How to 'debirdify': Are Post, Mastodon and other Twitter alternatives fit for purpose?
Dave Lee is a former BBC tech journalist and current San Francisco correspondent for the Financial Times. At the FT, Dave Lee primarily covers ecommerce and the gig economy. His main companies of interest are Amazon, Uber and Airbnb. He is also a regular contributor to FT Magazine, where he writes about the societal impacts of new technologies.
Watch the video of Dave’s talk
Read an automated transcript.
Part of our Global Journalism Seminars series.
Why Twitter (and its alternatives) matter to journalists
- Our recent Trends and Predictions report found most news leaders think that a world without Twitter would be bad for journalism.
- According to TechCrunch reporter Haje Kamps, journalists make up 25% of verified Twitter users.
- Twitter has been a useful resource for many journalists over the years, both as a tool to source stories and as a way of promoting them to a wider audience.
Five takeaways from Dave’s talk
1. The migration to Mastodon has been limited so far. “I think there's a group on Mastodon that if you ask them, they’d say this is just as good as Twitter. Everyone's here. Now we're all discussing. And I found that's true for perhaps people who work in cybersecurity or people who work in extremely online types of work. What we haven't seen yet in any meaningful way on any platform beyond Twitter are footballers or NBA stars or singers … While Twitter was built on techies and journalists, it's worth saying that the platform didn't become the influential thing it was until normal people started to join and started to understand it.”
Some influential groups haven’t joined Mastodon en masse yet, including celebrities and politicians. Dave also mentioned other missing cultural elements such as Black Twitter which has not yet moved over to Mastodon. Until a wider shift to Mastodon or any other social network happens, they cannot be called an alternative to Twitter, Dave said.
2. Mastodon is a friendlier space than Twitter for some discussions. Whereas Dave said he couldn’t imagine completely abandoning or boycotting Twitter yet, he did say that he has noticed he’s stepping back from the platform a bit, especially for some discussions. “I don't think I tweet as much or at least I don't tweet as much about things that have any sort of substance. For example, with the Elon Musk trial the other day, I was doing more commentary on Mastodon than I was on Twitter. Not so much as a boycott but just because Mastodon seemed like a friendlier, more useful outlet for that,” Dave said.
3. Social networks die slowly. After the initial panic following the Musk acquisition and the ensuing layoffs, things seem to have calmed down a bit at (and on) Twitter. Some people have decided to quit the app, but many remain and “engagement doesn’t seem to have suffered greatly,” according to Dave. However, this doesn’t mean Twitter is safe from decline. Like Facebook, it may fade away slowly.
“Unlike Twitter, nobody on Facebook declares they're leaving, people don't say, ‘I'm leaving Facebook, delete everything,’ they just stop using it. At no point did I say, ‘I'm stopping using Facebook today.’ But I can go weeks now without logging into the main app. The way that a social network dies isn't people quitting, it's just people not returning in that sort of muscle memory way. And I think Twitter could risk that happening, but that takes a lot longer to see. Arguably, that's been Facebook for the last three, maybe five years.”
4. The ‘new Twitter’ could still be on its way. Apart from Mastodon, there are other social networks starting up or in the development phase that work in a similar way to Twitter. One of them is Post.news, which Dave noted some people in the tech space are very excited about, but to him “doesn't feel anywhere near as alive as it needs to be for people to log in and stay there.” He mentioned other options being developed by teams of ex-Twitter staffers, such as Spill and T2.
“I was tweeting about some of these things yesterday. Then someone got in touch to remind me that Zoom was a creation of disgruntled WebEx employees that left after Cisco took over that video platform. They said, ‘To hell with this, we'll make our own’ and ended up being Zoom and that if anything should really remind people how possible it is for talented, skilled, nimble engineers to create a viable alternative. So whether any of the ones out there right now are the Zoom of Twitter, I don't know. But there are certainly some very talented people looking at it,” Dave said.
5. Developments in AI are opportunities rather than threats. New technologies like ChatGPT are not going to remove the need for journalists, but they do have the potential to make their jobs easier and quicker, Dave said. Reflecting on ChatGPT, he said: “I think it's fascinating, and I think we're going to need to learn how to use it in a responsible way. I do think there is a big application for journalists. I liked the idea that if you're rushing a story, and what you need at the bottom is just some context about something, you can just put in a few keywords and that context can be generated. Of course, the downside is that the context might be wrong. But that's only gonna get better. And one of the criticisms of ChatGPT is that it's built from so many sources, it's unreliable, but if you can apply the same technology, for instance, to just articles in the FT, when I write a story for the FT I know that the information is solid and can be trusted. I think the applications there are absolutely huge. I don't think it's putting anyone out of a job. I think it's changing the nature of jobs.”
The bottom line
We may be reaching a turning point for tech and social media. Among widespread layoffs, controversial acquisitions and new directions, it’s very hard to predict what’s to come. Will Twitter survive, or will it slowly fade away? Will any social media platform, new or old, be able to take its place? What will happen with new AI tools, and how will we use them? Journalists are reckoning with all these uncertainties, especially those on the tech beat.
However, given the strong presence of journalists on Twitter, and the ways we have used it to inform and spread our work, these issues are deeply relevant to all of us. As Dave said, no platform is a viable alternative to Twitter yet, but some are emerging as possibilities. Among those is Mastodon, not yet as widely used as Twitter, but already a space for discussion, especially among some professions. Dave is optimistic about the effect AI will have on journalism, but also highlights that we need to learn how to use it in an effective and ethical way.
If you want to know more…
- Read Dave’s pieces on the FT. | Read
- Take a look at our long read about the future of platforms and online free speech. | Read
- Find out how some newspapers are already using AI for their coverage. | Read
- Find out what media leaders think will happen with social media and AI in 2023 in our Trends and Predictions report. | Read