Elon Musk

The dinosaurs of social media won’t be replaced by Mastodon

The planned mass exodus of Twitter won’t happen, but it will remain a niche social network with a bark bigger than its bite, says Jason Walsh
Elon Musk. Image: Getty via Dennis

27 April 2022

The best thing you could say for Twitter is that it punches above its weight. Like the widely circulated Economist newspaper, Twitter is influential and widely available, if not actually widely read. As it happens, both are filled with strange obsessions – adding insect protein to the human diet in the case of the Economist, and any nano niche you can think of in the case of Twitter – and both are remarkably popular with journalists, policy wonks and think-tankers.

The flagging Facebook, marketing-friendly Instagram are much more genuinely popular, and youth-focussed up-and-comer TikTok looks like a decent bet for the social network of the future (then again, it could become the next Snapchat, or worse, YikYak). Twitter? Not so much. But it won’t die just yet.

Twitter’s slow decline has been saddening for me. Fado fado, back in the miocene era, when the then-140 character limit existed because Twitter was intended to allow small groups of friends to share SMS messages, .Net magazine asked me to sign up and report back to planet print media about this new kid on the social networking block. What I discovered was a small demi monde, but a friendly one. Once, my car battery having gone flat in the middle of Dublin, perfect strangers offered to come and give me a bump start. Today, you’d be lucky if Twitter users didn’t come out to give you a bump on the head.

This whinging of mine, of course, is nothing but a variation on the theme of the Eternal September, an early Internet name, or ‘meme’ I suppose, for the day massive proto-ISP America Online (AOL) added access to Usenet discussion forums to its bevy of online services. It was so named because every September, thousands of new students would descend upon university networks and be let loose on Usenet, ignorant of its etiquette and conventions. Eventually they would learn and settle down. With AOL, though, every day was 1 September, and for the oldsters this was nothing less than a barbarian invasion.

This week, with billionaire spaceman Elon Musk’s threat to buy Twitter lock, stock and barrel about to come true, gangs of Twitter users have said they plan to quit the platform. They won’t. Twitter will eventually fade, likely when its signal to noise ratio becomes so low as to render it utterly useless, but Musk buying an only intermittently profitable Internet company is not going to significantly tilt the scales.

A friend said to me today that Twitter is only popular because it has no competition. I can’t say that I agree. One alternative is Truth Social, the copycat social network founded by former US president and former Twitter user Donald Trump.

Rightly forgotten

Truth Social is not even the first attempt to replace Twitter. Others include right-wing ghost towns Gab and Parler, which may have looser user policies but are useless if your main goal is ‘owning the libs’, because the libs aren’t there. And who among us could forget Menshn, the failed social network launched by former British member of parliament Louise Mensch? Most people, presumably, but it did exist. Briefly.

Trump’s network, which is simply a forked installation of open source Twitter-a-like Mastodon, will fail for the same reason the rest failed: because it has no scale, and scale is the only thing that matters with social media. Remember, before we, at a meeting to which I was not invited, collectively agreed to gussy it up as ‘social media’, the likes of Twitter and Facebook were called ‘social networking’, and it is precisely the network effect that makes social media interesting to users – and what makes it profitable to people trying to sell clothes, shoes, subscriptions, magic beans, poorly-sketched ideas and sex.

Amusingly, many liberals, distraught at Musk’s purchase plans, have themselves said they plan to flee to Mastodon. Micro niches, not unlike Discord communities, may succeed, but a mass social network needs scale, not just a few people nodding along.

Twitter only just has scale, but it has enough. Crucially, it also has cachet. As any editor will tell you, if you want clicks you go to Facebook. Twitter, by comparison, is a sea of unclicked retweets, but it persists because it is intensely competitive, more like a video game than actual communication, and those retweets indicate clout. That is what Twitter is really for: building a reputation as a ‘thought leader’, or if you can’t manage that, at least as a semi-professional comedian.

While the prospect of a billionaire owning what, sadly, passes for the public square is disconcerting, it is hard to get past the suspicion that barely a squeak would have been heard if some other billionaire – one who didn’t have a sidegig as an edgelord – had gobbled Twitter up in his beak.

Musk, for his part, has portrayed himself as a champion of free speech. Pull the other one. Of course, one might also lament not only that vicious abuse has come to pass for discourse – it has – but also that the left and liberals long ago gave up on free speech, and in doing so ceded the territory to the right. But such is life.

And if I’m wrong and Twitter withers like Vine? Good.

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