Social Media

Attack of the Twitter Clones 

Plus: Groups ask Supreme Court to say public officials can't block people, latest jobs report shows openings down, and more...


Tens of millions of people have now signed up for Threads, the new app meant to compete with Twitter. Whether this is the start of a new social media trend or a short-term blip is anyone's guess. As Twitter CEO Elon Musk and his new policies continue to alienate many longtime users of the site, an onslaught of apps with Twitter-like functions have been vying for the short-form, text-based platform crown. Several stand a decent chance—although it may be more likely that no social platform will again occupy the rarified space that Twitter and Facebook did.

Some of these apps, such as Post and T2, experienced very short-lived and relatively small waves of migration from Twitter. No one seems to think they are worth considering in the quest for a Twitter heir apparent.

Nor does Mastodon—a decentralized "fediverse" of Twitter-esque networks—appear capable of becoming The Next Twitter. It's a swell platform for fragmented, substantive, ongoing discourse among various niche audiences (much like Reddit) and folks who like the appeal of a non-corporate entity, with all that entails (no ads; less data collection; varying levels of content moderation, depending on which server you join). But many found the decentralized setup confusing, and Mastodon (intentionally) lacks many features that helped Twitter drive news and cultural outrage cycles.

The three most impactful Twitter competitors, right now, seem to be Threads, BlueSky, and Substack Notes. Each occupies a slightly different space, offering benefits and drawbacks for different audiences.

Threads is the newest entry here, having just launched on July 5, and it's the most corporate of the  bunch, coming from Meta (the company behind Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp). Having the backing and expertise of a big and established tech company comes with some pluses and some minuses. Threads—which mimics Twitter in functionality (more on the nitty gritty of its functioning here)—looks great, has a big team in place to address issues, and has a built-in audience for attracting and onboarding users. Instagram this week has been prompting its users to join Threads, and anyone with an Instagram account can sign up for Threads with extremely minimal effort, automatically importing their Instagram username, photo, bio, and follows if they wish. By yesterday morning, the network it had 30 million sign-ups, according to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

But the same issues that plague Facebook and Instagram could be barriers to long-term success for Threads. Many people perceive the company and its platforms as uncool. They worry about its extensive harvesting of user data. They don't like Meta's heavy-handed content moderation policies (no female nipples is already a rule). Threads also doesn't have a version for desktop browsers yet, and it's not very customizable: You can't set things up so that you only see the accounts you follow. And on Facebook and Instagram, brand accounts are served up frequently while newsy and political content is downgraded—a strategy that, if carried over, could seriously hinder Threads becoming the discourse-driving, news-cycle-setting behemoth that Twitter has been.

BlueSky comes the closest to emulating the look and feel of early Twitter. Still in invite-only mode, the platform has a reputation for attracting weirdos (I say that lovingly), media types, the extremely online, and marginalized groups of the left-leaning sort (for instance, it's become immensely popular among transgender communities). Its base doesn't seem to take itself too seriously—posts are called "skeets," for example—and the aesthetic is "anything goes": Absurdist humor and racy pictures are both common. The vibe is communal, zany, fun, and a little anarchic, while its design and functionality mirror Twitter's very closely (unsurprisingly, since BlueSky was spun off from Twitter and since Twitter founder Jack Dorsey sits on its board). News and policy-related content is also prominent.

BlueSky certainly has the right audience, infrastructure, and backing to become big. But its growth is currently hampered by its invite-only status; its insular vibe may—as with early Twitter—be off-putting for mainstream audiences; and the wilderness spirit that users currently embrace may be hard to maintain at scale (at least not without attracting a boatload of ire from politicians and activists).

A meme circulating on Twitter (@mistressmatisse/Twitter)

Notes is a new-ish function of the content-distribution platform Substack. Substack started out serving up newsletters—and this is still its core function—but it now offers other tools, including Notes and a way for content creators to create and distribute podcasts. It's a lot like blogging platforms of yore, except with a built-in option to charge a fee for subscriptions and a lot of easy-to-use options for different subscription levels. (Substack itself also strikes up content deals with a select cadre of newsletter creators.) The Notes interface is clean and simple and, like Twitter and BlueSky, Notes offers users the ability to post snippets of text and imagery; to follow and be followed; and to comment on, like, and "restack" others' posts. It also integrates seamlessly with Substack's other functions, so that it's easy (for instance) to share via Notes a Substack newsletter entry.

Notes has become popular among Substack newsletter creators and reader, and so the vibe tends to be collegial, intimate, and focused around discussion of writing and ideas. This makes it very appealing for a certain sort of social media user but perhaps unlikely to become a mass public square like Twitter, for both better and worse. And Substack seems more invested in supporting profitable and interesting newsletters and discussions about them than in finding any way possible to keep eyeballs endlessly on the platform. (To put it in extremely online terms: Notes has more Google Reader energy than Main Character of the Day energy.)

Independent of any characteristics of these particular platforms, there are barriers to any of them taking on the role that Twitter has held the past decade. First and foremost may be social media fatigue. A lot of people in 2023 feel like they're already on enough (too many?) different platforms. Rather than sign up for anything new, they may opt simply to stick it out with Twitter and/or Facebook—which, of course, many people still enjoy and derive value from—or taper off social media entirely.

Something with a clear-cut new angle (like TikTok when it came along) can clearly break through. Once established as a major player, a Twitter clone could probably do so too. But as things stand, how does anyone know which new platforms will and won't succeed? And until then, who wants to invest time and energy developing a community/following on an app that may fizzle out soon? Or hedge their bets and establish their presence on multiple apps, new and old?

The existence of so many options could keep any one platform from dominating. And perhaps that's for the best.

Part of what made Twitter and Facebook so appealing—and addicting—was the sense that its use was ubiquitous (even if, for Twitter especially, this was never the case). To opt out felt like you might miss out entirely on what was happening in politics, culture, and some of your favorite cultural communities. This same vibe made these mega-sites feel unbearable at times—they were engines of toxicity, pointless outrage loops and pile-ons, petty fights, misunderstandings, wasted time. It's what made politicians and institutions woefully attune to the whims and passions of Twitter and Facebook users, helping fuel cancel culture, corporate missteps, and bad political calculations.

The dominance of a few big tech platforms also helped drive political witch hunts. They enabled censorship (pressure a few big platforms to quash certain information, and a lot of the work was done) and government surveillance. And in the backlash, bad policy ideas were sold as sticking it to "big tech" even when their negative effects would actually reverberate around the rest of the internet too.

Twitter may never return to its old glory and ignominy. While Threads or BlueSky or one of the others may yet become the "new Twitter," there's a strong possibility that none of these Twitter clones will achieve a place of dominance either. And individuals, politics, culture, and liberty may all be better off for it.

What people are saying:

"It's not hard to figure out" why people are migrating to Threads, suggests Ben Dreyfuss. "Elon Musk has spent the last 7 months making a huge chunk of Twitter's users hate him. He has wasted the benefit of the doubt another huge chunk extended to him. Meta is a real company! Not a bunch of drunks kicking over trash cans."

"Bluesky and Mastodon have higher chances of developing sustainable models that don't end up in a surveillance advertising hellscape, which is inevitable for Threads because Meta can't do it any other way," writes Colorado Law Professor Blake E. Reid.

"If you're the sort of person who wants a quiet timeline comprised only of posts from carefully curated accounts, Threads is not for you, and probably never will be," writes John Gruber. "But the sort of people who like Twitter's 'For You' feed and trending topics in the sidebar might find Threads more fun."

"On Twitter in one of my threads someone just said 'Threads had 30M signups in one day, Bluesky has lost its chance to become the next Twitter' and he may be right, but what he doesn't know is that people here are like 'cool, dodged THAT bullet,'" John Scalzi posted to BlueSky.

"Had Meta launched [Threads] in 2019, it seems safe to say, everyone would have rolled their eyes. Its big new feature is…logging in with Instagram? Come on," comments Platformer's Casey Newton. "By the standards of Twitter 2.0, though, it can feel like a miracle."

"Of the available sites I would bet that BlueSky winds up being more important for setting media narratives than the available alternatives," writes Dan Drezner on Substack. "But this leads to the most important point: the hard-working staff here at Drezner's World has serious doubts that social media will have any effect on the 2024 outcome."

"I think the age of the centralized newsfeed that gave everyone a general sense of what's going on on the internet is coming to an end," comments Reason's Christian Britschgi.


Can government officials block people on social media? People have a First Amendment right to access content posted to social media by elected officials, argue the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Knight First Amendment Institute, and the Woodhull Freedom Foundation in a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court is currently reviewing two cases—Lindke v. Freed and O'Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier—concerning the issue.

It's not enough to consider whether an official's account is delineated as a government account or a personal account, they argue. Instead, courts must look at how the account is actually used. If the "personal" account posts concern government business, the official should not be able to block people from accessing it, they say.

"We are asking the Court to find that the ultimate test is how an account is used," explained EFF attorney Sophia Cope in a statement. "If officials choose to mix government and nongovernment content on their account, they must accept the First Amendment obligations that go with using their account for governmental purposes."

You can find their full amicus brief here.


Latest jobs report shows openings down, quitting up. May saw 9.8 million job openings, down from 10.3 million in April, according to the latest data released by the U.S. Labor Department. Meanwhile, "the quits rate, which is often used to gauge a worker's confidence in the job market, increased in May, particularly in the health care, social assistance and construction industries," reports The New York Times:

A rise in quitting often signals workers' confidence that they will be able to find other work, often better paying. But fewer workers are quitting their jobs than were doing so last year at the height of what was called the "great resignation."


• Twitter is threatening Threads in court. Semafor reports that Twitter lawyer Alex Spiro sent a letter to Meta accusing it of hiring former Twitter employees who "had and continue to have access to Twitter's trade secrets and other highly confidential information" in order to create a "copycat" app. But "no one on the Threads engineering team is a former Twitter employee—that's just not a thing," a source inside Meta told Semafor.

Techdirt's Mike Masnick weighs in on the recent court decision barring the federal government from urging social media companies to suppress or remove content.

• A backdoor route to student loan debt forgiveness? "While everyone's focus has been on the administration's outrageous cancellation stunt, the [Department of Education] has been working tirelessly to accomplish an even more disastrous policy: a new Income-Driven Repayment rule," writes the Pacific Legal Foundation's Caleb Kruckenberg in the New York Post. "While styled as a rule that simply tinkers with the details of existing income-based repayment programs, it effectively does the same work as the cancellation effort: It writes off the debts of millions of college-educated borrowers."

• "Former President Donald Trump posted on his social media platform what he claimed was the home address of former President Barack Obama on the same day that a man with guns in his van was arrested near the property," reports the Associated Press. The June 29 arrest of Taylor Taranto was revealed as part of a federal court filing related to his participation in the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

• "While Salon Magazine declares that we all live in a 'libertarian dystopia,' and a new brand of big-government conservatives promise to free the Republican party and American government from their libertarian captivity, Barton Swaim declares in the Wall Street Journal that a new book 'works as an obituary' for libertarianism," comments David Boaz at the Cato at Liberty blog. "That's not a characterization that I think the authors—Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi—would accept of their book, The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism." (Zwolinski offers his own thoughts here.)