Twitter has always driven more clicks to my crowdfunded projects than any other social media site. So launching a Crowdfundr campaign for my 35mm Love Letter book this month as Twitter ran through several stages of its slow-motion collapse was a bit harrowing, to say the least. But my pain may be your gain, because I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time on nearly every viable Twitter alternative, and I have some opinions to share!
Before we plunge in, here are a few personal pointers for social media usage that seem particularly relevant right now, since Twitter’s grip on privacy and safety may be slipping and the reliability of new services remains untested.
- Don’t give any social media site your credit card info.
- Don’t use direct messages for anything sensitive and assume that any DM might get revealed to the general public. (I’m not using them at all on most of these new sites.)
- Assume that anything you post may be preserved forever by someone. Also assume that anything you post may be lost forever if the service goes under.
- Be aware that many newer social media services have tiny or non-existent safety and moderation teams and proceed or not according to your personal comfort levels.
I should also note that since Twitter began its decline, I’ve spent a lot less time there, and my mental health is the better for it. Many of these social media sites are designed to maximize clicks, but have traditionally done a bad job of distinguishing between positive and negative engagement. So they’ve frequently amplified our worst tendencies, which creates a stream of bad vibes that isn’t good for my heart and brain to marinate in all day. A significant part of my business relies on social media, and I treasure the positive experiences I’ve had and friendships I’ve made there. But less social media in general seems like a good idea. For those of us who can’t log off entirely for personal or business reasons, Twitter seems likely to get even worse as disseminator of bad vibes, so finding alternatives feels especially urgent.
The Essential Functions I’m Looking For
I’ve used Twitter for the last 12 years for hobnobbing with comics industry colleagues, learning new things from folks from many different backgrounds, spreading the word about and raising money for causes and organizations important to me, plugging my books, and encouraging folks to back my crowdfunded independent publishing projects. I think Twitter has been uniquely effective in all of those things for several key reasons:
- Critical mass of users. Twitter has been the primary place where my colleagues and readers congregate online, which means I’ve always gotten more shares and clicks from Twitter than from any other social media site.
- Text-based social media. Yes, I make comics. Yes, I’m a filmmaker and photographer. But I’m primarily a writer, and a primarily text-based social network like Twitter just makes sense to me and lets me shine.
- Live links in posts. If I’m plugging something on Twitter, I can post a link and people can click to it instantly. Instagram doesn’t have live links, so you have to nudge people to check out the link in your bio, which means there’s an extra step involved and clicks drop off drastically.
- Quote-tweeting. Twitter’s quote tweet function means that friends and supporters can add a little personal note to their retweet of your links, which can be critical in getting their supporters to actually click.
- Threading of posts. Creating a sense of drama and timeliness is key to plugging a crowdfunding campaign. When building up to a key goal or deadline, Twitter threads create a linked timeline that’s much more effective in creating real-time excitement than separate, unlinked posts.
- Desktop functionality. I’m a myopic Gen-Xer, so I hate typing on my phone. And when plugging my projects, I need to manipulate photos and links and chunks of text quickly, which I can do more easily on a laptop than a phone. So a service that’s designed primarily for mobile is less useful to me than a service that works on my computers as well.
- Chronological timeline. If you toggle Twitter to “Latest Tweets,” you get a reverse chronological timeline, with the latest posts first. That’s critical for anyone trying to reach people about time-sensitive events or projects or for anyone trying to find out about breaking news.
An ideal Twitter alternative would incorporate all of the above features. Do any come close? Let’s see!
You’d think that an image-sharing site like Instagram would feel like second nature for a comics creator and photographer. But the site’s never felt comfortable to me. I’ll keep plugging away there since so many folks use it and I’ve got more followers there than anywhere but Twitter, but by intentional design, Instagram doesn’t provide direct links in posts to external sites, which makes it far less useful for my purposes.
- It’s established and popular and is a relatively known quantity when it comes to privacy, moderation, and safety.
- The site is mainstream and easy enough to use that you don’t have to be a tech expert to manage it, so it’s got the biggest user base of any of these non-Twitter sites.
- Instagram doesn’t display comics pages or vertical 35mm film images in their native ratios. So you have to dump vertical images into a template and add bars on either side to show them in their entirety on Instagram, and that’s very often a step too much for someone (me) who’s not getting paid to post.
- Instagram deactivates links in posts, so to plug a project you’re working on, you have to point people to the link in your bio. But on the internet, the vast majority of people don’t click through. So having to click through twice means only a tiny fraction of a fraction of Instagram users will actually reach whatever page you’re plugging.
- Instagram subjects your feed to aggressive algorithms, showing you what it wants you to see instead of just displaying posts from the people you follow in chronological order. So I’ll often see a friend’s post plugging an event the day after the event happened. At first that just struck me as goofy; now I’m actually offended by it. It feels like an insult to prevent grown adults from reaching each other in a rational, efficient, timely way.
Once upon a time, Tumblr was huge for the mainstream comics community. Major Marvel and DC creators pointed their personal URLs to their Tumblr pages, using the service to power their main websites. I didn’t make that much use of the site and deleted my own Tumblr page back in the day because I couldn’t turn off direct messaging from the general public, which felt like a privacy and security hole. But when Tumblr introduced a setting to enable messages only from blogs I followed, I created a new account and now have about 1,500 followers there. But I still don’t use it that much!
- The timeline seems chronological.
- The links in posts are live.
- There’s been an uptick in users and interactions on the site since Twitter began to crater.
- The folks who run Tumblr seem like a lot of fun and have run some delightfully trolly campaigns to lure folks back to the service during Twitter’s decline.
- I’ve always been confused by the way comments and shares and likes are all jumbled together at the bottom of Tumblr posts. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it very hard to follow a conversation there.
- I’ve never really gotten much traction on Tumblr. My Kickstarters barely showed any click-through from my Tumblr posts. Maybe it’s just because I’ve never posted there that often. Maybe I should just post more? But it may also be a Tumblr culture thing — my particular kinds of projects may not be best suited for the site and its users.
- I’ve seen a number of comics folks starting or reactivating their Tumblr accounts in the last few weeks, but the site doesn’t feel like an active hub at the moment for the comics creators and readers I’m trying to reach.
I joined Mastodon back in 2017 when Twitter’s failure to handle multiple big cases of harassment inspired a bunch of folks to look for alternatives. Mastodon made a lot of sense to me as a primarily text-based social network that looked a lot like TweetDeck, a Twitter client I’d occasionally used. And right now, I’m having more actual fun and seeing more engagement on Mastodon than any of the other Twitter alternatives. But then and now, Mastodon’s biggest virtue is also its biggest drawback.
Mastodon is part of what’s called a federated system, meaning there’s no central Mastodon social network. Instead, when you join Mastodon, you’re actually joining a single incidence of Mastodon run by someone on their private server. You can generally follow and be followed by folks on other servers, so it’s possible to kind of ignore the separate server situation and use Mastodon like Twitter to follow your individual friends, wherever they may be. But the choice of a server matters, because there are no universal moderation and privacy policies or safety teams. Each server handles those things itself.
Some folks see that as a huge advantage — a billionaire can’t buy out the entire service and arbitrarily change all the rules, for example. But the disadvantage is that the quality of the moderation, privacy, and safety enforcement on any server depends on the private individuals running that server. In fact, those individuals could choose to shut their server down completely overnight, causing all your posts and connections to vanish. So there’s a bit of impermanence to the system that’s troubling. I semi-solved that by joining the server that’s run by the main developer of the Mastodon software; I figure that server will be around as long as the software exists. But I’ve seen some folks talking about having issues with moderation on that server. One good thing is that you can switch your server and take your following and followers lists with you (but not your past posts, apparently). So in the long run I have the option of switching servers if I need to. It’s all a lot to wrap your head around! But Mastodon has some pretty key advantages at the moment.
- Primarily text-based, which is nice for someone who was comfortable on Twitter.
- Chronological feed, no algorithm, threading enabled. It functions more like Twitter than Instagram or any of the other current alternatives, which is a good thing in my book.
- Default web presentation is familiar for anyone who liked Tweetdeck. There are also decent iOS apps that make the interface more Twitter-like.
- Since Twitter began its slow decline, user interaction on Mastodon has gone way up for me. I have just 3,700 followers on Mastodon versus 51,000 followers on Twitter. But a post on Mastodon will often get roughly the same or even more likes or comments as the same post on Twitter. The place feels pretty populated, with something new and interesting on my feed every time I log in.
- Great for analog film nerds like me. There’s been a big influx of film photographers on Mastodon who post under the #BelieveInFilm hashtag, and that’s been a huge pleasure. There’s also a comics community slowly forming. The great Steve Lieber is a fantastic follow on Mastodon if you’re interested in comics.
- The effort to wrap your head around the federated system and pick a server is a big disincentive for mass adoption. Thousands of new users are nonetheless signing up for the service every week. But unless/until it becomes a bit simpler, it seems unlikely to achieve the same mass reach as Twitter.
- The federated system means that folks are joining individual servers that may not have the capacity or interest in providing the moderation, privacy, and safety support that users expect.
- There’s no quote tweeting on Mastodon, which may or may not be a disadvantage depending on your perspective. No quote tweeting limits others from personalizing their boosts of my crowdfunding projects, for example, but it also limits quote tweet dunking that can lead to context collapse and harassment. Then again, that might seem to be a disadvantage because it also limits accountability for big accounts that say ridiculous things. I’m not a big quote tweet dunker, so it’s not a big issue for me personally, but I understand the critique.
Username “gregpak” on the Hive Social app
Over a three day period a couple of weeks ago, it seemed that the entire Star Wars creator and fan community decided to open accounts on the Hive Social mobile app, which opened the floodgates for the comics community to move in. And for a glorious week or so, Hive really became a hive for pretty delightful nerdy hijinks. But then folks discovered major security issues and the whole service shut down for a few weeks — which felt like a decade in The-Last-Days-of-Twitter era — and since the service has returned, engagement seems much lower. Given how many comics creators signed up for Hive, I’m really rooting for its success. But it’s absolutely a work-in-progress and it’s important to be aware of its issues.
- A fresh, friendly, familiar interface that feels like a more text-and-link-friendly version of Instagram. (Yes, links are live.)
- A massive influx of comics people made the place feel active and fun for a while — and that vibe could return if users felt the incentive to post more.
- Unlike Instagram, Hive displays vertical images in their native ratios and thus doesn’t require an extra step of optimizing with clunky templates.
- According to a November interview, Hive is run by literally three people and does not appear to have dedicated moderation or privacy teams. The app has “Block” and “Report” buttons. But I’d love to hear more from the developers about what they’re doing to ensure user safety.
- Hive only runs natively on mobile. That’s a huge disadvantage to users like me who prefer to work on laptops or desktops. You can actually download and open the iOS version of Hive on the more modern Macs. But it pops up as a small iPhone-shaped-and-sized screen and it’s not much fun to operate. It also no longer works for me on the Mac after the most recent Hive updates.
- You can’t thread posts on Hive. Instead, each post is like a blog post with its own little comment section. That limits real-time live-posting, sharing, and conversation.
- With no web presence, Hive provides no direct links to Hive posts, which makes the service more insular than it could be and complicates archiving. Jamie Zawinski regards this lack of interoperability as a fatal flaw and his post is worth reading.
- To post images on Hive via an iPhone, you have to import your media into the Photos app — you can’t post from Dropbox, for example. That’s added friction that makes posting more time-consuming, which is annoying for a non-paid poster like me.
- Hive hasn’t yet added alt-text for images, which is a minus for accessibility.
- The Hive app is being updated and improved every week and many of the disadvantages listed above should be addressed in time, but it remains a bit buggy at the moment.
Like Instagram and Hive, Post works like a stripped-down blog, with each entry having its own little comment section. So there’s no threading and less open conversation. But the real drag on the service for me is that its biggest users right now seem to be journalists, news organizations, and semi-famous-to-famous celebrity activists. This is no knock on those folks personally! But the vibe of the site feels more formal than fun for me right now, as if everyone’s account is a semi-respectable blog with crafted mini-essays instead of off-the-cuff tweets. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — I like well-written blogs! The bigger issue is that I haven’t found much of a comics or camera community on Post, so the experience feels thin to me.
I registered for Cohost back in early November but just got approved to actually post this last week. I can’t say that much about the site because I’m not following enough people — but I’m not following enough people because of what feels like a major flaw in the system for me. Cohost doesn’t publicly display users’ followers or following lists, which means I can’t browse my friends’ following lists to find familiar names to follow, which is usually the first thing I do when I sign up for any social media service. I understand that could be a big bonus for some folks for privacy reasons, but it makes the site largely unusable for me at the moment. I can tell that that Cohost is built like Instagram, Post, and Hive as a microblogging site with individual posts with their own comment sections. I can’t yet say anything about how well it works because there’s very little for me to see or interact with right now.
PROJECT MUSHROOM AND SPORE
I was excited to see Eric Holthaus’s announcement of Project Mushroom as a new social media site for climate activists and other progressively inclined folks. I was a touch less excited when I learned it would basically be a new Mastodon server. But I still backed the Kickstarter and joined because I loved the promise of an active, paid moderation team, which feels absolutely essential for the long term success of any Twitter alternative.
Then I heard that there would be a second Project-Mushroom-related Mastodon server called Spore, which confused me. Ultimately, I’ve learned that the Project Mushroom server will be a walled garden wherein only folks who are signed up for Project Mushroom can see and follow you. Spore, on the other hand, is a public server, meaning folks outside of the server can see your posts and you can follow and be followed by folks on non-Spore and non-Project Mushroom servers.
Yes, this is all a bit much to take in! No, I don’t really want two Mastodon accounts from one organization! And yet I remain intrigued by and am rooting for Project Mastodon/Spore because of the promise of paid moderation.
Have I used Project Mastodon and Spore? Barely! Functionally, they’re pretty much just like my main Mastodon account, so that’s comfortable enough. But as with Cohost, I don’t have a big enough follow list on the sites for the experience to feel substantial to me yet. But I’m keeping a very interested eye on them. Ultimately, if I’m uncomfortable with moderation on my current Mastodon host, I could imagine up moving my main Mastodon account over to Spore to take advantage of the paid moderation.
I can’t actually review Spoutible because it hasn’t launched yet. But I’m awaiting Christopher Bouzy’s new social media site with great anticipation. Bouzy runs Bot Sentinel, so he’s well acquainted with questions of moderation, safety, and harassment on social media and is presumably building Spoutible accordingly. I’ve preregistered for the service and look forward to testing it when it launches next month.
During the course of the 35mm Love Letter campaign, Twitter still brought in the most clicks for me — huge thanks to everyone who shared and backed! But engagement on Twitter felt several ticks lower in comparison to my previous crowdfunding campaigns. That’s partly because I was running the campaign between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is a ridiculous time to try to get folks’ attention. But I think it’s also because a decent number of my comics and book friends have deleted their Twitter accounts or simply backed away from the site, which meant fewer eyeballs on my posts and fewer shares.
So I was very happy to have a presence on other sites that could give me additional places to plug the project. Both Mastodon and Hive moved the needle in terms of reaching people and getting folks to actually back. I had about 3,600 followers on Mastodon at the time and had made some friends in the #BelieveInFilm community there, which helped a lot. Hive went down a couple of days before I launched and only came back on the second to last day of the campaign, but friends in the comics community shared my posts and I got some clicks and backers as a result.
I can’t quite tell how much of an impact Instagram had on the campaign, but I know a number of friends shared my posts in their stories. I may have more “civilian” friends from outside the comics community on Instagram than anywhere else, and I suspect that many of them found out about the project there. I have no idea what Tumblr or Post or Project Mushroom did for the campaign. But I was happy to post there, because you never know when or where someone will take notice and finally make the critical clicks.
But to answer my question at the outset, none of the Twitter alternatives I’m trying out feels like a true Twitter replacement. Overall, Mastodon is the most fun place for me to hang out and post — there just seems to be more interaction there than on other sites and the interface has the most Twitter-like features. But each of these alternatives is missing certain features or qualities that prevent it from becoming a new mass public square.
Still, I could see a number of these services becoming great places to reach certain communities. Mastodon felt like a great place to reach analog film photographers; Hive felt like a decent place for comics creators and readers. That’s encouraging — niche marketing is fantastic for indie crowdfunding projects, and I’d be thrilled to have reliable places to reach different communities.
Sadly, that’s also an exhausting future to imagine for indie creators. We’re already overwhelmed by the responsibility to be our own publicists and marketers. Having to cobble together followings on a bunch of Twitter alternatives to keep reaching different segments of our audiences sounds really tiring, particularly since it’s unclear which of the current sites will survive more than a year or two.
I’ve always been a HUGE believer in email newsletters and blogs and personal websites. Again, it’s a lot of work, but it feels essential to me as an independent creator to maintain a website and newsletter that don’t depend on other people’s platforms, websites, or services. And my newsletter and the mailing lists I’ve built through my various Kickstarter projects over the years were critical in getting word out about 35mm Love Letter. But a newsletter by itself doesn’t generate the kind of ongoing excitement in real time that a crowdfunding project really needs. Social media, for better or for worse, remains essential for getting the word out and building participatory urgency and drama.
So as Twitter continues to fragment, I’ll keep trying out these social media alternatives and see what’s what. And if no new overall town square arises, I’ll have to figure out what little separate neighborhoods I need to connect with and build up separate little home bases in those distinct places.
Best wishes to every other creator or organizer or activist struggling with the same problems. Here’s hoping this article has been helpful, and if you have any insights to share, please feel free to let me know on Mastodon!