The Struggle for Twitter Alternatives

We're less than a week away from Twitter changing their rules for third party apps, changes that will fundamentally change how useful those apps will continue to be, and that can only mean one thing: it's time for Twitter alternatives to have their place in the sun!

The two main ones I see are Micro.blog and Mastodon. Micro.blog is the more popular one right now, it seems, but Mastodon has its fair share of loyal fans. I personally have accounts with both other services, but I don't really use them reliably. Mastodon because I can't find anyone on there, and Micro.blog because I don't like any of the iOS apps available for it.

I don't expect to move over to either of these as my main social network, but Twitter's latest waves of jack-assery has kickstarted the conversation again. There are a few problems with these other services, but the main thing is that they just haven't managed to get enough people to stick around and use them for long. People tend to try them and bounce off them pretty quickly. I know I have bounced off each of them numerous times.

Twitter's key advantage for me is that it just feels like the place everyone is talking. Basically everyone you want to hear from, whether they be celebrities, athletes, politicians, actors, writers, or regular old people, they're almost certainly on Twitter. Not only are they there, but they're active and use it as a one-stop-shop for talking about everything they're doing. If you're not on Twitter, you're cutting out a main place things are announced and talked about.

With these other services, I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything. Yeah, there's probably a lot of good people there, but I don't know those people, and it's almost impossible to figure out who is worth following. Again, since almost no one is there, you can't just type in someone's name and expect them to come up as a search result.

This leads you to following random accounts who you think may be interesting, but turn out to not be as interesting as you'd hoped. Or you follow the 5 people from Twitter you know on there and then realize they tweet more than they post at this other place, and anything important will go on Twitter too, so you don't see value there either.

App.Net was, I think, the closest we've come to a good Twitter alternative, and it came out back in 2012. It did basically everything Twitter did, but nicer. It had a decent web experience and a great selection of third party apps up and running within weeks of launch. And while it was a paid service (and maybe therefore doomed from the start), tons of people in the tech community went there and were having lively discussions. My App.Net feed was a joy to browse, and most of my Twitter friends were there. Oh yeah, and it was an app platform that let some devs build off their back end in interesting ways.

As mentioned, App.Net was doomed and just 2 years later it announced it was shutting down, but I still think it was the closest we've come to something being a real alternative to Twitter. Based on its short tenure, it certainly wasn't big as it needed to be, but personally I still loved it.

It's incredibly hard, and involves a good deal of luck, but if something is going to be a real Twitter successor/alternative, it needs to first and foremost find a way to get a critical mass of people using it. That can be a critical mass of a Twitter sub-culture, but it needs to be some group that moves in mass. App.Net get "Tech Twitter" to move, but it failed to get more than that (or to make them actually leave Twitter), but I don't see that happening with Micro.Blog or Mastodon yet. I don't know how you do that, but I think that's how you get the momentum.


I'd be remiss to not mention Slack or Discord here as well. Those services are good, but they are too insular to be a real threat to Twitter. You have to know someone on the inside to get in yourself, and there are so many versions/channels/servers for you to join it's hard to keep them all straight. They can be good for you and a couple dozen (hundred) of friends to stay in touch, but it's not great for a Twitter-style experience.

No One Wants to Buy Twitter

The Verge is reporting (via Financial Times) that Salesforce has backed off on trying to buy Twitter.

The emotional roller coaster that is Twitter’s future seems to have hit a new low today as Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff tells the Financial Times his company has “walked away” from making a bid to buy it.

It's so sad to me that a service that is not only loved by so many people, but essential to the way the world works in 2016 is having such trouble. I seriously do not know what I would do without Twitter. It's the one place I can go to talk to my friends, celebrities, athletes, and everyone in the media. It's the first thing I check in the morning and it's the last thing I read before going to sleep.

Yes, Facebook has many more users, but it's not the same as Twitter. It's great for interacting with people in my life, but it's woefully insufficient at letting me branch out and discover new people that are interesting.

Twitter is a public conversation that anyone with an internet connection can access. It's a modern marvel and I honestly believe to be one of the most brilliant communication tools created in the internet era. Yes, there are too many terrible people on there and they do make the experience horrendous for too many people, but even with that issue, Twitter is a beautiful thing and I'd be sad to see it go just because it's not making enough money.

In Defense of the Algorithmic Timeline

First it was Facebook, then it was Twitter, and just within the past week or two, it was Instagram. Social networks are abandoning the traditional chronological timeline, and it's rubbing some people the wrong way. There are tons of people who are intent on maintaining the unmodified "chron" where the oldest posts are at the bottom and the newest are at the top. I understand why people like this model, but I don't think it scares well nor does it work for how most people use social media. Allow me a few minutes of your time to defend the "algorithmic timeline" that is so derided by my fellow nerds.

Without talking specifics about how well a particular service does of showing me relevant content, let's just take a look at the concept of the algorithmic timeline with Twitter as an example. In the image at the top of this post, I have over 700 unread tweets. Some of them are things I want to see, but most are not that big of a deal if I miss them. Here's what the algorithmic timeline will do for me:

Out of the 700+ tweets that have come in since I was last on Twitter, maybe 15 of them are must-read tweets. I could spend 30 minutes scrolling through all 700 tweets, reading each one to make sure I don't miss anything good, and this is the experience suggested by those who like the chronological timeline.

Personally, I don't have the time or patience to read through that many tweets to filter out those 15 must-reads. With an algorithmic timeline, Twitter can analyze the 700 tweets that have hit my account since I last visited and collect those 15 great tweets right at the top so that I can get to the good stuff right away. Instead of 30 minutes scrolling my timeline, I could get the critical stuff in a minute or less.

This is a much better experience for both the user and for Twitter. It's better for me the user, because I get better content quicker than I did previously. If I just have 2 minutes on my phone when I'm waiting in line at the store, I will be able to make the most of that time.

At first glance it may seem worse for Twitter, since they want to drive engagement, and having someone spend 30 minutes scrolling through their timeline is better than letting them get most of the value in a minute or two. But in fact you will likely drive engagement up because people will have a more positive experience every time they log in because you're giving them better content up front. This positive kick will get you opening the app more often and scrolling past the "good stuff" because you want to see what else is available.

Of course all of this depends on there being a good algorithm to parse out what you want to see right away. I think Twitter does a good job of this with their "While You Were Away" feature that shows you 5-10 tweets that it thinks you would be the most likely to interact with. Their algorithm seems to be based on knowing what accounts you interact with the most, and displaying tweets from them that got more likes/retweets than average. It's a smart implementation, and I find myself replying to these tweets more than anything else in my timeline.

Not everybody agrees that this is the best way to go and they will tell you that an unmodified chronological timeline is the objectively better way to do things, but I think they're wrong. As long as they're able to do it well, I want my social networks to curate the best stuff for me. I don't have the time to obsessively curate my following list to have exactly the right number of posts in my timelines every time, and I'm not going to spend all day reading every damn post in the timeline of each app on my phone.