephant mascot: Mastodon
Mastodon has been developed as an open-source alternative to Twitter since 2016 and currently counts around 12.2 million users (June 2023). Mastodon is made up of various “instances” that can be set up and run by anyone and they become part of the larger fediverse through a protocol called ActivityPub. Think of it like email, whether you signed up with gmail, protonmail, or gmx – you can still message everyone.
- One of the critical components to the fediverse and the way Mastodon is designed is the fact that it is decentralised, open source, and non-commercial – the whole idea is to break with the walled gardens of centralised, commercial offerings. In short: no surveillance capitalism.
- Your feed is chronological, posts do not get algorithmically amplified and there is no ad tracking – simply because there are no ads. Technically, instances could choose to adopt different data policies and finance themselves through ads, however this would require a significant adjustment to how such offers interact with other instances that do not allow for such behaviour. This means, there are no design features that try to keep you on the platform to show you more ads: it does not feed the attention economy.
- Our main caveat comes with inclusion. In theory, anyone, anywhere can set up an instance. In practice, however, the current lack of scalable business models means that people require time to volunteer and financial resources to run their instances – both things more likely to be found in people with privilege, often white and male-presenting. Without dedicated resources, it therefore risks repeating patterns of digital colonialism.
The one that looks like Twitter: BlueSky
BlueSky launched as a beta version in February 2023. The initial funding was provided in 2019 by Jack Dorsey, former Twitter CEO. However, since 2021 BlueSky is an independent company. The platform looks strikingly similar – blue buttons and all. Two notable differences: there are no direct messages and no hashtags, instead users can create lists for specific topics that others can then pin to their profile for alternative timeline views. BlueSky is presented as a decentralised alternative – yet it is not compatible with the fediverse’s ActivityPub, it runs on the AT Protocol. In addition, joining is currently only possible if you have an invite code. The “exclusive” pitch of the platform, which for now seems very U.S. focused, leads to invite codes being auctioned on marketplaces like eBay for up to several hundred dollars.
- The core argument at BlueSky is to enable account portability so that users can move to different servers and services without hassle and without losing their previous data. While the current version may not yet sell this information or manage advertising deals, the permanent storage of user data in specific repositories does at least in theory provide an “In” for surveillance capitalism.
- BlueSky’s appeal lies in the promise that users will be able to choose their own recommendation algorithms. Presented as a “marketplace” approach, the strategy is to encourage developers to bring in algorithms rather than developing them in-house through the company itself. This is supposed to generate a greater diversity of algorithms and hence content filters to apply to individual feeds. While interesting as an approach for user agency, it still means that the goal is to keep you – even if on your own terms – because advertising and tracking for third party services are possible. The platform is therefore unlikely to break with the idea of the attention economy.
- Since the platform is not yet open but only accessible with an invite code, there is a sense of scarcity, where only friends of current users can join, and this feeling is amplified by updates on how many people are on the waiting list to join the platform. Sounds like a classic Silicon Valley Marketing Strategy? Yes, we think so, too. In addition, this reiterates and strengthens certain bubbles, currently the more privileged. Without opening the platform for anyone interested in joining and further strategies on how to include more non-white and non-English voices, this will not only amplify issues of digital colonialism but remain a platform for privileged people from mostly European countries and the U.S.
Meta’s new, federated project codenamed: P92
According to reports and company updates, Meta has been testing a decentralised network, code-named “P92” or “Barcelona” and rumoured to be launched as “Threads” as early as this month. For now, our assumptions rely on preview reports and documents we studied.
- The login on “P92” is supposed to work through your existing Instagram account, which means all your data, all the tracked information will access this tool with you – the exact opposite on how decentralised networks like Mastodon are designed. This suggests that P92 will continue in the spirit of surveillance capitalism as other Meta apps do, too – only in a new, decentralised look.
- Without testing and seeing exactly how timelines are going to work, chronologically or algorithmically sorted, it is hard to assess whether the attention economy will be at the core of the App’s business model or not. Given Meta’s track record there is a good chance that they’ll do what they can to keep you on here – optimising the federated network for clicks and eyeballs – which could also pose a risk to the larger fediverse, due to the potential size of the Instagram-powered instance alone.
- Developed in the U.S. and facilitated by the current Instagram user base, the potential for growing federated networks is undeniable. P92 is supposed to build on ActiityPub, the question is, will all current Instagram users be directed to one (very large) instance with Meta-designed content moderation rules, or will it be possible to choose from various instances? That said, the potential for a broader user base and people exploring federated networks beyond the current more tech-forward bubble is certainly one to watch. Nevertheless, digital colonialism goes beyond access and is more a question of how much platform owners care about users in non-core-market countries, including in terms of content moderation. Without a drastic change in policy of P92’s parent company Meta, the App is likely to replicate existing problematic patterns disadvantaging people in the Global South.
To sum up or: where can we most likely be found in two years?
You will probably find us on Mastodon, as we see the biggest potential to establish both infrastructure and community in the interest of the common good, rather than following profit logics. The condition for us here: we need more non-white, non-English voices as well as credible news sources to start joining and actively using the service.
Will we be on BlueSky? We do see the potential – but only time will show whether the ambition to strengthen user agency and choice of algorithmic filters can be realised. Diversity and inclusivity are open questions still, too.
And P92? The service is developed by Meta, so our optimism when it comes to serving the common good or democracy is, for now: limited. However, we can imagine P92 boosting interest in decentralised networks and would welcome a more diverse, broader user base joining.