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Why Haven’t Twitter Alternatives Taken Off?
A number of Twitter-like social networking sites have appeared online since Elon Musk’s acquisition and rebrand, but market familiarity is what’s preventing them from succeeding.
When Twitter officially began rebranding to X in July 2023, the future of its user base was thrown into question. Many branding experts have questioned the effectiveness of the rebrand, as the social network’s assets that were associated with it for over a decade were suddenly removed. What had made Twitter such an essential network was seemingly altered to fit new owner Elon Musk’s vision, something that caused many users to vow to leave the site for a variety of different alternative networks. From former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s Bluesky to the forum-like Mastodon, there are plenty of new networks for those looking to break away from the site now known as X.
However, for both users and brands alike, it seems like none of these alternatives are making a significant difference in X’s user base. In fact, Musk alleged that the number of users actually hit a “new high” after the rebrand began while competitors like Threads dwindled in popularity. Other alternatives like Hive Social were found to have major security flaws that couldn’t sustain its growing user base. This has made brands and newsrooms face a significant obstacle for their digital marketing, where experimentation hasn’t always yielded encouraging results.
At the same time, though, it isn’t surprising due to how essential and intertwined Twitter had become with the larger culture. It is important to keep in mind that Twitter was first established all the way back in 2006, when social media was experiencing its growing pains. It is the same double-edged sword that plagues Musk’s rebrand into X – users and outsiders will always consider it as Twitter, so why bother trying to pretend like it’s anything else?
This is precisely where the familiarity marketing principle comes into play. According to LinkedIn, the familiarity principle can best be described as the idea that consumers will gravitate towards a specific brand or product because they recognize it. While not a perfect indicator of consumer behavior, it does shine an important light on why many consumers make the purchasing decisions they make, even when faced with a potentially better version of a certain product.
In the case of the newly-rebranded X, the recognizability of Twitter still lingers in its user base spirit and architecture, things that its newly-sprouted competition hasn’t established yet. These are all things that weren’t automatically handed to Twitter, but rather, were built up throughout its 17 years of existence. According to Insider Intelligence, the number of active Twitter users rose from 312.7 million in 2019 to 368.4 million in 2022. It can easily be inferred that this is because of how recognizable and familiar the service is, which is something that is preventing its competitors from succeeding.
So, what can struggling networks like Mastodon do to reach Twitter levels of success? Based on the issues that have been encountered so far, data transparency and consistently-positive updates can earn lots of trust within a fledgling community. However, arguably the biggest piece of advice for platforms that aim to dethrone Twitter is to not aspire to that goal, as it did not achieve success overnight. As for the brands and newsrooms caught in the crossfire, analyze the communities in these new networks to see if a new social strategy could be feasible either now or in the future. Perhaps this was best exemplified best by Spill co-founder Alphonzo "Phonz" Terrell, who told NPR affiliate GPB that he and partner DeVaris Brown believe that Twitter cannot be fully replicated. Instead, they are building towards the future of social media, something that other alternatives have yet to do.
Slate describes invite-only Spill “like a private hangout for Black Twitter transplants,” referring to the community of Twitter users that have brought Black diaspora cultures and humor to the mainstream. While advertisements and brands do exist on Spill, Slate notes that they and the rest of the site in general are free from what is described as “the interloping gaze from non-Black users” – given how many brands have been accused of appropriating AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and Black culture in their advertisements, Spill shows the importance of crafting a unique platform for communities and not necessarily replicating Twitter’s MO like similar competitors have.
“We knew where the weaknesses were, said Terrell, “and so we really feel at Spill that it's time for the next evolution of social media. We're building for the next 20 years, which is why we're looking at the communities, the technology, you know, the vision that we think is going to resonate in the future, and especially for young folks coming up who may never have even used Twitter.”