On 1 July, Twitter made the decision to limit the number of tweets users can see in a day. This was the latest in a series of decisions that has spurred millions of users to sign up with alternative microblogging platforms since Elon Musk acquired Twitter last year.
Surge in Alternative Platforms
In addition to a surge in numbers on Mastodon, the acquisition and subsequent changes boosted small existing platforms like Hive Social and spawned brand new upstarts like Spoutible and Spill. Most recently, the microblogging platform backed by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, Bluesky, saw a surge of sign-ups in the days following Twitter’s rate limit. Meta launched its microblogging platform Threads on 5 July, claiming 30 million users on its first day. Even very different forms of social media such as TikTok are benefiting from what many see as Twitter’s imminent demise.
Turmoil at Twitter
As an information scientist who studies online communities, this feels like something I’ve seen before. Social media platforms tend not to last forever. Depending on your age and online habits, there’s probably some platform that you miss, even if it still exists in some form. Think of MySpace, LiveJournal, Google+ and Vine. When social media platforms fall, sometimes the online communities that made their homes there fade away, and sometimes they pack their bags and relocate to a new home. The turmoil at Twitter is causing many of the company’s users to consider leaving the platform.
Research on Platform Migrations
Research on previous social media platform migrations shows what might lie ahead for Twitter users who fly the coop. Several years ago, a research project led by Brianna Dym (now at University of Maine in the US) mapped the platform migrations of nearly 2 000 people over a period of almost two decades. The community examined was transformative fandom – fans of literary and popular culture series and franchises who create art using those characters and settings.
Slow Death of Platforms
Regardless of how many people ultimately decide to leave Twitter, creating a community on another platform is an uphill battle. These migrations are driven by network effects – the value of a new platform depends on who else is there. In the critical early stages of migration, people must coordinate with each other to encourage contribution on the new platform. This is difficult to do and can become a “game of chicken” where no one wants to leave until their friends leave. For this reason, the “death” of a platform tends to be a slow, gradual process.
Twitter’s Content Moderation
The current push from some corners to leave Twitter is reminiscent of Tumblr’s adult content ban in 2018 and LiveJournal’s policy changes and new ownership in 2007. People who left LiveJournal in favor of other platforms like Tumblr described feeling unwelcome there. Though Elon Musk did not turn a virtual content moderation lever into the “off” position when he acquired Twitter, there was an uptick in hate speech on the platform. Some users felt emboldened to violate the platform’s content policies under an assumption that major policy changes were on the way.
What Makes Twitter Unique
What makes Twitter unique isn’t the technology, it’s the particular configuration of interactions that takes place there. There is essentially zero chance that Twitter, as it exists now, could be reconstituted on another platform. Any migration is likely to face many of the challenges previous platform migrations have faced: content loss, fragmented communities, broken social networks and shifted community norms.
Twitter’s Many Communities
Twitter isn’t one community, it’s a collection of many communities, each with its own norms and motivations. Some communities might be able to migrate more successfully than others. For example, K-Pop Twitter could coordinate a move to Tumblr and academic Twitter could coordinate a move to Mastodon. Other communities might already simultaneously exist on Discord servers and subreddits and can just let participation on Twitter fade away. However, migrations always have a cost and even for smaller communities, some people will get lost along the way.
Research has pointed to design recommendations for supporting migration and how one platform might take advantage of attrition from another platform. Cross-posting features can be important because many people hedge their bets by sharing the same content on both platforms. Ways to import networks from another platform also help to maintain communities. For example, there are multiple ways to find people you follow on Twitter on Mastodon. Even simple welcome messages, guides for newcomers and easy ways to find other migrants could make a difference in helping resettlement attempts stick.
In this sense, Threads has an advantage over other Twitter alternatives because users sign up via their Instagram accounts. This means Threads’ social graph – who follows who – is bootstrapped by links among Instagram accounts. Users may not be able to easily bring over their communities from Twitter, but they can instantly pull follows and followers from Instagram.
The Difficulty of Leaving a Platform
It’s important to remember that leaving a platform is difficult by design. Platforms have no incentive to help users leave. As technology journalist Cory Doctorow recently wrote, this is “a hostage situation”. Social media lures people in with their friends, and then the threat of losing those social networks keeps people on the platforms. But even if there is a price to pay for leaving a platform, communities can be incredibly resilient.