Q. How would you sum up what’s taken place in the social media sector since Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter? Has this been one of the more chaotic periods you can recall?
A. It’s been a period of both creativity and instability. I see the events of the last few months as willful destruction of the Twitter platform. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that changes over the past six months ran counter to the values of many long-time users.
But it’s important to remember that the platform was already in a state of decline. It had become an unstable, hostile place for many people and folks were exploring alternatives. Twitter’s golden era had already passed.
At the same time, however, the destruction of Twitter has stimulated new thinking about the future of social media. My optimistic view is that it has motivated a lot of people to try out something new. The proliferation of new apps and services is great. Now, we have working alternatives to consider – prototypes of the future. Instead of talking about what’s wrong with Twitter, we can talk about how Mastodon or Bluesky could be different.
Q. How can another social media platform take advantage of Twitter’s apparent decline and fill its void?
A. I think the error in how a lot of us think about this moment is to imagine that we’re looking for the next Twitter. And I just don’t think there will be a next Twitter.
Twitter developed at a unique moment in internet history. It was almost an accident. There was no game plan in 2006 or 2007 where someone gave a PowerPoint presentation like, “OK, we’re going to be the app where people live-tweet NBA games, find weather information, and watch heads of state do diplomacy.” From a million miles away, it seems totally incoherent.
So my hunch is that there is not going to be one single platform that serves all those purposes anymore. Those functions will get peeled off into systems that are better suited to those specific needs. And, ideally, these new systems will be linked together rather than walled off from one another.
Q. Are you already finding some of those functions in other apps?
A. Here’s an example. I belong to a professional organization called the Association of Internet Researchers, or AOIR. As you might expect, the AOIR membership is “extremely online” and there are several members who have been studying alternative social media for years. When Twitter started coming to pieces, my colleagues decided to form a Mastodon server for our community to use.
Today, there are just shy of 100 people active on the AOIR server. That might sound terribly small compared to a major commercial service like Twitter. But user numbers only tell part of the story. This server is operated, moderated and maintained by members of our community. (Full disclosure, I am one of the volunteer moderators.)
Decades of experience inform how this new space is being run. Only active members of AOIR can get an account. All users must agree to follow a code of conduct consistent with how we expect people to act at conferences or on the mailing list. It feels like a space that we own.
For now, I’m probably not going to go on there to live-tweet about the NBA Finals. It still feels like a workspace where I’m talking to other researchers. But because it’s there, I also don’t need to go to Twitter or Threads to talk about my work.
Q. Have you experimented with Bluesky? And what purposes could that serve in a new era of social media?
A. Yes, I’ve been playing with Bluesky, too. So far, Bluesky feels like more of the classic “weird” Twitter experience to me: real-time posts from strangers.
Bluesky is an experimental service that started as a Twitter spin-off. There are plans for Bluesky to grow into a network like Mastodon where anyone can run their own server but, for now, all of the users are together on one big platform.