The news about Twitter since Elon Musk took over has ranged from bad to worse. In addition to mass staff cuts, there was the wave of corporate impersonations (“insulin is free now”), the restoration of accounts booted for posting misinformation (hello, Kanye West, goodbye, Kanye West), and an explosion of hateful slurs.
The chaos has prompted many users to look for alternatives. But replacing Twitter’s vast ecosystem of news, jokes, and constant conversation isn’t easy. I spent the past week exploring two of those alternatives — Post and Mastodon — where I experienced growing pains, missing features, and missing conversations that reminded me of Twitter circa 2008-09, when I first started there.
Post is a brand new service, still in beta, created by former Waze chief executive Noam Bardin. It’s a lot like Twitter, running on its own servers with its own apps and website. There’s no character limit on the length of posts, and Bardin said the company plans to “rigorously enforce” its content moderation policy against harassment, bullying, and other inappropriate content.
Bardin is also trying to revive an old idea for supporting journalism: micropayments. Post users buy points, and news organizations charge a small amount to read individual stories that otherwise would be behind a paywall. Points are cheaper the more a user buys; 500 cost $7, for example. (Reuters charges 5 points for many of its stories.)
Mastodon, which has been around for six years, is rather different from Twitter in several key ways. There is no single Mastodon service. Instead, anyone can use the open source software developed by Eugen Rochko to boot up a Mastodon server of their own. Each server owner essentially runs their own service with their own rules about who can join and how to moderate content.
These are hardly the only choices. Hive and Pillowfort have been around for a few years, as well as Diaspora and Friendica. Some Twitter departers are even turning to popular established platforms such as LinkedIn and Tumblr to share short posts.
For my week of experimenting, I started with Post. Switching was pretty simple, once I got off the waitlist (the service had fewer than 110,000 active users as of Dec. 5). I created a login and profile page at Post’s website and downloaded as an app to my phone.
Even without a post length limit, I found myself mostly sticking to writing short posts. I could “like” posts with a thumbs-up icon instead of a heart. But otherwise it was a lot like being on Twitter, and I found myself clicking on hashtags of interest to see posts on a particular topic. Except the array of content is much more limited.
Someone posted about Kirstie Alley — many hours after I saw it posted on Twitter. It was the same for news of a federal investigation of animal cruelty at Elon Musk’s Neuralink and the Justice Department looking into the collapse of FTX. And as of yet there are no posts about late Amtrak trains, school snow days, or serious earthquakes.
That could change if Post can build up its infrastructure to support more users, and if its micropayments feature attracts lots of users and publishers. As Twitter’s early years demonstrated, scaling to support millions of users is not easy. Stay tuned.
Starting on Mastodon was a whole other kettle of fish, or should I say, bag of woolly mammoth bones?
First I had to choose a server. I chose one of the most popular, mastodon.social, without much thought. That server had a website I could use or I could choose from an array of Mastodon-compatible mobile apps. Posts are limited to 500 characters, hashtags work, and you hit a star icon to “favorite” a post or a bookmark icon to save it for later.
You can also repost (or “boost” in Mastodon’s lingo) other people’s posts, but you cannot add comments as you can when you retweet a post on Twitter. The service also has a feature to hide and label posts, sort of like a trigger warning. One post I saw was hidden because of “spoilers.” And in addition to blocking individual users, you can block all posts from a specific server.
But once I started looking for people to follow — people I knew were already using Mastodon — complications arose. Sometimes I could find people by just typing their name or Mastodon account name. Other times, I had to type their full Mastodon account name and server (like “@CalvinAndHobbes@botsin.space”) to find them.
And then I realized that I should probably have my account on a server run by journalists. Switching to journa.host was pretty straightforward but also incomplete. The services moved all my followers from my old address to my new address. But the people I had chosen to follow were lost. Turns out, I needed to use the data export function buried in settings to download my list of accounts I followed and upload it to my new service. Whoops.
Mastodon’s history and open signup process meant there were many more people already on board. The service hit 1 million monthly active users on Nov. 7, according to developer Rochko. I quickly found some other tech journalists, my favorite science fiction newsletter writer, and even an account for NASA.
But again, I’m not getting my full news fix on Mastodon yet. It’s quicker to show me breaking stories than Post, but nowhere near Twitter’s virtually instantaneous feed.
On the other hand, I can sleep soundly knowing that if a chaotic billionaire takes control of my Mastodon server, I can easily switch to another. And this time, I know how to take my list of followed accounts, too.