I quit the old bird site last December, and I’ve been a happy Mastodon user instead ever since. Nonetheless, I’ve recently begun dalliances with Threads and Bluesky. I’m not looking for greener pastures, but I’m curious about what’s on offer now, and I want to find some of the people who I don’t see on Mastodon. Juggling social media platforms is inconvenient, but seemingly unavoidable at this particular moment, as people search for new communities and rebuild parts of their old ones. It is a moment of flux, and such flux could very well be the new normal.
The Twitter that Was
Among the growing circles of people who have quit the place once called Twitter, discussions about the new platforms tend to occur in reference to the old place, if only implicitly. But characterizing that old place is not as straightforward as one might think. Before the recent ill-considered rebranding to X, Twitter was already different things to different people, depending not only on individual preferences but also on Twitter’s possibilities. Those changed a great deal over the platform’s first fifteen years, evolving in a synergy between users and developers.
Hashtags were first employed by users as a way to organize and find posts. They also became tools for community-building. (Katrina Gulliver started using #twitterstorians back when historians’ numbers there were relatively modest, for example, and this enabled us to find each other.) Quote tweets arose from user efforts to editorialize about others’ posts. And threads, multipart tweets known earlier as tweetstorms, helped make such bursts of text easier to read in the order intended by the author. As Twitter adopted or initiated such features, they assumed different roles in users’ practices and expectations, depending not only on users’ needs and preferences but also on when they first adopted Twitter.
In the early days, independent developers improved the Twitter experience with third-party mobile and desktop applications that offered features Twitter did not, or they implemented functionalities differently. It was also possible to follow what was happening by using an older internet protocol called RSS, the same thing one can still use to follow blogs and other sites in a newsreader (I use NetNewsWire). And services emerged to let one stitch a series of posts into a single story. Blogging and other content management systems worked out ways to integrate users’ activities with Twitter, and automation services such as IFTTT and Zapier made it possible to set up recipes that were triggered in the event of certain content. One could use a specific hashtag in a tweet, and that hashtag would trigger an IFTTT recipe to post the same thing on Facebook. There were also bots, little applications that could pull data from somewhere, including Twitter, and post to Twitter themselves, acting openly as bots or masquerading as real people. Coders created bots for fun and bots for good, but also bots that served grifters and the spread of disinformation.
Twitter’s open API made this diverse range of activity and user experiences possible. Its now prohibitively priced API has meant the death of most third-party applications and services.
As people leave xitter, they are searching for different things and reacting to other platforms accordingly. They are first and foremost looking for people from their old network. But they are also looking for specific features, the kind that can help them to approximate their earlier experiences, or even improve on them.
The Apps I Use
In my case, a crucial aspect of the features question is how well each platform dovetails with my established routines on the iPad and Mac. Specifically, I am interested in integration with third-party apps services for composition, crossposting, and syndication. I also want good apps for the specific social media platforms I’m on. And I want a choice in the matter, like I used to have with Twitter before Musk started to reshape his newly purchased realm into a walled-off dystopia.
I have come to like Mastodon so much in part because Tapbots was so fast to release and refine a Mastodon client called Ivory (iOS and Mac). Having used this small company’s excellent Tweetbot for at least a decade, I felt at home in Ivory right away, much more so than in the other Mastodon apps I tried.
Another helpful app that I have used for many years is Linky by Pragmatic Code. An iOS app that is available through the system’s share extension from within Safari, it lets me post a link and select the accompanying image or images I want. Adding alt text to each image for those who use a screen reader is an possible. So is creating an image from selected text (text shot) with the same text added automatically to the alt text. Linky works with other browsers too, but not for text shot creation.
In the old days, before Facebook sealed its platform off from third-party clients, I could post to the bird and face sites at the same time with Linky. Nowadays, we’re down to Mastodon, although a beta release this month has added support for Bluesky. Threads support is currently not on the table because there is no public API for developers to work with.
Another iOS and Mac app that I have long used with social media is Drafts by Agile Tortoise. Besides being a really good input device that makes working with text a breeze on a mobile device, it has all manner of actions to automate moving one’s text to other apps. Using the system share menu, it is possible to move text anywhere, but its ability to post directly to a platform is currently limited to Mastodon.
I use three Mastodon actions in Drafts: one to post directly, one to post a thread of multiple numbered posts with a single click, and one that opens the post in an Ivory draft (handy for adding images and accompanying alt text). There are many more actions available, too, because Drafts has an active userbase that contributes to the actions in its directory. In fact, if you know how to write scripts, you could probably create an action that posts directly to Bluesky because that platform, like Mastodon, is open-source, albeit with a different, less mature internet protocol.
Diversity of Platforms
It’s still early days in this post-xitter world, so I’ll talk about the kinds of people I’m finding and interactions I’m having another time. Only one thing is already clear: Many of the academics I used to follow are happy with Mastodon, but they don’t necessarily use the same tools I do. Many others are still hopping about, trying the different places, and sometimes even keeping xitter in the mix. Based on the behavior and comments I’m seeing, I suspect there will no longer be a single, one-size-fits-all-in-countless-different-ways platform of the kind the old bird place had become. I’m resigned to using more than one social media venue, as different people find the social media platforms that suit them best.
Besides, there must be people out there working on ways to read and post on multiple platforms from within the same application. It’s too bad some social networking platforms will remain closed to such efforts, but I hope openness and some amount of interoperability is where the winds are blowing, at least outside of xitter. If Threads adds support for ActivityPub (the protocol that Mastodon uses), as Meta announced it would, that would send a powerful signal to commercial social networks, despite Meta’s record of locking people inside Facebook and Instagram.
Openness and interoperability ought to be goals we can agree on. Imagine if your email provider didn’t let you communicate with people outside their service. Imagine them holding your contacts hostage if you changed services. What about not being able to choose how you read your email, that is, with which app or web interface? Avoiding that kind of nonsense is a major promise of Mastodon and the other kinds of software that use ActivityPub.