Joining a new social network in 2023 is an odd, lonely, quiet experience. By now, most of us who are active social networkers have established communities online.
We follow, and are followed by, a relatively large number of people on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Your followers may be true friends, business colleagues, family members, fans and other constituents.
Likewise, the people you follow may fall into similar categories, with the addition of people and companies you're interested in, but are unrequited in terms of follow-back interest. These might be celebrities, big companies, customer service organizations, or feeds of information you care about.
But when you join a new social network, all of that is gone. You're starting out new. Yes, a few of your friends might have invited you to join, so you might have a core group you're still familiar with, but it's still very quiet.
The Bluesky community
For example, I very recently joined Bluesky due to an invite I got from one of my tech press colleagues. I knew of about 20 other people on Bluesky, also in the tech press, so I followed them. A few of them followed me back.
But compare that to my Twitter community, where I'm following 19.5K accounts and have 22.8K followers. On Twitter, the community feels like a bustling metropolis. On Bluesky, it feels like homeroom
Threads, Meta's bid to unseat Twitter, is another example. Threads is tightly integrated into Instagram, so much so that my Instagram profile picture and description were automatically moved into threads:
As you can see, I have 122 followers. Honestly, that's quite a lot for the total of four posts I've made thus far on the service. The desktop version doesn't show how many people I follow. But it is possible to find out the size of your community by clicking the phone app, then the heart icon, and then the little icon at the top of the screen under All. Yes, it's convoluted.
Then, you can click a tab to see how many followers you have and how many you follow (I apparently follow 108). There are also a bunch of folks in pending (233).
Writing this, I was initially a bit baffled by where all these follows and followers came from. I've only interacted with Threads for those four posts, and I certainly didn't follow all that many people. But ZDNET's Lance Whitney explains that on setup, you can follow the same accounts you follow on Instagram. I must have done this. But since not all of those accounts are on Threads, the people I'm following on Instagram who have not set up their Threads are listed as Pending (including the names of a few friends who are no longer with us).
I described Twitter as feeling like a city and Bluesky as feeling like a homeroom, at least in terms of the size of my following community. Threads, with a following community of a few hundred, doesn't feel like anything. Maybe it's because it's all phone-based, but I don't get any vibe from it at all.
Most people I follow have posted the obligatory "I'm here" post, and a few additional ones, but my feed isn't nearly as relevant to me (more on that below) from Facebook or Instagram. Threads needs time to age. I guess it will become interesting eventually.
Then there's Mastodon
I haven't signed up for Mastodon. While you can read a master feed of everyone you follow on Mastodon, your social feed runs on one individual server. If you want to have a Mastodon account, you need to set one up on a specific server.
If you don't like the server you signed up for, you can move your followers to a new server. But you can't move any of your content. Mastodon supports content export, but not content import. So you need to choose well.
The problem is, joining a Mastodon server feels a lot like joining a homeowner's association. There are some open servers, but there are also a lot of servers where you have to apply for membership and support the group rules. In a sense, this is more like Facebook groups than Twitter.
I did apply to a few servers that seemed interesting, didn't hear back from a few, and got turned down by one. They didn't like some articles I wrote and didn't want me to be a member of their community. Bummer, dude.
Personally, I feel that there just isn't enough upside to Mastodon for me to continue trying to join one of the gated communities, and some of the open community services (like mastodon.social) were slow enough to make the experience less than compelling.
That said, a lot of my tech journalism colleagues seem drawn to Mastodon, so if you're more inclined toward the interest-based community approach Mastodon offers, give it a try.
Bluesky vs. Threads
Bluesky is still in beta and feels like a mostly complete service. Threads is a released product that feels very unfinished. For example, earlier today the desktop web interface (such as it is) for Threads completely failed. It's back now.
Both of these have some heavy-hitter backing. Bluesky was started by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. Here's the company's description of its founding:
Bluesky was initially a project kicked off by Jack Dorsey when he was CEO of Twitter in 2019. Jack chose Jay to lead Bluesky, and Twitter paid Bluesky services income to build an open social protocol for public conversation that it could someday become a client on. Bluesky has been an independent company since its formation in 2021.
In late 2022, Twitter chose to sever the service agreement with Bluesky, and Bluesky agreed. The Bluesky PBLLC has continued to pursue its original founding mission to "develop and drive large-scale adoption of technologies for open and decentralized public conversation."
Threads, of course, is backed by Meta/Facebook/Instagram, which means it has a lot of runway and availability of resources.
Bluesky has a full mobile and desktop environment. Threads has a mobile environment with most of the necessary functionality, but the desktop web environment only lets you look at your own profile. You can't post and you can't browse your feed.
This may not matter for those who just post selfies when they're out and about. But for those of us who curate our posts, or post links to stories we write or find interesting, Bluesky is definitely the winner. It's much harder to curate a social media strategy solely on the phone. To be fair, Instagram has owned its segment of the market with a very phone-centric app, but although it has reach, it's inconvenient for professional social media users.
Bluesky has one feed that's just made up of the people you follow, and another that's called What's Hot. That's a general list populated by posts with higher engagement. As you can see, the level of discussion is much more in keeping with the sorts of things I might be interested in. This makes sense because the few people I currently follow on Bluesky are people who say interesting things.
As for Threads, I have no idea what is going through the Meta collective mind. It appears that the Home feed consists of whatever Threads wants to feed. As such, I got Paris Hilton (she's still around?) and a Kardashian (not, apparently, to be confused with a Cardassian) in my Home feed. There was no profanity, so that's something. But… why?
With a feed like that, I find Threads personally worthless as a source of information. I might consider posting some of my articles to it, but I'm much more likely to ignore it until it's possible to separate the wheat from the Kardashian.
Bluesky has potential. I've yet to see a discussion I feel compelled to participate in, but many of the items posted are interesting. As for Threads, it's an app on my phone that's hanging on by a thread. We'll see in six months if it grows into anything useful.
That's the key takeaway, I think: let's see in six months. Remember that Twitter and Facebook are positively ancient by comparison to these alternate solutions. Twitter, for all its faults and weird changes, is battle tested. So is Facebook. But Bluesky and Threads are barely out of their diapers.
Give them time. Both the Meta team and Dorsey and the team he's put together completely "get" social networking. They've been there. They've done that. Expect most of the complaints and massive annoyances to go away, with the exception of the few things we find annoying that the dev teams may have decided to bake into their business models, like whatever monetization schemes both will surely come up with.
It certainly doesn't hurt to sign up for an account and claim your name. Give each service whatever attention you can spare. But give them time and don't take them all that seriously. Yet.
What about you? Are you on Bluesky or Threads? What has your experience been? Do you expect to migrate away from Twitter to one or the other? What about Mastodon? Is its approach to walled garden social media something that appeals to you? Let us know in the comments below.