By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Readers, I am extremely online — and have been for [counts] some decades, many hours a day — but most of my recent online activity has focused on gathering links for the two aggregations I produce: Links and Water Cooler. Recently, I missed an important link to a nasal vaccine for Covid, I’m guessing because Twitter just isn’t what it used to be; no doubt an account I used to follow, that would have highlighted the article, has gone dark. That means to me that I need better tools. So the sole purpose of this post is to evaluate new tools for my aggregation toolbox — and perhaps you, dear readers, will have suggestions. It is, after all, a big Internet.
For clarity, this post is not about most topics that come under the heading of “social media.” Out of scope are why the Lords of Silicon Valley won’t let their own children use iPads, the dopamine loop, and doomscrolling (though I confess the enormous amount of reading condensed into an aggregation feels like doomscrolling, and there are good reasons for that). Nor will I discuss the algo, influencers, virality, dating apps, the coming of AI bots, content moderation, or the Censorship Industrial Complex (except in relation to “The Twitter Files”).
In this post, I’ll focus first on Twitter. Then I’ll ramble through the Intertubes seeking an adequate replacement, since Twitter had become absolutely essential to my workflow (and hence to your reading pleasure).
In Twitter’s heyday — say, from 2015, when quote tweets were introduced, through 2022, when Elon Musk purchased it — it was almost as good as the blogosphere, if you could stand reading clumsily linked and often broken Tweet threads as opposed to real posts. Twitter was (and even today is) an amazing platform for that reason alone, and even more amazing since it never coined money the way other social media platforms did, or had their readership. (For many in the Global South, “the Internet” is [cough, spew] Facebook.) As I wrote:
I realize there are some Twitter h8ers round and about, so let me explain I use the platform in my workflow, since that directly benefits not only me personally, but you, dear reader, as well:
As a sidebar, let me confess at the outset that I am a dedicated Twitter user. I curate what I read very carefully, and reject Twitter’s frequent offers to let their algorithm take over my feed. I inhabit various quiet neighborhoods that are important to me; photography, among other things. Twitter also makes finding Antidotes for Links a breeze, much easier than it was, pre-Twitter. Further, there is no better way to follow breaking news (especially with a properly curated feed). I could never have followed the twists and turns of the Covid epic without Twitter, and that very much includes the science. (It’s not easy to make a complex technical argument in a series of tweets, but some have mastered the form; not as well as a blog can, but still not badly.) In short, Twitter does a lot to make my real life, and especially my work life, more productive (and more pleasurable, because I discover things I never would have discovered otherwise). And all for free! Not a bad deal, the sort of deal a decent public utility should offer. End sidebar.
Here is the essential fact about Twitter: Twitter is a universal address space. At least until this weekend, Twitter was a social graph where every user — not merely logged-in account, but user — is one degree of separation away from every other user. If I want to go find some idiotic eugenicist statement from Rochelle Walensky, I can do so with a search, logged in or not. (If I want to call Walensky a eugenicist, I must log in, but that seems only fair, and I can still do it.) Further, through embeds, Twitter’s graph extends outside the platform, which is why you see Tweets quoted everywhere. Twitter’s universal, open address space is in great contrast to the “walled gardens” of other platforms, especially The Zuckerberg™’s evil and decaying Facebook.
Many valuable use cases flow from Twitter’s universal address space. Twitter is ideal for public service announcements like emergency services and information about the weather. Twitter is ideal for breaking news, as users spontaneously coalesce around threads following the event. Twitter is ideal for public collaboration across geographic and institutional barriers; I am 100% convinced that the aerosol scientists would not have been able to take it the droplet dogmatists and win the day on the science without Twitter; the same goes for mask users and the Covid-conscious.
Since Elon Musk took over, Twitter hasn’t been what I would call stable. Musk did perform a genuine act of public service by releasing “The Twitter Files,” which cast light on the operations of the Censorship Industrial Complex. (And for his fellow squillionaires, Musk showed that a large social media firm could function without supernumeraries; many of them followed suit by slashing headcount MR SUBLIMINAL Those labor aristocrats needed a union! Between the X rebranding, charging for “Blue Checks”, experimenting with charging for basic features, paying creators, throttling creators, and removing headlines from news tweets (!!), I can only characterize Musk’s leadership as somewhere between wildly experimental and erratic. For all these reasons, the quality of my timeline has deteriorated.
Sadly, my universal address space is gone. So I’ve been looking for different ways to aggregate links (and once again, readers, if you have suggestions, please leave them in comments).
Alphabet’s properties, Google News and YouTube, are just laughably bad (besides being contaminated by a company whose motto became “be evil after all”). Google News depends on Google search, so forget it. It’s also
censored fact-checked by “Full Fact,” among others, “sponsored to develop automated fact-checking tools by the Omidyar Network and Open Society Foundations.” YouTube’s search function is the worst I’ve ever used, bar none, so forget it, too. (At its height, Twitter’s search function was more useful than Google’s, because the content produced by Twitter accounts was focused, topical, and current. Oh well.)
Tyrell Corporation’s The Zuckerberg™’s properties I rule out a priori as corrupt and repellent. In any case, Meta (Faceborg) won’t let me log in or get a new account (presumably deducing my identity from software properties of my device(s), like fonts). So that mercifully rules out WhatsApp as a link source. I did manage to log into to Threads, Meta’s Twitter competitor, and hence also into InstaGram, Threads being built on top of Instagram, but the quality was awful (presumably because Threads readers take selfies, as opposed to writing text).
BlueSky, a Twitter competitor founded by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, is invitation only. After many months, no invite. In addition, BlueSky has privacy issues. Spoutible is another Twitter competitor founded by a Twitter founder, but it looks prudish. Neither will help me aggregate links.
Nor did I try LinkedIn. I thought LinkedIn was all about the resumé, but apparently not. Amazingly, people — teenagers, even! — actually post material on this very early social media platform. Then again, “personal sharing on LinkedIn is booming, people who use the platform say, because of tidal shifts in both social norms and the social-media marketplace.” So it’s hard to see how LinkedIn will help me aggregate links (though I’m happy that Facebook seems to have a competitor).
At this point, a sidebar on Internet protocols (“protocol”). An Internet protocol is “a set of standards for addressing and routing data on the Internet.” Protocols are (generally) created and documented by standards bodies, like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) or the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The “https” you see before the “://” in a URL is the name of a protocol; so is smtp, for email, and so, for the greybeards, is FTP. And telnet! End sidebar.
So my first real attempt to create an alternative to Twitter was to return to the RSS protocol, big in the days of the blogosphere. I installed an RSS reader app called Netnewswire, and subscribed to a number of RSS feeds, from Al Jazeera, Anadolu Agency, Associated Press, Channel News Asia, Field and Stream, FOX, New Left Review, through to a miscellaneous feed for Ukraine news (via), and many others. This at least solved the problem of getting my head into the newsflow, since Twitter seems to have throttled most of these sources, even though I follow them. The advantage of RSS is that you subscribe directly to a site (NC’s RSS subscription button is at top right in yellow. Copy the URL and enter it into your reader. If you click on the button and see what looks like computer code, that’s the protocol in action!). That means it’s less easy to censor, since you have disintermediated the platforms.The disadvantage of RSS is that all you get is the story; you get no context, no discussion, no images. Nevertheless, RSS really helps me aggregate links.
My second attempt at replacing Twitter was a news aggregator called Artifact. From the Verge’s deck: “It’s a new spin on an old idea: a social network not based on personalities but on all the coolest stuff on the internet — with a hefty sprinkling of AI.” Basically, Artifact is an algorithmic news feed (like Twitter’s hated “For You”). Users can now add their own links to news, too. I wanted to like it, but meh. Again, the wild serendipity of Twitter’s universal address space is missing. And the AI isn’t very good, unsurprisingly. So Artifact doesn’t help me aggregate links.
In recent months, a number of tech companies have thrown their resources into ActivityPub and what’s now known as “the Fediverse.” Tumblr is working with ActivityPub, as are Flipboard, Medium, Mozilla, and even Meta. There’s now an official WordPress plug-in for ActivityPub, which will enable the protocol for something like half the internet all at once. Developers are using ActivityPub to build new and different takes on YouTube, Instagram, and much more. ActivityPub is everywhere! ActivityPub!
In essence, ActivityPub minimizes vendor lock-in by making social media data portable: Account lists, content (Tweets, posts), etc. Because data can now be interchanged without friction between platforms, the platforms can be “federated.” Hence, “Fediverse.” It’s not the same as Twitter’s universal address space, where I am one degree of separation away from, say, Mandy Cohen’s account, but I am at least X degrees of separation away; I can make a connection with a level of effort (at least if the account wants to be found). Summarizing:
And, of course, there’s Mastodon, the ActivityPub–powered platform that has become a haven to Twitter Quitters all over the internet. But ask around the tech industry, and there’s a growing set of people who will tell you the future isn’t Mastodon but what it represents: a scaled ActivityPub-based social platform.
[ActivityPub[ a technology through which social networks can be made interoperable, connecting everything to a single social graph and content-sharing system.
My third attempt at replacing Twitter was the Fediverse: a Mastodon clone (see above) called Mammoth. When I tried the original Mastodon app, the onboarding process was time-consuming and intimidating, and my app-wrangling skillz are not feeble. (The same goes for Ivory, another Mastodon app.) Mammoth, however, made onboarding very easy, both setting up the account, and amassing a large number of sources to follow (though not get large by Twitter standards. In Twitter, I have around 900 follows now, although that’s a good deal less than I had when Twitter banned my old account for calling Andrew Cuomo “Ratface Andy.” On a Chris Cuomo tweet).
I don’t dislike Mammoth, though it’s not as slick as Twitter. The main differences are — beside the occasional crash and some UI/UX issues — tone and reach. Mammoth is slower and more low-key than Twitter. It’s like moving from Manhattan to, I don’t know, Wichita. Not exactly Lake Wobegon, but if I want breaking news from a Global South source, say, I have to go to Twitter. The Fediverse simply doesn’t have the global reach that Twitter still has (trolls, bots, and all). Or if I want the latest Covid study, with any number of trusted experts commenting on it, I have to go to Twitter. Ditto Ukraine. It seems to me that, for whatever reason, Twitter managed to attract/create a large number of vertical communities centered on areas of professional expertise. Mastodon has not done that yet, and the theory seems to be that verticals will federate (that is, one Mastodon site for ventilation, say, another for homebrewing, another for the Middle East). But that’s not how the people who create the expert commentary for verticals lead their lives. A (hypothetical) expert might want to comment, in detail, in Far-UV technology, but also follow cat videos, photography, home renovation, eldercare, and stonks. A universal address space like Twitter accommodates these human needs easily. I don’t see how the Fediverse does, but we shall see. So Mammoth and the Fediverse help me aggregate links, but not well enough to replace Twitter (“if your workflow depends on a platform…”).
 The Twitter timeline lists Twitter’s acquistions; so far as I can tell, not one of them came to anything, hilariously. That argues to me that Twitter’s strength always and only was its accounts, who would put up with almost anything as long as they could Tweet to each other. Tenaciously, many — including me — remain.
 As I wrote: “For Blue Check Twitter users, their mark of distinction has been a form of social capital — as a member of the press, of government, a celebrity, a best-selling author, in short, a top-drawer PMC — and the prospect of simply being able to buy one causes them great agita.”
 The Covid and aerosol communities are incredibly tenacious, so I have to check Twitter for them.
 Podcasts are also distributed via RSS. That’s why you here the tagline “wherever you get your podcasts”; the platforms haven’t been able to middleman themselves into being gatekeeping rentiers.
 I also subscribe to an enormous number of newsletters, but that’s another story.