Tech & The Web

Here’s the Problem With All of the X Alternatives

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Since Elon Musk started making changes to the former Twitter, plenty of options have emerged billling themselves as X alternatives.

A recent CNBC article’s criticism about the social media platform Threads could be applied to multiple platforms. All of those wannabe Twitter-killers hope to serve as X alternatives for people fed up with Elon Musk’s changes.

X, formerly Twitter, caught a lot of flak in 2023 as it implemented a variety of changes.

Some of those changes include a decision on how it handles misinformation, its verification process, fees for using its API, and talk of charging all users to access the platform.

A report published in October claimed the platform lost 13% of its active daily users since Musk took over. That report blames the rebrand as part of the motivation for people to leave. (I don’t think changing the name alone would cause that large of a drop.)

Similar but different? X Alternatives need to do better

So let’s say you find an alternate platform that you prefer to X. You’re describing it to a friend and you want them to join you there. How are you going to justify their joining?

“Well, it’s like Twitter, but it’s better,” you might say. That seems to be what a lot of platforms are unofficially saying in trying to get people to make a switch (or at least join) their platform.

But is that enough to do it? Apparently not, one expert says, particularly when it comes to the platform Threads. The CNBC article featured an interview with Insider Intelligence principal analyst Jasmine Enberg:

Enberg said Threads needs to establish an identity that’s “more than an extension of Instagram or an alternative to X” in order to become a major player in the social media market.

I’ve tried several platforms that may or may not be considered X alternatives. Those include BlueSky, Threads, Post News, and Mastodon.

Post News may have the clearest mission statement of the four: “Real News. Real People. Civil Conversations.” It contains a lot of news publishers as well as users who share news content from both traditional and non-traditional media sources. Even when there’s disagreement, and on social media, there always will be, it does seem to be civil compared with other platforms. So at least that does seem to be a general advantage over X. Post allows users to “tip” with points equivalent to one cent each. Some articles are readable without tipping while others aren’t. (I usually don’t pay to read.)

But if you’re into the angry, bitter, pejorative civil “discourse” that has long been a staple on X, you’re probably not going to be attracted to a message like that.

Other X alternatives seem to have bigger branding problems

Mastodon seems to have the most obscure mission statement: “Decentralized social media.” Mastodon set its eyes on the concept of the “fediverse.” The best definition I can find for that is that it’s an open-source network of servers that operate together to power the platform. But there is no one central authority that makes all of the decisions.

Sure. That clears that up, right?

The idea is that since there’s not one single authority making all of the decisions, platforms on the fediverse guarantee more freedom of expression and diverse opinions. If that raises your eyebrow, yours isn’t the only one. Who gets to decide whether content is inflammatory or discriminatory? Well, presumably, the decision falls to whoever runs the particular server (or “instance”) that hosts the particular user’s content. If that server’s administrator objects, the user can presumably switch to a different server. Indeed, when you join Mastodon, you’re supposed to select a server. But who knows which server is better than another and how could anyone possibly know that?

And if an “offensive” user can switch from one server to another and stay active, wouldn’t the kind of content you potentially don’t want to see still have a home there? Is that really an advantage? I suppose the users will decide on that one.

BlueSky looks the most like X. Its conversations seem to be more civil, too. If you’re used to the look and feel of X, it will probably be the easiest to adjust to…if you can get an invite. The process of onboarding users has taken far too long. Months — yes, several months — after I requested admission, I could only join after a user I know sent me an invite code! It was at least two more months after I was aboard that the platform got around to sending me the invite I’d requested. They’re shooting themselves in both feet when it comes to growth.

BlueSky’s slogan seems to be, “See what’s next.” What, exactly, is that supposed to mean?

Threads’ official slogan, on the other hand, seems to be, “Say more with Threads.” But say more how? Why do you get to say more there compared with any other platform? Did it set its character limit higher? Does that refer to a higher number of followers to reach? (Since you can easily join Threads from an existing Instagram account, Threads saw a huge early adoption.)

I think the “say more” jazz refers to the fact that you can post on Threads without a photo, which differentiates it from its Instagram sibling. You may not have an image ready for every thought you feel you need to express. In that case, you could “say more” on Threads than you’d be able to say on Instagram.

Building followers is still a challenge

Of the four X alternatives I’ve tried, I’m still trying to choose a favorite. It’s between Threads and BlueSky.

I ranked my favorites before looking at follower counts. But the favorites list mostly coincides with those counts, ironically.

Of the four, I’ve been on Post News the longest. I joined that platform on Jan. 11, 2023, almost a full year ago. I amassed a whopping 43 followers. But they’re followers who do live up to the platform’s goals by being civil. I occasionally get a like or comment here or there. Regardless, it’s hard to get a great deal of interaction.

I joined BlueSky most recently, thanks to that invite code from a friend of mine. Since my join date of Aug. 26, 2023, I built a following of 38. That’s a little disappointing; I won’t lie. But at the same time, I feel like I get more interaction there lately than most anywhere else.

I launched my Mastodon presence somewhere out there in the fediverse back on Feb. 21, 2023. That makes it my second oldest of the four X alternatives. But only 19 people clicked the button to follow me so far. Is it worth continuing to try to build followers there? I’m not quite ready to abandon it, but it’s also hard to go big on a platform that gets you that little reach.

Then there’s Threads, which I joined back on July 5, 2023. My profile for that platform shows 209 followers, which gives me the biggest number of followers — bigger than the other three combined.

Finding people to follow seems the easiest on Threads. I get a wider variety of suggestions there than anywhere else. The suggested followers on Post News, for example, seems to be the same list over and over again with a few individual exceptions. That follow list still includes accounts I’ve already followed, which seems like a design flaw.

If I were going to ditch any of the four X alternatives, Mastodon would be the easy choice. But I don’t have any intention of leaving it so far. I’d like to see what it does in the next year, though, to make it feel more like it’s worth staying.

As for X itself, I joined in November of 2008, meaning I just celebrated my 15th anniversary there. I have some 3,400 followers on that platform, but again, that’s 15 years’ worth. I don’t plan on leaving X at the moment. But it is clear that not only my interactions and reach have dropped. That’s probably because I don’t pay for “X Pro” or whatever we’re calling the old Twitter Blue these days. I’m less likely to pay for that than I would be to leave altogether. But if Musk does force payment to use the service at all, that might be enough to make me go.

As a general rule, America seems to root for the underdog over the big powerhouse. I do think that depends on the particular skirmish. But if enough people get fed up with X’s shenanigans, one of the X alternatives might get just enough of that underdog support to become a contender.

Unfortunately, I don’t see any of them causing much of a threat just yet. But I guess we’ll have to see what 2024 brings!

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

1 Comment

  • I don’t quite think Mastodon works like X, when it comes to reach. While, yes, all the instances create one public space, it’s more common for them to group up in a way, creating separate communities. If you want to build a following, you need to go into your niche. Be it electronics, open source, specific ideologies or even furries. As much as federation allows you to reach out far and wide, in the reality, it’s a lot more bunched up and separated.

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