Everyone has a bone to pick with existing social networks.
There are plenty of legitimate concerns, but the fact is that social media has also been incredibly valuable for many people. If your business depends in large part on connecting with others or engaging with an audience, it’s hard to simply quit.
There have been a lot of attempts at new social media sites over the years, often in some direct effort to address and fix issues with a once-favoured platform. Almost none of them have taken off in a real way. Maybe they will, eventually, but then they’ll have their own problems.
Challenger and Incumbent Social Media
Mastodon VS Twitter
I don’t think Mastodon purported to “replace” Twitter exactly, but I think a lot of people trying it out when it made its splashy debut misunderstood decentralisation. Conversations about Mastodon were drenched in technical jargon and often outside of a layperson’s lexicon — and without understanding that context, Mastodon didn’t provide a fundamentally different or better enough experience for the average user.
Mastodon transferred power from a central entity (like Twitter, Inc.) to individual server (“instance”) owners. This is similar to message boards and forums, who typically have some private owner, except users could still communicate directly with others on different instances — like how you can still email people with email accounts on different services.
One big issue was that discoverability between instances was difficult (and difference instances confused everyone used to centralised social networks), even with the universal timeline which pulled in posts from different instances. The network effect was limited. Mastodon also still required some level of trust in the individual server owners, who still mostly have the power to do whatever they wanted. A lot of instances were also unstable due to traffic.
Once the novelty expired, users, especially those on the flagship instance, became inactive quickly, and they unceremoniously returned to Twitter, for the most part.
Pillowfort VS Tumblr
Crowdfunded into existence in 2016, Pillowfort “aims to be a hybrid of Tumblr, Twitter, and LiveJournal–keeping the strengths of these sites while compensating for their weaknesses.” So far, I don’t think they’ve really achieved this goal.
The platform got a lot of press in the midst of the 2018 Tumblr mass exodus, which led to excruciating load problems. Despite being invite-only, the site was basically unusable for long periods of time, frustrating existing users and discouraging potential new ones. Pillowfort initially released limited numbers of free invites in waves, then later issued invites in exchange for a (one-time) $5 donation.
It’s conjecture on my part, but I think that Pillowfort underestimated their costs, quickly exhausted their initial funds, and has failed to generate the revenue needed to maintain itself, and if it can’t maintain itself, it can’t grow.
In January 2021, Pillowfort went offline to prepare for public launch, but instead discovered security issues they wanted to fix. As of writing, they’ve been offline for nearly three months, though they hope to be back by the end of April. Meanwhile, it’s quieter around Tumblr these days, but the platform certainly isn’t dead yet.
Artfol VS Instagram
After a few months as an Android-only app, this new contender debuted its iOS app recently. As a mobile-only social network, it most resembles Instagram, though it seems to take some UI cues from Twitter. (It also allows text-only posts.) Artfol aims to deliver a better experience for artists, who are often some of the most vocal critics of algorithmic timelines, as well as image compression and cropping.
To be honest though, I don’t know that dumping algorithms is really as pertinent as everyone would like to believe. It’s an easy scapegoat for lack of engagement, and while ditching an algorithm may be helpful in the beginning, if the platform obtains significant traffic and volume, posts will get lost in the noise regardless. If your followers are all following 500 creators who post daily, it’s inevitable that they miss some posts. (RSS is a more reliable long-term solution.)
It remains to be seen whether Artfol will be successful, but I foresee the platform going a similar route to Pillowfort: the lack of consistent funding will become obvious sooner or later. Either they won’t be able to pay ongoing server costs or their developer(s) will need to eat eventually and move onto paying work, leaving the project to languish.
Business Models and Platform Sustainability
It’s all fine and noble to eschew investor funding, but server costs for large platforms are no joke.
It’s worth remembering that despite its influence and power, Twitter wasn’t profitable for over ten years. Tumblr also took years to make money, and by the time it did, the platform had already begun its decline. Both had millions in VC funding to keep them running in the meantime though.
It’s naive to think that donations and patron support will be enough to sustain a social network in the long term, or hell, even in the short term.
Servers Cost Money and Developers Need Coffee
Pillowfort saw, and Artfol is seeing, the issues that come with inability to scale technical infrastructure fast enough, but it’s hard to scale quickly if you aren’t financially secure. The flexible hosting plans these platforms require can very quickly balloon to tens of thousands of dollars if they suddenly see a huge increase in traffic. Passion project developers can’t afford that bill.
It’s a catch-22. Inability to pay for servers mean it’s hard for users to use the site, which means they won’t stay, which means there won’t be enough users to even try to convince they should give the platform money, or to monetise in some other way. That’s why investment capital is a thing in the first place. There needs to be some float in the bank to grow the platform before it begins to try to pull revenue out of its users.
And again, developers need to eat. Passion projects are great, but for these massive social projects in particular — developers are quickly overwhelmed. Inability to hire the help needed to continuously improve the platform, as well as to handle administrative and customer service roles, often leads to a project’s ultimate demise.
Like a bank loan that needs to be paid back with interest, investors pressure startups towards exponential growth so they can collect their just rewards for their believing in the project. This pressure is often perceived to drive decisions unpopular with users. Patreon has famously pushed several unpopular changes on its creators, who cry foul on assertions that the company’s existing business model isn’t sustainable.
Cutting out the investor means a platform can stay truer to its vision, but it also means the users need to fund the platform. And in practice, very few are willing to do so.
While not without problems, Wikipedia is an unquestionably valuable public resource. And still, it has to beg its users every year to fund its continued existence — if something as relied-upon as Wikipedia still has to have a protracted annual fundraising campaign, what chance does any baby social network really have?
AO3 is a more niche example of the sample principle. They primarily host text, but still they need tens of thousands of dollars a year to keep their servers online. They have thousands of users who extract innumerous hours of value from the site, but again, they have to beg every year for the funding needed to keep the lights on.
As of writing, Artfol’s Patreon is collecting $700/month from supporters. I don’t know how many users they currently have or how many posts have been made on the platform, but I’d guess that that doesn’t quite cover server costs. And even if it does (for now), the developer(s) need to be paid, too. No matter how much you love something, working for free isn’t sustainable, especially for all-consuming projects like this.
Startups are often headed by college students and recent grads because they have the time, energy, and inclination to work hard and fast for very little — but most startups aim to get sold; there’s a payout for those devs in the end. Projects that hope to remain independent need a better business model.
Subscription Model and Invite-Only Access
Back in the day, Livejournal had a pretty good thing going for it. The cost of free accounts was offset by the revenue from paid accounts, as well as one-off perks and ads. Dreamwidth, forked from LJ’s codebase in 2008, continues to exist on this model (sans ads).
But with so many “free” social media alternatives now, I think it’s a lot harder for a new platform without significant starting capital to cultivate a large enough userbase that a tiny percentage of the whole can fund the entire venture. Why wait for a new platform to find its footing and balance out server load when the existing platforms are already there?
Only offering subscription plans at the start, or restricting registration to invite-only can help mitigate some initial load issues. Pillowfort saw some success with invite-only, but as their goal was grow, they needed to rip off the band-aid at some point. Unfortunately, that hasn’t gone well for them.
Meanwhile, some highly specialised platforms like Toyhouse remain invite-only, even years after initial launch, but these are sites that seem perfectly content with a smaller userbase. They aren’t trying to replace anything — they merely offer a very specific service, and that’s enough for them to maintain a loyal community of paid users who keep the platform sustainable.
It’s easy to support the idea of a platform, especially a well-meaning and independent one, but people only have so many hours in a day to spend on social media, and if a newcomer platform doesn’t provide a significantly better experience, there’s no reason to switch.
In the end, no one has time for both Artfol and Instagram, Pillowfort and Tumblr, Mastodon and Twitter. Some manage it with crossposting, but when platforms are new, this often isn’t possible. So people stay where the other people are — which is with the incumbents.
Social Media Isn’t Going to Save You From Social Media
It’s impossible to have a perfect social media platform because everyone wants different things. For every person who thinks allowing edits to tweets is a good idea, there’s someone who insists that it would be a feature ripe for abuse. Services hoping to fix the problems of another platform will inevitably have problems of their own.
I think Mastodon has succeeded to the extent it ever could have. Though it’s faded from the mainstream consciousness, it continues to serve niche communities well, like forums used to. As an open source project, too, it doesn’t face the same financial issues of more centralised platforms. Or at least, not in the same way. The cost of each Mastodon instance is its owner’s problem, but that isn’t necessarily stable or reliable for users, either. Mastodon’s lead developer’s Patreon supports the flagship instance and ongoing work, but only just.
Pillowfort and Artfol, meanwhile, really need to face their funding issues head-on and develop a reliable revenue model before it’s too late. They might also benefit from being more specific in the communities they serve, at least for now, so it can better cater to those specific needs before trying to please the general public. There’s a lot to be said for the minimum viable audience. Once these platforms are more stable, they can shift focus to attracting a larger userbase.
But ultimately, those are all still centralised platforms1 and users are beholden to decisions made by those running the show. Maybe they’ll always make good decisions that you always agree with. But probably not.
1 Even with Mastodon, individual instances/servers can be considered centralised to some extent. They have an owner that is separate from its many users. The greater federation of Mastodon instances is decentralised, but its individual nodes are not. To be truly decentralised and to truly have total control, each user has to host their own instance. Some have done so, but that’s far too much to ask of the average user.
Decentralisation VS Centralisation is Power VS Convenience
Convenience for the People; Power for the Corporations
The problem with decentralisation is that people are lazy. Trained on over a decade of convenience now, netizens take ease of use for granted while vocally lamenting everything they gave up for that convenience. We could all collectively decide to return to the prior era of self-hosted blogs and message boards, but we won’t. It’s nice not having to worry about hosting and servers and domains and technical mumbo jumbo yourself.
The 90’s Internet belonged to tech nerds. The early and mid-2000’s Internet belonged to many more flavours of nerd and niche communities. Now it belongs to everyone. The “free” aspect of social media has given voice to many who have historically stayed in the shadows. Some of that’s good. Some of that, not so much.
Obviously, giving anyone and everyone a way to reach millions of people in just a few clicks has as many downsides as upsides, and the mainstream status of social platforms exacerbates its many issues where the smaller, semi-private communities that came before it had far more limited radiuses of effect.
It’s hard to go back from “free” though, and so power remains with a few, enormous corporations, and everyone complains, but nothing changes.
The Inconvenience of Power
The issue of “social media isn’t showing my content (algorithms) to my followers in the way that I want (cropping, compression)” is easy enough to fix.
The concurrent obstacles are convincing creators to own their own web presences and convincing consumers to own their own experiences. The decades have reduced many barriers of entry, but there are still small hurdles. It costs money to have your own website and domain. It takes time to set up a feed reader. There is still plenty of jargon.
For creators, one of the biggest complaints is “but no one ever looks at my website,” because even if they make the shift, most of their audiences haven’t. And why should they, when those same creators still post to social media, too?
Portfolio and link repository sites are most common for creators; even if they have a site, they’d still rather just link to all their social media. That’s where the interaction takes place. Their website is just a sandwich board pointing to where the actual party is.
Some communities still have a vibrant blogosphere (what a mid-2000’s term, amirite?) with active commenters and conversations, despite equally active social media presences. Newsletters and mailing lists are also becoming more popular as a way to reach audiences more directly, without relying on algorithms to bless individual social posts. These communities tend to skew older and more techy though, and many of them have simply survived this whole time — very few were started in the post-social media era.
It’s hard to imagine teenagers making the effort to find websites and blogs through a browser when mobile apps are so much easier to install. Many people simply don’t use computers or laptops outside school or work, and many people basically never interact with the Internet at large through their phone’s browser — their entire Internet experience is through social media apps.
Indie sites can’t complete with that. And what good is hosting and controlling your own content if no one else looks at it?
I’m driven by self-satisfaction and a lifelong archivist mindset, but others may not be similarly inclined. The payoffs here aren’t obvious in the short-term, and that’s part of the problem. It will only be when Big Social makes some extremely unpopular decision or some other mass exodus occurs that people lament about having no where else to go, no other place to exist.
IndieWeb is an interesting movement, but it’s hard to find mentions of it outside of hippie tech circles. I think even just the way their “Getting Started” page is presented is an enormous barrier. A layperson’s eyes will 100% glaze over before they need to scroll. There is a lot of weird jargon and in-joking. I don’t know how to fix that either. Even as someone with a reasonably technical background, there are a lot of components of IndieWeb that intimidate me.
No matter the barriers we tear down, it will always be easier to just install some app made by a centralised platform.
I want to see projects like Pillowfort and Arfol succeed because I think alternative networks are important and valuable, but I think they need to be a lot more realistic about revenue sources and funding if they want to survive and grow. By virtue of being for a more specific audience than “literally everyone,” they have the opportunity to create tools and features that really serve their community.
But at the same time, that specificity means they aren’t likely to replace mainstream services anytime soon. For creators in particular, that makes it much harder to justify leaving the mainstream platforms.
They’ll probably always have way, way more total followers on Instagram. Maybe their followers on Artfol will be “higher quality,” with better engagement and sense of community, but that’ll take time to build up and prove — and in the meantime, it’s exhausting to juggle two similar platforms without auto-crossposting. That difficulty is a barrier for growth, too. Artfol has to be so good that it can pull people, and creators in particular, away from other platforms to use it as their primary one.
There’s no going back to the Internet of the early and mid-2000’s. App-based social media isn’t going away any time soon. I don’t think creators should abandon social media — there’s obviously value there — but for the long-term, there’s no archival solution that’s better than what you can create for yourself.
Maybe you’re gonna be on Twitter and Instagram for ten more years. Hell, maybe Artfol and Pillowfort will really take off and you’ll be there for the next ten years. But if eventually, those services stop existing, what will your Internet presence be reduced to? How much work, how many followers and friends, and how many memories are you going to lose to the abyss?
I hope you’ve saved them somewhere else.