No matter how carefully you curate your experience, many people agree that Twitter can be unhealthy for most of those involved. It’s probably the easiest place to troll online, despite being seen as a quieter alternative to Facebook when first released back in 2006.
Their advertising revenue continues to soar, and they recorded an incredible 330 million users worldwide as of the first quarter of 2019.
If you’re thinking about quitting the site, we’ve prepared a guide with some of the best ethical alternatives to Twitter, as well as reasons why it’s smart to curb your usage.
The origins of Twitter
It feels like Twitter has been around forever, but most people over the age of 30 will remember it coming out in the mid 2000s. It was originally seen as a place for inane chat and mindless updates, and you could argue that little changed over the following decade.
Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey eventually moved the service online from an SMS-based platform, which is where the original 140 character limit comes from. The user base continued to grow, despite failing to make a quarterly profit until the end of 2017. It’s worth noting that they’ve decided to stop sharing monthly active user figures, which could indicate a gradual decline.
The development stage was reasonably murky, as a team was formed to work on podcast-focused app Odeo in 2005. Apple put an end to that thanks to iTunes competing in the podcast space, so a new product was needed quickly.
Dorsey came up with the idea for Twitter, and Odeo’s CEO Evan Williams bought stocks back from the original investors after sending them a letter saying:
“Almost two months after launch, Twitter has less than 5,000 registered users. I will continue to invest in Twitter, but it’s hard to say it justifies the venture investment Odeo certainly holds — especially since that investment was for a different market altogether.”
After five years, the company was worth a thousand times the initial investment of $5m. Though users still post jokes and cat videos, it’s now a breeding ground for more arguments than your average reality TV show. There’s always someone spoiling for a fight, and it’s hard to tell if it’s state-sponsored chicanery, an honest disagreement, or random trolling.
It can still be a worthwhile platform, with the ability to resolve problems in times of an emergency, or just to communicate with people around the world. Eighty-five percent of small and medium business users rely on Twitter to provide customer service, highlighting the potential it has when used meaningfully.
7 Reasons to Avoid Twitter
There are a heap of reasons why it’s best to avoid Twitter if possible. Here are seven of the most convincing arguments for why it’s at least worth cutting down the time you spend on the site:
1. Trolling and hate speech
We might as well start with one of the biggest problems on social media. Trolling can affect anyone from celebrities to kids, and has only gotten worse as the platform has grown. We’ll discuss state-sponsored trolling below, but individuals spouting hate speech are also a problem for the site. Women are particularly affected, while race and sexuality are also factors.
Amnesty International and Element AI found that “black women were disproportionately targeted, being 84% more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets. One in ten tweets mentioning black women was abusive or problematic, compared to one in fifteen for white women.”
Ten percent might not sound massive, but that’s a lot of abuse when scaled up to match Twitter’s current size. What’s worse still is that the site estimates that fewer than 1% of all accounts are reported for abuse. It certainly makes the experience worse for the other 99% of users.
Maybe it’s nostalgia talking, but originally trolling seemed more about getting a rise, rather than actual abuse. Everything from casual racism to death threats are now thrown about with casual abandon, and it seems to be impossible for Twitter to stop it all.
Despite announcing using a combination of unspecified tools, policies, and processes to stem the abuse, this has only led to an 8% overall drop in reports. It’s clearly a step in the right direction, but that’s scant consolation for anyone who receives both barrels for no reason.
Alternative social media platforms don’t allow for any hate speech, and can be carefully curated to remove trolls.
2. Spam & Fake Accounts
Twitter is synonymous with spam, from dodgy adult accounts to garbled nonsense responses. As soon as you sign up you can expect to be inundated with follows and requests from bogus accounts that are trying to sell something or other, and the same goes for replies to tweets. For now, the best response is to block and report the sender, or use filters on your main feed.
It’s not difficult to identify most fake accounts, but they are beginning to become more sophisticated due to the time and effort spent refining their methods over the years. However, the site has made a public effort to stem the tide of fakery.
Twitter has responded by limiting the number of accounts you can follow per day, down from 1000 to 400. In the beginning of 2018, they also limited “the ability of users to perform coordinated actions across multiple accounts.” Twitter banned the use of “any form of automation to post identical or substantially similar content”, which does help to stop the same things from appearing on your timeline. Regardless, fake accounts still abound on the platform.
3. Fake News
Fake News. Most of us hardly have enough time to click links, and the sensationalised nature of real life makes it easy to believe almost anything.
Fake news does well on social media in easily digestible chunks. Infographics, images and quotes are widely shared, and it only takes two seconds to retweet something if it fits your worldview.
A 2018 study by a trio of MIT scholars investigated how quickly false news spreads on Twitter. They found false news travels more rapidly than real news, at a rate of up to six times faster. Rather than bots, they found it was unique accounts that did the majority of the sharing and retweeting, especially when it came to political topics. They found that “false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are.”
In other words, most of us share and retweet what we want to hear. A quote misattributed to Mark Twain states: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” This certainly seems to be true for social media.
The spreading of fake news is often done by individuals, and it’s worth remembering that much of what we see on social media represents extremes, posted by people with clear agendas. It’s also happening on a larger scale, with governments attempting to sway public opinion surrounding current events. Twitter recently disclosed “a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change.”
They found 936 accounts from China “were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground.”
Twitter is an ideal breeding ground for many types of disinformation, and the platform itself acknowledges the work of state-backed agents. This can also spread beyond politics, feeding conspiracies and other theories on the fringe. A 2018 study in the American Journal of Public Health looked at the impact by “Twitter bots and Russian trolls” on the vaccine debate. They concluded:
“Whereas bots that spread malware and unsolicited content disseminated anti-vaccine messages, Russian trolls promoted discord. Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination.”
NoBias is great if you’re planning to read news on social media. It “provides context around articles” by including information like biases of the article and the credibility of the author.
It’s easy to tie things together on Twitter, creating a false narrative despite the measures the social media platform has managed to put in place. The easiest way to avoid it is to step back from Twitter entirely, and you might be surprised by the difference in your mood.
4. Poor Visibility and Shouting Into the Void
From a marketing perspective, adverts tend to have poor visibility compared to other social media alternatives. It’s a problem as your content can get lost between the endless stream of updates, which doesn’t lead to as many clicks and purchases by customers unless you really know what you’re doing. Many brands now have a ‘personality’, using memes to drum up attention for their product.
The platform is ideal for providing instant customer service, and every company should have a social media presence of some sort. However, as a user, it does feel like you’re constantly being sold something while scrolling down, and ads have become increasingly prominent.
Most people don’t have the large number of followers that companies do, leading to fewer responses to the average tweet. It can feel like shouting into the void, and it’s hard to find engagement without mass following accounts, or being consistently funny or shocking. For the majority, their tweets mostly pass by with no reply, so it’s often like an online diary which nobody bothers to read.
5. Addictiveness and Tunnel Vision
Social media is addictive by design, and Twitter is no exception. Every like or retweet gives the user a buzz, tapping into their natural learning processes with a trigger. It’s the same dopamine hit you’ll receive from any reward, and our lifestyle can change as we start to reinforce the behaviour with extended use. It’s why a significant amount of users seem to be on Twitter 24/7, constantly replying to a barrage of tweets. This can lead to an information overload, and the user can become desensitised to the content they’re consuming so rapidly.
Research by Anxiety UK suggests that young people who spend more than two hours per day on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram are more likely to report poor mental health, including “psychological distress”. If you’re feeling down, it could be best to step away for at least a week or so.
If you don’t follow people with a variety of political viewpoints, it’s easy to have tunnel vision when it comes to certain issues. Twitter is especially guilty of this, unless you’re as nonpartisan as possible. Echo chambers and safe spaces can be a dangerous combination, no matter your political viewpoint. There are better platforms if you actually want to have a discussion, and we’ve listed some of the best ethical ones below.
Twitter freely admits to collecting all sorts of data from the average user, and it’s likely to be more than you might have expected. They use DMs to “show more relevant content”, and collect additional external data from third-party companies and websites with Twitter integration to further profile users for advertising purposes.
You can turn off some data collection in the Privacy and Safety menu when you’re logged in. The Personalisation & Data page is what you’re looking for, and it’s best to turn it all off when you get the chance.
They’ve also had issues with data protection in the past. Passwords were found to be stored in plain text due to a bug in May 2018, while another flaw allowed developers to read users’ private direct messages in September of the same year. The flaws are shocking considering the size of the company, and how committed they are to keeping data to themselves.
Twitter has also reportedly fallen short of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) guidelines in the past, refusing to hand over information to privacy researcher Michael Veale after he asked for all of the data they had on him in 2018. This was the first investigation they faced about compliance with GDPR privacy rules.
Released in 2016, Twitter’s “quality filter” worked to remove content like “duplicate Tweets or content that appears to be automated” from timelines. In typical fashion, they never released any details about how they determined the value of content, or what would cause it be flagged in the first place. In July 2019, the site decided to remove the Quality Filter feature as it was “confusing” for many users.
They’ve removed a number of extreme personalities and news outlets recently, but only after they’d violated the terms and conditions in some shape or form. Dorsey denied that his platform was politically selective, but there is a clear schism when it comes to the leanings of many of those who have been banned in the last few years. You don’t have to agree with their viewpoints to see the potential for problems if social media platforms go unchecked when banning users. Big Brother Watch had a Free Speech Online campaign in 2018 which discussed how this could be an issue: “Social media companies are censoring views and deleting accounts haphazardly, often in response to political tides rather than rule breaches, effectively playing judge and jury with our rights.”
Far-right radio host Alex Jones was one of the many fringe voices affected, with a complete ban by many social media sites impacting his ability to communicate with a wider audience. This was welcomed by many who were unimpressed with his recent track record on numerous issues.
However, deplatforming is only likely to hide the problem in the short term, feeding into theories about efforts to censor “alternative voices”. It could push them further to the fringes, and it removes any possibility of changing minds. Megan Phelps-Roper’s family founded the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, but she credits Twitter with her first “conscious doubts” about their hateful ideology. Phelps-Roper went on to marry a Jewish man (Chad Fjelland) after he changed her mind with patient conversations and contradictions to her narrow worldview.
Twitter have recently started “conducting in-house research” to decide whether they should ban white supremecists from their site. Their former stance was that it’s better to let them engage to expose the flaws in their thinking, but it’s arguably too late to reverse negative trends that are already found on the platform.
Ethical Twitter Alternatives:
It’s hard to match the sheer size of Twitter’s audience. Nearly everybody has an account, even if it’s hardly used, with many people obliged to keep one open for work or social commitments.
We’ve come up with a list of ethical Twitter alternatives if you’re ready to make the switch, although none come close in size as of yet. They could all do with a boost in user numbers, so try and take a friend or two along with you!
We’d also appreciate any suggestions for further ethical websites or services which could be useful when trying to remove Twitter from your life.
This has to be the first ethical alternative on our list. Mastodon grew at an incredible rate after its release in 2016, promising to be a friendlier social network compared to what we’re used to. It’s open-source and decentralised, and looks a lot like Twitter at first glance. Mastodon is split between thousands of websites, each serving its own purpose for a dedicated community. They don’t sell any user data, and the character limit is 500 per post, which are called “toots”.
Midway through 2019, users of far-right social network site Gab mass migrated to Mastodon, threatening to spill over into other communities. The site has taken steps to “isolate Gab and keep hate speech off the fediverse”, but it does expose some of the problems with a decentralised social media platform. Problematic users can be blocked, but nobody has the power to remove them altogether.
Movim (My Open Virtual Identity Manager) is another open-source option, with the added bonus of using XMPP for communication. This means you can chat with other XMPP users, and they won’t have to be using Movim. It grew rapidly with the demise of Google+, when users flocked to the privacy-centred app instead.
Available on iOS, Android, and desktop devices, with lots of good features. It’s decentralised, and there are no adverts on the platform. You can talk with friends, check out the latest news, or find a community to join. They also have a small Twitter account.
Micro.blog is visually similar to Twitter, although it lacks a few of the flashy features we’ve come to expect from the social media giant. While it still has a way to go, Micro.blog allows you to publish short Tweet-like posts, and offers replies, conversations, and a timeline for following your friends. It’s close enough, and the Discover timeline should give you a good idea of the content you can expect.
“[T]he platform was designed, from the beginning, to prevent abuse and harassment”, and you can check its Community Guidelines to find out more about the Safe Reply feature which works to prevent abusive messages from people you don’t follow.
Similar in style to Reddit, Aether is great if you want to connect with like-minded people. Unlike Reddit or Twitter, content disappears after six months, and communities are free to elect their own mods and leaders. It’s a smaller project, yet to release any mobile apps, but currently runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. The actions of moderators are also transparent and open to all users, which should help to keep the community happy. It comes with dark mode as the default option, and you can join (or create) new groups easily. There aren’t many flaws, and it’s only going to get better with time.
Scuttlebutt is “a decent(ralised) secure platform”, which takes a bit of time to get used to. The name derives from an old sailing term for gossip, giving you a better idea of what it’s generally used for.
It’s open-source, and uses external applications to read the messages on display. The most popular is Patchwork, which can be used both off- and online. An FAQ helps to explain its terminology, as well as how it works in layman’s terms.
Ethical Periscope alternatives:
There isn’t a like-for-like ethical alternative to Periscope as yet, although that could change in the next few years. Periscope, a live video streaming app acquired by Twitter before it launched in 2015, is used to stream videos via a mobile app, and is great for anything from journalism to live events.
Viewers can respond to the feed in real time, creating an immediacy found on similar platforms like Twitch. Periscope is fully integrated with Twitter, and content is ephemeral, disappearing after a set amount of time (normally 24 hours).
Though their association with the social media giant should be a boon, there are fears that Periscope could eventually go the way of Vine. The latter had over 200 million active users at its peak, but was eventually discontinued in 2016 due to similar services being offered by other companies.
Periscope isn’t dead yet, but it doesn’t look good for the future of the app. High profile streamers have left the platform in droves, and it’s been described as a “shell of its former self”.
How to stop Twitter tracking you around the web
The social media site was able to turn a profit thanks to its ability to sell advertising space – unnerving, considering the amount of data they hoover up. They’re making more money with fewer active users in recent years, which gives an indication of how well they track people, and at monetising the resulting data. You’ll have to avoid the platform completely for best results, but whether you’re logged in or not they’ll still collect data while your account is active.
It’s also worth looking at a browser extension like Privacy Badger to keep some of the trackers at bay. Deleting your account is only the first step, and if you’re not sure what to do, we’ve provided a quick guide below.
Closing your Twitter account
It’s nowhere near as difficult as the likes of Facebook, but you’ll still have to wait if you want to close your Twitter account for good. Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to account deletion on the desktop site.
- Log in, and click on Settings and privacy in the drop-down menu under your profile.
- Go to the Account tab, and click Deactivate your account.
- Click Deactivate @username, and enter your password.
- Confirm by clicking Deactivate account one final time.
If you’re still on the fence about getting rid of Twitter, deactivated accounts can be reactivated within thirty days by logging into the service with your credentials. You won’t be able to do so after that period is up, as they’ll start deleting your data, but they’re hoping you’ll change your mind before then.
If you might want to rejoin Twitter using the same email address, you’ll need to switch the associated email address before the 30-day period is up.
Royal Society for Public Health (link)
Anxiety UK (link)
Center for Humane Technology (link)
Privacy International (link)
Resources: Further reading
- “Social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing” (link)
- “More privacy concerns hit Twitter” (link)
- “I quit social media for a month — and it was the best choice I’ve ever made” (link)
- “How Twitter Fuels Anxiety” (link)
- “Unfollow: How a prized daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church came to question its beliefs” (link)