I was an early adopter of Twitter in early 2007. I used to have a three-letter username (@tag) and there weren’t even a million users globally. When I started using it, most people thought it was a ridiculous and vain thing to do – write short updates in 140 characters and interact with strangers. Always the early adopter, I continued to tweet and built up a fabulous network of archaeologists and professionals from museums, galleries and archives as well as folks from the technology world. It was great.
Sometimes there would be meet-ups in cafes or pubs, niche conferences or un-conferences, and people would meet in person. But as Twitter grew and grew, it started to have less value. The signal-to-noise ratio increased to such a degree, and along with trolls, that it started to be a bit stressful to keep on top of. FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and the need to stay visible – I’m a freelancer and need people to remember me and my skills – meant that Twitter turned into something I did with grim necessity. I think a lot of long-time and regular users know that feeling well.
The API was locked down meaning that third-party Twitter clients were a thing of the past (so that the official app could gather more data). And RSS feeds disappeared.
And then Twitter was bought by Elon Musk. I’m not alone in noticing a huge degradation in terms of adverts for illegal objects cheap toys, crypto, gambling etc, a rise in argumentative trolls, and then the final nail really – tweets could only be viewed by other Twitter users. No more open web. No more embedded tweets on websites. The closed garden was complete, and compounded by limits on the number of tweets that users can see.
I realise that I have used Twitter for all these years for free. I realise that it’s a business and needs to earn money. Maybe in 2010 I remember many conversations about how Twitter could start charging a small amount per month for power users to remove ads. I’d rather pay for a service that I value, but there was no way to do it. By the time Elon came along and paying Twitter was an option (but you have to pay more if you use an iPhone!) it was too late. Twitter was already ruined, and I didn’t want to pay anything to a megalomaniac.
So what’s the alternative? Mastodon. Choose a server – I use https://archaeo.social – create an account, and off you go. On my iPhone I chose the excellent Ice Cubes app , logged in, and off I tooted. You can find me here: https://archaeo.social/@tom
You can choose to just view the toots (tweets) on your server, and just restrict yourself to just content from the community you joined, or you can view the ‘federated’ view (all toots from all servers) or just add anyone you want from whatever server they’re on. Your Mastodon app or the web view will show you a timeline just like Twitter. Only without the ads.
Each Mastodon server can connect to any and all other Mastodon servers. It’s all part of a set of open technologies collectively called the “Fediverse”. If there’s a server with lots of users you don’t like (e.g. people spreading hate), the server admin can block them all en-masse.
Yesterday, I wrote a toot introducing myself and have pinned it to my profile. I have had hundreds – literally hundreds – of people faving it, and have had about 90 new followers in just a day. But for me, it’s not about quantity but quality. I intend to keep the signal-to-noise ratio to an enjoyable level. I won’t necessarily follow all the same people who move over from Twitter. I’m taking this as an opportunity to discover new and interesting people – a brand new network.
And if I don’t like the server I’m on, or it decides to close? With Mastodon you can move servers. So no lock-in.
Of course, at the time of writing most Mastodon servers are free to join. But they cost the server admins money and time to run. So do check to see if your server admin has publicised a way to make a donation. Mine has, and I have donated, and will continue to do so. This will help to keep the servers online and allow others to use them if they cannot afford to donate.
Mainstream Twitter competitors
There are a few ‘mainstream’ competitors fighting to attract the people who are leaving Twitter. Meta, the owners of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, have created a text-based social network called Threads. It has launched in the USA and UK, but not the EU, as it does not comply with consumer privacy laws. Threads will be, apparently, compatible with Mastodon, so you could in theory follow someone’s Threads account and vice versa.
Bluesky, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s upcoming social network, is another alternative. It is currently invite-only. Confusingly, Jack Dorsey helped Elon Musk plan his Twitter buyout, while at the same time building a competitor. I’m not sure what’s going on there.
Either way, I’m not going to choose a social network that spies, probes, profiles, and throws ads at me, as well as locking me in to a walled garden. For me, Mastodon and other Fediverse services such as Pixelfed (an open federated alternative to Instagram) are the way ahead. Interoperability, community, and openness are great tenets of truly social media.