Twitter’s Rivals Try to Capitalize on Musk-Induced Chaos

SAN FRANCISCO — Last month, employees at Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, joined a virtual brainstorming session to discuss how to build the next Twitter.

Among the ideas Meta’s workers talked over was a more extensive rollout of a feature called Instagram Notes, where people can share short messages on the photo-sharing site with their followers and friends, according to posts of the conversation that were viewed by The New York Times. Others said Meta should build a text-focused app using Instagram’s technology or add another feed to Instagram. They floated names for the features such as Realtime, Real Reels and Instant.

“Twitter is in crisis and Meta needs its mojo back,” one Meta employee wrote in a post. “LET’S GO FOR THEIR BREAD AND BUTTER.”

A race is on to dethrone Twitter and capitalize on the chaos of its new ownership under Elon Musk, the tech mogul who bought the social media company for $44 billion in late October. Since then, questions have swirled about how viable Twitter might be as Mr. Musk has laid off thousands of employees, started changing the platform’s content rules and proclaimed that the company is in such dire financial shape that bankruptcy is possible.

Sensing opportunity, all manner of people and companies have jumped in to fill the potential breach. Apart from employees at Meta, former Twitter workers have begun projects for what they say could be the next Twitter. Start-ups like Post and niche services like Mastodon and Hive Social have also reared their heads, as has the microblogging platform Tumblr.

Some of these services are presenting themselves as less toxic versions of Twitter, which has reversed suspensions of some users and reinstated previously banned accounts, including that of former President Donald J. Trump. Others are positioning themselves as heralds of a completely new era in social media.

“The toxicity that surrounds Twitter and some of the behavior of the new ownership led me to believe there’s an enormous opportunity for a microblogging platform with a different business model,” said Scott Galloway, an investor in Post and a marketing professor at New York University. “There’s a lot of opportunity right now to take from social media platforms, and people sense the opportunity.”

More on Elon Musk’s Twitter Takeover

  • An Established Pattern: Firing people. Talking of bankruptcy. Telling workers to be “hard core.” Twitter isn’t the first company that witnessed Elon Musk use those tactics.
  • The ‘Twitter Files’: Mr. Musk and Matt Taibbi, an independent journalist, set off an intense debate with a release of internal Twitter documents regarding a 2020 decision to restrict posts linking to a report in the New York Post about Hunter Biden.
  • A ‘War for Talent’: Seeing misinformation as a possibly expensive liability, several companies are angling to hire former Twitter employees with the expertise to keep it in check.
  • Hard Fork: The Times podcast looks at Mr. Musk’s two-day clash with Apple, which he had accused of trying to sabotage Twitter before saying the “misunderstanding” had been resolved.

Since Mr. Musk took over Twitter, some prominent users have said they would leave the service, including the talk show host Whoopi Goldberg, the producer Shonda Rhimes and the singer Sara Bareilles. Other users have expressed interest in migrating to other services. It’s unclear what Twitter’s user numbers are now since Mr. Musk has taken the company private, but he has said use is at a high.

“Record numbers of users are logging in to see if Twitter is dead, ironically making it more alive than ever!” he tweeted last month.

Mr. Musk didn’t respond to requests for comment, and Meta declined to comment.

After Mr. Musk bought Twitter, one alternative service that immediately gained attention was Mastodon, which is known as a federated platform and functions as a collection of social networks. Started in 2016 by Eugen Rochko, a software developer who is now 29, Mastodon, by design, can’t enforce platform-wide policies on what posts to keep up or take down. And because Mastodon’s original source code is publicly available, anybody can create his or her own version of the service.

Since the beginning of last month, Mastodon accounts have grown nearly 33 percent to six million, according to the federated platform guide Mastodon has no ads and remains mostly crowdfunded. It has hired more employees and encouraged people to start their own versions of Mastodon.

Mastodon did not respond to requests for comment.

Last month, Hive Social, a social network founded in 2019, also more than doubled its users, to 1.8 million. Its founder, Raluca Pop, 24, attributed part of the growth to fan communities, like those for K-pop and “Star Wars,” moving away from Twitter and finding a new home on Hive Social.

The tiny company is trying to take advantage of the newfound interest to raise funding and hire more employees. Hive Social is funded through loans taken out by Ms. Pop, as well as $25,000 from a private investor and more than $300,000 from a crowdfunding campaign. It has four employees and is hoping to hire content moderators and more engineers, Ms. Pop said.

But as people have joined, the platform has run into growing pains, including multiple accounts sharing the same username and people not flagging content that is unsafe for work. On Thursday, Hive Social temporarily shut its servers to resolve security issues, Ms. Pop said.

“Twitter is going through a lot of changes with the new leadership,” Ms. Pop said. “The timing of it is kind of impeccable. Everything lined up for us.”

More established social media companies also began aiming to capture people departing Twitter.

Tumblr, the microblogging website, posted a “reasons to join Tumblr” thread about a week after Mr. Musk’s takeover of Twitter. It also shared memes and Tumblr posts about people leaving Twitter for Tumblr. Then it started selling “Important Blue Internet Checkmarks” for $7.99 — the same price as a monthly subscription to Twitter Blue, a service Mr. Musk has promoted where people pay for features including a verification check mark.

Downloads of Tumblr on Apple’s App Store soared 62 percent the week after Mr. Musk’s takeover of Twitter, said a spokeswoman for Automattic, which owns Tumblr. Automattic has also posted jobs tailored to former Twitter employees, with the job descriptions saying it was “aware some amazing people have been let go or are not able to continue working at Twitter given the new constraints of being in the office.”

Some entrepreneurs have created start-ups to replace Twitter in recent weeks. Noam Bardin, the former chief executive of the navigation software company Waze, last month launched Post, a social platform focused on sharing news content. It has 350,000 people on its wait list and 67,000 activated accounts, according to an email to wait-listed registrants on Tuesday.

“We want to allow you to read premium news from multiple publishers,” Mr. Bardin, who declined to comment, wrote in a post on Sunday. He said he had personally funded the company, along with Mr. Galloway and the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. (Andreessen Horowitz separately invested in Mr. Musk’s takeover of Twitter.)

Gabor Cselle, a Twitter product manager from 2014 to 2016, said Mr. Musk’s buyout of the company had motivated him to build a new version of the service with modern technology. He has created a prototype, which he is calling T2 for now; has hired three people; and started a wait list.

The project is self-funded so far. Mr. Cselle has calculated that it would take 14 people and $7.5 million to create a simpler Twitter alternative.

Many former Twitter employees have been eager to help, Mr. Cselle said. Hundreds have joined a Slack group where they discuss T2’s policies, business model and technology. Mr. Cselle said he planned to establish a trust and safety team early on to define the rules and norms of the platform. Other than that, he plans to keep it straightforward.

“I’m not going to deviate very much from the established 280-character format,” he said. Anything beyond that “seemed needlessly complicated.”

Mr. Musk has noticed the slew of Twitter alternatives. Last month, he tweeted at least three crude comments about Mastodon before deleting them. After a Twitter user questioned the rise of Hive Social in a tweet, Mr. Musk replied, “lmao.”

Ryan Mac and Erin Griffith contributed reporting.

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