Nazis, manosphere weirdos, dirtbag “left” trolls, ambiguous terms of service, cakes that look like people…For all its utility, Twitter has never not been a hell site. Under Elon Musk, though, things are getting undeniably worse. Seemingly every day, a new Nazi gets his account back, even as Musk issues orders to suspend accounts working to hold Nazis accountable. Newly lax restrictions on covid disinformation mean our feeds are once again flooded with anti-vaxx conspiracy theories. Crypto spam worsens by the hour. And just when it seems like the Mad King of Twitter has slowed his roll on implementing bad policies, he pulls out a new horror. The latest travesty: the reinstatement of Hitler-loving far right troll Nick Fuentes.
As the website degrades—not just culturally but infrastructurally—those of us who have made it our internet home find ourselves faced with a difficult dilemma: Where do we go?
As someone who often documents Nazi bullshit online, I’ve watched Musk boot other antifascist researchers from Twitter and read the writing on the wall. Sooner or later, I’m going to get the boot, too—I figured I might as well take the plunge and start exploring the two leading contenders for best Twitter alternatives, Mastodon and Post. And now that the first wave of Twitter exiles has settled in, it’s a good time to assess the vibes of each.
So, without further ado:
Mastodon—currently the most well-known contender for Next Site After Twitter—seems intimidating at first glance, but is actually pretty simple to use after sign-up.
The first thing to know: Mastodon isn’t just one site. Mastodon itself is a communication software platform, like email. Any website can run it, and those website’s users can talk to anyone on any other website running it (well, sort of—more on that in a second). Each website running the platform is called an instance, and each instance has its own rules for the community of users that make it their home. This makes things more than a little complicated, especially on sign up.
Which brings us to our first con:
It’s not actually difficult to sign up for Mastodon. You go to joinmastodon.org, pick an instance, and follow a few simple steps. What instance do you join, though? It feels like you’re being asked to make a really big commitment with zero information about who you’re committing to. For this reason, a lot of would-be users give up before even creating an account.
In reality, it doesn’t actually matter all that much. To get listed on joinmastodon.org, instance owners have to commit to a few basic but important agreements. The most important of these: no sudden shutdowns, and no permitting bigotry. Basically, you can throw a dart at the instance list and you’ll almost certainly be fine. If your new instance feels off, though, you can always transfer your account to another one. Your old posts won’t travel with you, but any followers you pick up will.
But at the end of the day, joining Mastodon just feels confusing and stressful. Which is a shame because…
I’m trying to stay as unbiased here as possible, but I can’t lie: Mastodon gives me a giant anarchist nerd boner.
Mastodon offers a relatively easy way to participate in a social network that’s truly decentralized, out of the control of corporations (or anyone), and yet somehow still offers a workable solution for social media’s other big problem: those fucking Nazis. The genius of Mastodon is that instances can ban each other. If some sieg heiling douche decides to set up a server that welcomes Nazis, all the other instance administrators can decide to block that Nazi instance—and with it, all of that instance’s Nazi users. The Nazis on that instance get their own space, sure—but once that instance is blocked, they can’t communicate with users on any of the other instances.
Since there’s no central authority governing the interconnected web of instances, there are no official rules for the entire network. But Mastodon users operate their own alert system, replying to abusive trolls with the hashtag #fediblock to notify each other (“fedi” is short for “fediverse,” the decentralized network on which linked Mastodon sites run). Instances that tolerate hate speech very quickly find themselves blocked from the rest of the network. The cherry on top is, users can personally ban entire instances from their feed, too. Imagine if every Nazi you encountered on Twitter had a “block all this chud’s friends” button next to their name.
If that sounds too good to be true, think again. I’m an antifascist researcher regularly targeted by Nazis, and I’ve got 8.4k followers on Mastodon at last count. I’ve encountered a total of three Nazi trolls since I started using the platform a month ago. It works.
So Musk decides that you are [something ridiculous that he considers evil] and you finally decide it’s time to seek out new shores. You run the joinmastodon.org gauntlet, find your instance, follow some people. It’s time to say hi!
What are you going to talk about? Well, probably what brought you here in the first place: the trash fire that is Twitter under Musk.
The Masto Bros are very excited that you’re here. They’ve been waiting a long time for you to see the light, young lady. For, you see, they are the noble prophets who exited Babylon long ago. “I was on Twitter once,” these extremely white and extremely dude-ish dudes will tell you, a woman who has spent in excess of five minutes on Twitter. “I left because people were toxic.”
As it happens, Nazis are CURRENTLY in the mentions of your not-yet-deactivated Twitter account speculating about the racial parenthood of your child and the exact circumference of your vagina, so you might think you have a pretty good handle on Twitter toxicity. Masto Bros, however, will assure you that you do not. After all, someone on Twitter once pointed out their Game of Thrones slash fic was a smidge racist, so you should sit down and let them explain what’s wrong with Twitter to you, sweetheart. They’ve seen some shit.
Will Mastodon be the next big thing, or will it remain a niche network for a relatively small community? There’s no telling. Ultimately, relatively few people are going to use a social network if the people they want to follow and socialize with aren’t there. What happens next on Mastodon will hinge on whether Musk continues to fuel an exodus—and whether marginalized communities are successful in their struggle to carve out space on a platform still rife with tone policing and white mansplaining.
Confusing to join and dominated by a culture that currently veers a bit white dude mansplain-y, Mastodon isn’t a perfect substitute for Twitter. With enough of an influx of Twitter’s diverse user base, however, Masto could be everything that Twitter was, and more. What’s more, its ability to allow users themselves to manage and systematically isolate Nazis from the network could revolutionize social media and curb hate speech on a massive scale. If Mastodon takes off, it could be the future. That’s a big if.
Where Mastodon’s structure is byzantine, Post’s is simple. Like most popular social media platforms, it’s a single, corporate-owned website with “civility” as its watchword. Rushed to early beta launch during the height of Musk’s Twitter misadventures, Post is a Twitter clone that has looks going for it and currently not much else—most especially in the content department. As its founder Noam Bardin wrote in November, “1,000 people are all on the same feed and see the same thing. As you can imagine, that’s a lot of cat and dog pictures.”
Not much has changed since then.
Logging into Post after years on Twitter feels calming. Serene, even. Compared to most popular social media platforms, it is startlingly spare. Soft gray oceans of space surround a central column of well-padded cells. The text is soothingly large, the images accompanying them outsized. You could do yoga to the tune of this interface.
Post doesn’t have a character of the day. There are no flamewars, no drama. There’s nary a Nazi, far as the eye can see (so far, anyway).
In other words...
Scroll as you might, all you’re likely to find are pictures of cats, articles about choosing the best cheese for your cheese sandwich, some news headlines, and perhaps a feel-good meme about what a great job Biden is doing. In contrast to Twitter’s feed, you aren’t served replies alongside original posts in the site’s timeline. As a consequence, the site feels less like a place of dialogue than one of micro-monologue, each post sitting in dreamy isolation. A quote-tweet functionality exists, but users utilize it more to co-sign than to critique.
It has the soul of LinkedIn on Xanax, and the aesthetics of Facebook after a lobotomy.
Post couldn’t offer a more anodyne content stream, which shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone familiar with how Bardin relentlessly marketed it as a “civil” alternative to Twitter (though his exact definition of the term remains unclear). He’s certainly succeeded in creating a platform with a culture of niceness. Unfortunately for him, all that polite positivity is a bit yawn-inducing.
For all its flaws, Post is…not Twitter. Which is nice.
Founded by a former CEO and funded by crypto enthusiast (and heavy Musk-era Twitter investor) Marc Andreessen, this is a platform dedicated to comforting the comfortable. So billionaire-friendly is Post that Bardin made sure to explicitly include protections for the rich in his detailing of who would be looked out for on this platform: “We believe that all humans are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights that include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of their gender, religion, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, net worth, or beliefs…If you do not agree with this principle, Post is not for you.” (Emphasis mine.)
In other words, Bernie Sanders probably won’t be signing up anytime soon.
Not included in that list of protected classes? The disabled. It’s a particularly glaring omission in light of the fact that Bardin also openly volunteered that Post would deprioritize accessibility in his rush to exit beta: “We are not focused on things like dark mode, iOS/Android apps, DM’s, private accounts, power user tools (managing large follower base), activity pub, accessibility, video…etc.”
Given that Twitter is an important hub for disabled folks—especially during the pandemic, which has isolated many of those suffering autoimmune disorders—this open disregard for the needs of the disabled community is not only deeply problematic, but a material hurdle the platform will have to clear if it wants to appeal to one of Twitter’s power user bases.
Post is pretty, and that’s pretty much it. Bardin originally blamed the site’s tepid discourse on its beta status, arguing that interesting conversation would take off once the network eliminated its waitlist and became open to the general public. With the list gone and the site fully live, well… there are still a lot of cat pictures and not all that much else. Given Bardin’s commitment to a vague “civility” standard that sounds suspiciously tone police-y, though, it’s hard to imagine Post will ever be much more exciting than a plain bowl of oatmeal. For some, that may appeal, but Twitter enthusiasts don’t crave this particular flavor of bland.
Post is pretty, and also pretty boring. Mastodon is promising and free from corporate rule, but also a bit unwieldy. Both need some serious culture fixes to appeal to marginalized communities. But at the end of the day, Mastodon is the platform with real transformative potential. While Post will be another corporate platform run on the whims of yet another rich white guy, Mastodon is a network made by and for users. Will Mastodon’s already-sizeable pool of users rise to the occasion and use this moment to make their platform a viable home for the many communities considering flight from Twitter? I hope so. But only time will tell.
Gwen Snyder (she/they) is a Philadelphia-based researcher, organizer, and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @gwensnyderphl.