Looking back, I believe I can pinpoint the exact day I loved Twitter most: May 24, 2011. I was in a small Oregon town for work, coping with loneliness and stress in a shabby motel. With a 22-ounce bottle of high-proof beer, I whiled away the evening by churning out a random assortment of tweets: an article I’d read about the hunt for wild garlic in Quebec, images of an apocalyptic Los Angeles mural, my reasons for adoring the 1985 B movie American Ninja. In a reflective moment, I also managed to craft an earnest observation about my job: “The more social media makes journalism an Everyman’s game,” I mused, “the more I’m inspired to dig deep for non-digitized sources.”
To my surprise, that tweet earned what seemed at the time like an avalanche of approval—a whopping six retweets, plus an admiring reply from a minor internet celebrity. This validation sent me over the moon: The account I’d always thought of as mere public scratch paper actually had an audience that considered my ramblings worthwhile.
I kept chasing that same high over the next decade-plus, but it mostly proved elusive, even when my retweet counts occasionally soared into the thousands. As the platform ballooned, I became self-conscious about drafting tweets. I worried that any slight misstep in phrasing or context might reveal to the masses that I am, in fact, an idiot. I regularly found myself sucked into trivial controversies over some pundit’s stupid take; once the thrill of scrolling through the resulting dunks faded, I’d feel dirty for having once again been turned into a cog in the Global Outrage Machine.
There was, of course, nothing unique about the arc of my relationship with Twitter. Almost everyone who became a hardcore user went through a honeymoon phase before posting gradually devolved into a chore with diminishing psychic rewards and an increasing quotient of scathing abuse. My Twitter compatriots posted bewilderment over their inability to leave “this hell site”; our joy at being heard had morphed into a fear of being ignored.
The end for me came last June. I decided to take a break from Twitter until Labor Day, but early September came and went and I never returned to posting. I still used the platform as a search engine, a way to find on-the-ground coverage of breaking news and grainy highlights from paywalled soccer games, but even those visits became rarer over time.
I never thought of rebooting my social media presence elsewhere until Elon Musk completed his $44 billion takeover of Twitter last fall. As the new regime axed hundreds of engineers and moderators, the platform rapidly frayed. Service hiccups became routine, the algorithmic feed degenerated into a soup of useless tweets, and Musk kept trolling through it all. As Twitter became an ever more miserable place, I watched as the users in my timeline began to strike out for new territory.
It started in October with a wave of defections to Mastodon, an open source, ad-free, decentralized community that was hosted on an archipelago of independent servers. For the briefest of moments, everyone seemed to agree that this brainy successor was destined to save social media. But the enthusiasm quickly waned as people struggled to navigate the platform’s sprawling “Fediverse,” and the Twitter exodus flowed elsewhere. Media obsessives gravitated toward Post, a news-heavy platform founded by Noam Bardin, the former CEO of Waze. “Mastodon is complicated and unsatisfying,” tweeted Kelda Roys, a Democratic state senator in Wisconsin. “Post could be a winner if there were a critical mass there.” Legions of gamers, meanwhile, flocked to Hive Social, an Instagram-influenced app run by a trio of recent college graduates. For all their differences, these platforms were unanimous in voicing one aspiration: to recapture the spirit of “early Twitter.”
Though I usually try to resist nostalgia, I couldn’t help hoping that one of these novel platforms might rekindle the elation I’d felt in that Oregon motel. But all of my trial runs followed the same dispiriting trajectory. After an initial wave of excitement, I’d lose interest within a matter of days. Mastodon’s labyrinthine structure was a pain, Post’s commentariat was bland, and Hive’s app kept crashing. In the race to supplant Twitter, there was no clear winner in sight. And because the Bird App’s awfulness kept hitting new lows, it seemed the cycle of restless searching was bound to drag on.