Elon Musk announced that ‘the bird has been set free’ when Twitter’s $44 billion acquisition officially closed on October 27, 2022. Some users on the microblogging platform saw this as a reason to fly away.
Over the next 48 hours, I saw countless announcements in my Twitter feed from people either leaving the platform or making preparations to leave. The hashtags #GoodbyeTwitter, #TwitterMigration and #Mastodon were trending. Decentralized open source social network Mastodon has gained over 100,000 users in just a few days, according to a user-counting bot.
As an information scientist who studies online communities, this seemed like the beginning of something I’ve seen before. Social media platforms tend not to last forever. Depending on your age and online habits, there’s probably a platform you’re missing, even if it still exists in some form. Think MySpace, LiveJournal, Google+, and Vine.
When social media platforms go down, sometimes the online communities that made their homes there fade away and sometimes they pack up and move to a new home. The turmoil on Twitter has many of the company’s users considering leaving the platform. Research on past social media migrations shows what Twitter users flying the coop can expect.
Several years ago, I led a research project with Brianna Dym, now at the University of Maine, where we mapped the platform migrations of nearly 2,000 people over a period of nearly two decades. The community we looked at was transformative fans, fans of literary and popular culture series and franchises who create art using these characters and settings.
We chose it because it is a large community that has thrived in many different online spaces. Some of the same people who were writing Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction on Usenet in the 1990s were writing Harry Potter fan fiction on LiveJournal in the 2000s and Star Wars fan fiction on Tumblr in the 2010s.
By asking participants about their experiences of these platforms – why they left, why they joined, and the challenges they faced when they did – we gained insight into factors that could lead to the platforms’ success and failure, as well as what negative consequences are likely to occur for a community during relocation.
No matter how many people eventually decide to leave Twitter, or even how many people do so at the same time, building a community on another platform is an uphill battle. These migrations are largely driven by network effects, meaning that the value of a new platform depends on who else is there.
In the critical initial stages of the migration, people need to coordinate with each other to encourage their contribution to the new platform, which is really difficult. It essentially becomes, as one of our panelists described it, a “game of chicken” where no one wants to leave until their friends leave and no one wants to be first for fear of being alone in a new place.
For this reason, the “death” of a platform – whether from controversy, unpopular change or competition – tends to be a slow, gradual process. One participant described Usenet’s decline as “like watching a shopping mall slowly shut down.”
It will never be the same
The current push from some quarters to ditch Twitter reminded me a bit of Tumblr’s adult content ban in 2018, which reminded me of LiveJournal’s policy changes and new ownership in 2007. People who ditched LiveJournal for other platforms like on Tumblr described feeling unwelcome there. And even though Musk didn’t walk into Twitter’s headquarters in late October and flip a virtual content control lever to the “off” position, there was an increase in hate speech on the platform as some users felt emboldened to violate the platform’s content policies according to with an assumption that major policy changes were on the way.
What might actually happen if a lot of Twitter users decide to leave? What makes Twitter Twitter isn’t the technology, it’s the specific configuration of interactions that take place there. And there is virtually zero chance that Twitter, as it exists now, will be reconstituted on another platform. Any migration is likely to face many of the challenges that previous platform migrations have faced: loss of content, fragmented communities, broken social networks, and shifting community norms.
But Twitter isn’t a community, it’s a collection of many communities, each with its own rules and motivations. Some communities may be able to migrate more successfully than others. So maybe K-Pop Twitter will coordinate a move to Tumblr. I’ve seen much of Academic Twitter orchestrating a move to Mastodon. Other communities may already exist concurrently on Discord servers and subreddits, and may simply let Twitter participation die out as fewer people pay attention to it. But as our study implies, migration always comes at a cost, and even for smaller communities, some people will be lost along the way.
The ties that unite
Our research also showed design recommendations to support migration and how one platform can take advantage of attrition from another platform. Cross-posting features can be important because many people hedge their bets. They may be reluctant to completely cut ties all at once, but they may dip their toes into a new platform by sharing the same content on both.
Ways to import networks from another platform also help maintain communities. For example, there are many ways to find people you follow on Twitter in Mastodon. Even simple welcome messages, newcomer guides, and easy ways to find other immigrants could make a difference in helping resettlement efforts stick.
And through it all, it’s important to remember that this is such a hard problem by design. Platforms have no incentive to help users leave. As longtime tech journalist Cory Doctorow recently wrote, it’s a “hostage situation.” Social media entices people with their friends, and then the threat of losing those social networks keeps people on the platforms.
But even if there is a price to pay for leaving a platform, communities can be incredibly resilient. Like the LiveJournal users in our study who rediscovered each other on Tumblr, your fate is not tied to that of Twitter.
Casey FischlerAssociate Professor of Information Science, University of Colorado Boulder
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.