After years of relative stasis in the world of so-called “microblogging,” Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter—and the subsequent fallout from his new policies and practices—have opened up a major opportunity for a new competitor. Even before new owner and chief memer Musk walked into Twitter HQ proudly carrying a sink (for comedy of course), a number of vocal Twitter users had started openly plotting their exits for greener pastures, and the mainstream started learning the names of some of Twitter’s underground, lower-profile competitors, including Hive and Mastodon.
But until this summer, none of the Twitter alternatives had the right combination of factors to establish itself as a bonafide challenger. Mastodon’s sign-up process was cumbersome and confusing for many. Hive was frequently glitchy and in some ways counter-intuitive. Truth Social became a haven for fans of founder Donald Trump and his ultra right-wing perspective, making it an unfriendly home for anyone to his political left.
All of this changed over July 4 weekend, with two crucial and simultaneous developments: Musk’s Twitter introduced a wildly unpopular new policy, temporarily limiting the number of tweets users could view in a single day. In a statement, Twitter explained that this was designed to “address extreme levels of data scraping and system manipulation.” Even users who had paid the $8 a month to subscribe to Twitter had their “rate limit” capped at 6,000 tweets a day. For everyone else, they were limited to just 300-600 tweets daily tweets.
While those numbers may sound like a lot, when quickly scrolling through tweets, frequent users of the app were running through their allotment very quickly, sometimes within minutes, leaving them with two options: give up posting to social media throughout the day, immediately changing behavior that’s become habitual, or find a Twitter alternative that doesn’t have these aggressive limits.
Which leads us to the other key development: on July 5, Meta introduced a new app of their own, Threads, built off of the Instagram social graph. Instagram actually first launched a secondary app called Threads in 2019 to compete with Snapchat, but shut down that version of the app in December 2021. Technically, the new Threads is a relaunch, but the new version is aimed specifically at Twitter nonetheless. So much so that Musk has already threatened to pursue legal action against Meta, accusing the company of hiring former Twitter staffers and then encouraging them to share trade secrets and insider info about their former employer. “Competition is fine, cheating is not,” Musk tweeted last week.
The sudden inability to access tweets only lasted a few days, but that was enough time for Threads to experience massive, explosive growth. The app hit 100 million sign-ups in its first week. For brands and digital marketing agencies, which had already become wary of Twitter’s laissez-faire policies regarding things like racism and hate speech—not to mention its unpredictability in terms of glitches or accessibility—the promise of a Twitter-esque platform with a robust userbase and none of these issues was of strong, immediate interest.
The temporary rate limit-prompted Twitter outage also lasted for enough time to spark interest in another rival, Bluesky. From original Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, the app remains in beta, and requires an invitation from a current user to join. Nonetheless, Bluesky already has over 1 million downloads, and just announced this week that it had raised $8 million in additional seed funding to offer a custom domain service to users.
It’s too soon to count Twitter out entirely, despite its ongoing struggle with “weird glitches” and “outages.” The service is wildly popular, and that kind of extreme visibility and momentum is hard to challenge head-on, even if you already have the strength of Instagram’s community behind you. Regardless, Twitter’s challenge can be viewed as everyone else’s gain. Competition is healthy, after all, and people looking for ways to communicate with followers and share their work can only benefit from more widely available options.
It certainly can’t hurt to join all the major social media services, even if it’s just to have a presence there. Nonetheless, looking at the main microblogging apps individually from a creator perspective, there are some distinct pros and cons for each.
At least for now, it’s going to be very difficult for anyone with a large, established audience on Twitter to leave. Despite all of the app’s numerous issues, it’s still where the majority of daily discourse happens. As Vox’s Rebecca Jennings points out, while many would love to see the rise of a “Twitter Killer,” that won’t truly happen until another app is as robust and entertaining and “always on” as the original. And that simply hasn’t happened yet with any of the alternatives. For digital creators, it’s important that they go where the audience already is, instead of demanding that fans come to them. For now, that’s still Twitter.
Still, the service has some considerable drawbacks that make it a smart play to seek out alternatives, even if that just means signing up and holding on to your username, just in case.
Most prominently, Musk has transformed Twitter from a place that encouraged users to share and promote their work to a relatively hostile platform for external links. Twitter itself has always struggled as a promotional and marketing tool. Most users were always content to remain in the app, reading tweets, as opposed to clicking on links and visiting external websites or destinations. But under Musk, linking out to major publishing platforms like Medium and Substack were actually barred, while other kinds of links can cause tweets to become suppressed and less visible on the platform, particularly if they’re posted by non-paying users. This is a direct challenge to the baseline utility of the platform for creators. If you can’t share your work with your followers, what’s the point of even having them in the first place?
Additionally, Twitter is widely seen as combative, a place for arguments as much as for community and conversation. Don’t believe me? Check out this Thread from Democratic strategist Keith Edwards, who compared the Twitter/Threads rivalry to those old “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” ads. Commenters responded by comparing the “Twitter Guy” to a member of the KKK or a Nazi, declaring the app “too toxic” to engage with any further. Earned or not, Twitter has developed a reputation as a right-wing haven that’s hostile to progressives.
For some creators who focus their content on political or controversial issues, or who enjoy taking a “debate me!” kind of stance, that’s a boon. Their audience wants to come over to Twitter and watch them chop it up with ideological allies and foes alike. But for others, this can be off-brand or exhausting, and a viable alternate platform that’s less divisive. Instagram chief Adam Mosseri has made this argument directly on Threads, noting that—while politics and hard news “are inevitably going to show up” on the platform, the company hopes to dissuade those kinds of discussions.
Already, Meta has demonstrated that there’s room for more than one mainstream microblogging service, a pretty serious blow to Twitter’s hegemony. A hundred million users in a week is nothing to sneeze at, and there’s at least a chance here that Zuckerberg’s platform could do lasting damage to Twitter’s ability to draw a crowd.
It’s not quite there yet. While being more marketing-friendly than Twitter is an early advantage and may help Threads on the path to profitability, the app is currently dominated by brands over individual users. Threads content is also determined entirely via algorithm, with no option to just view a chronological feed of fresh content from people you have chosen to follow, as it’s shared. This means that Meta gets to choose whose posts you see and when, and it has the option of pushing down content produced by your favorite creators in favor of posts from your favorite companies or products. It also makes Threads essentially useless for following current events or major news stories, as refreshing will just bring up more algorithmic selections, not real-time updates.
Perhaps the biggest downside to Threads is its owner. Zuckerberg, Facebook, and Meta don’t have the best track record in terms of trustworthiness or reliability, and concerned users have fled Facebook in much the same way they’re exiting Twitter now—for some of the same reasons.
Facebook has been taken to task for spreading misinformation, particularly ahead of presidential elections. It’s been involved in a number of controversies regarding privacy invasion, surveillance of American citizens and others around the world, ignoring “fake news” and threats of violence and hate speech. A number of murders and violent incidents have been broadcast to the world via Facebook Live, and the company’s politics regarding censorship and the handling of user data have repeatedly come under scrutiny.
Meta has proven itself an unreliable partner for creators over the years. Initially, it desperately needed third-party apps to keep users around and make the platform more fun and engaging, but ultimately the Facebook ecosystem proved unsustainable for its early partners. Companies like Zynga and Groupon were built massive user bases on Facebook in the early days, but remained completely dependent on the platform to reach their audience. Once Facebook didn’t need them any more to continue growing or bringing in money, they moved on and started directing users elsewhere.
The same thing then happened to publishers. Around 2016, Facebook started talking up its video feed as the future of news and encouraged its most popular publishers to focus less on print journalism and more on video content. It made this argument with the help of metrics that massively overestimated the time users spent watching videos and consuming video ads. The company wasn’t forced by a court to come clean about this until 2019, but by then, the damage was done. Publishers who had taken Zuckerberg’s advice to heart and pivoted their companies to video had already seen their revenue and engagement drop.
Any creators joining Threads today as a viable new way to share their work should bear this track record in mind. That’s not to say don’t join the platform at all. But be wary that it could all disappear tomorrow, and diversify your social media presence.
Which brings us to Bluesky, which Dorsey conceptualized while still working at Twitter and founded with around $13 million of Twitter money. Bluesky, like Mastodon, is a play at what’s known as the “fediverse,” a combination of the words “federation” and “universe.” The idea is that, rather than a centralized social media network like Twitter, fediverse apps access a network of interconnected servers that communicate openly with one another. While users can still engage with one another and share posts across servers, everything is decentralized; there’s no single authority that controls the entire network and sets rules.
For now, on a practical level, end users probably won’t notice a difference between a fediverse app and a centralized Twitter or Threads experience. Still, one day, it could be an effort to side-step some of the “freedom of speech” controversies that have tangled up Musk and Twitter over the past few months. No centralized authority making judgment calls means that there’s no one for authoritarian governments to convince to pull negative posts from the network, and no way to ban the word “cis.” Dorsey and Bluesky have also made the app’s code open-source, allowing anyone to check under the hood and actually see how the algorithm works for themselves.
Bluesky also plans to eschew advertising and earn revenue via paid services, such as its plans to offer users custom domains. Moving forward, the app could potentially provide services to help users set up their own blogs or mini-websites directly from the app, making Bluesky a one-stop destination for creators to post and share whatever they’re currently making.
That’s a potentially promising future. For now, though, Bluesky has the major drawback of a limited niche audience. Though a million downloads for an invite-only experience is impressive, the app will need to grow considerably before it’s of any real use to creators hoping to grow a large and receptive audience. Bluesky, while promising, remains something of a ghost town.
In practical terms, for most creators, establishing a presence on all three of these services is likely the best way to go. Staking a claim on new digital real estate is a good best practice, just overall, even if you don’t have the time or inclination to actually use all of the accounts. It’s a reliable back-up in case that new platform suddenly explodes in popularity, and it prevents other people—especially trolls and bad actors—from grabbing your username and exploiting it.