Après Twitter, the Deluge?

The social network is global, but what comes next may not be. 

By , a reporter at Foreign Policy.
An illustration shows icons for social media platforms Mastodon, Koo, and Post falling over a descending Twitter bird icon.
An illustration shows icons for social media platforms Mastodon, Koo, and Post falling over a descending Twitter bird icon.
Foreign Policy illustration

On the day in mid-November when Elon Musk told Twitter’s remaining employees to commit to being “hardcore” or leave, Mayank Bidawatka landed in San Francisco on a one-way ticket and checked into an Airbnb downtown. 

Bidawatka, the co-founder of Indian social media app Koo, was there to cash in on the disarray inside Musk’s Twitter. 

“It’s just so erratic and chaotic. With every new tweet [from Musk], some new thing happens,” he said in an interview with Foreign Policy soon after arriving in the city. “I think we deserve a chance to be heard. I think we deserve a chance to be tried.” 

On the day in mid-November when Elon Musk told Twitter’s remaining employees to commit to being “hardcore” or leave, Mayank Bidawatka landed in San Francisco on a one-way ticket and checked into an Airbnb downtown. 

Bidawatka, the co-founder of Indian social media app Koo, was there to cash in on the disarray inside Musk’s Twitter. 

“It’s just so erratic and chaotic. With every new tweet [from Musk], some new thing happens,” he said in an interview with Foreign Policy soon after arriving in the city. “I think we deserve a chance to be heard. I think we deserve a chance to be tried.” 

Koo’s fortunes have been intertwined with Twitter’s since day one. The social media platform, sporting a yellow bird logo to Twitter’s recognizable blue one, went mainstream in early 2021 when the Indian government was at loggerheads with Twitter over the company’s refusal to take down some accounts linked to protests in the country. Koo, presented as a homegrown alternative, was enthusiastically touted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, and several prominent officials and agencies have joined the platform (though Modi himself hasn’t yet). 

The stakes are even higher now. Things inside Twitter have gone from bad to worse since Musk took over the company and laid off more than half of its global workforce, with reports of unpaid rent, a data center shutdown, and service outages around the world. 

Musk himself has repeatedly cast doubt on Twitter’s viability, previously floating the possibility of bankruptcy and likening the platform to a plane about to crash. 

A world without Twitter appears more likely by the day, and Koo is not the only rival waiting in the wings to replace it. 

Millions have flocked to Mastodon, a nonprofit social media app founded by German developer Eugen Rochko in 2016 that functions as a collection of different platforms, or “servers,” rather than a single unified platform. Mastodon was installed nearly 3 million times worldwide in November (Musk took over Twitter on Oct. 27), a 138 percent increase from the previous month, according to data from market intelligence firm Sensor Tower. 

Rochko has previously said he created Mastodon—years before Musk took over Twitter—because he was dissatisfied with Twitter’s platform and had concerns about too much control over speech by a single corporation.

Senior European technology officials, including antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager, have touted Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter. 

Gerard de Graaf, Europe’s new senior digital envoy to Silicon Valley, also singled out Mastodon in a recent interview with Foreign Policy. “If Twitter goes bust, you would expect in a well-functioning market that some alternative will arise,” he said. 

Mastodon’s sudden growth appears to be largely restricted to the West for now. The app’s downloads in the past two months came primarily from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, according to Sensor Tower. 

Koo, meanwhile, has the opposite problem. The vast majority of its user base is still concentrated in India, Bidawatka said. The platform formally launched in its second country, Brazil, only in November, where it racked up more than a million downloads in its first month. Sensor Tower data shows those two countries accounted for more than 90 percent of new downloads in November and December. Nigeria’s government also began using Koo in June 2021, in the midst of its ultimately temporary ban on Twitter

Still, Bidawatka—as evidenced by his impromptu trip to Silicon Valley—feels that now is the moment for Koo to break into the U.S. market.

Koo might have tried to build its U.S. base more systematically if it weren’t for Twitter’s Musk-induced chaos, he said. “I think now is a time when you need to let people know en masse.” It’s been slow going so far—the United States accounted for only 1 percent of Koo downloads in November and December. 

Noam Bardin, the former CEO of Google-owned mapping tool Waze, recently started his own Twitter rival called Post, but he has kept the platform gated while it establishes operations and policies. As of Dec. 12, Post had just over 300,000 users, with around twice that number on a waitlist.

Twitter’s demise “would be terrible for freedom of expression and for the dissemination of political speech and alternative views,” said Yaman Akdeniz, a digital rights campaigner and law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University. Akdeniz uses his own country, Turkey, as an example, where Twitter fills “an important vacuum” for independent speech. 

“Turkey will have an extremely crucial general elections during 2023, and although I am not sure how much Musk cares about freedom of expression outside the U.S., the platform remains as the most important platform for political debate,” he said. “So, I believe, a world without Twitter would be initially devastating for freedom of expression.”

Building that global influence has taken Twitter nearly two decades, several missteps, and a continuous recalibration of the platform’s operations.

“Twitter was as influential as it was because it had a degree of legitimacy and credibility with two groups of people: one is global civil society and the other is whichever state permitted it to operate,” said Chinmayi Arun, executive director of Yale University’s Information Society Project, adding that continuous engagement with both of those groups shaped internal governance, content policies, and business decisions for all Silicon Valley social media companies. 

“I think we’re at a stage right now where Twitter is undoing all of what it did to earn this legitimacy and credibility,” she said. 

For the moment, Musk’s latest big-ticket purchase remains online and functional. Rival platforms have had some wins: Twitter is filled with links to Mastodon and Post profiles, while Koo already has the backing of Indian government officials and recently added Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the Dalai Lama to its user base. 

But the initial gold rush after Musk’s Twitter takeover has slowed. According to Sensor Tower, downloads of both Mastodon and Koo fell by around 80 percent in December. 

Although Twitter has effectively created and functioned as a “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” to quote Musk’s words when he first decided to buy the platform, the loss of that town square may not necessarily result in a single, direct substitute.

Younger social media users who tend to be early adopters and trendsetters on the internet have been gravitating toward smaller online communities, according to Anne Collier, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Net Safety Collaborative who previously served on Twitter’s now-disbanded Trust and Safety Council. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms rode a particular moment of rapid global internet growth, she added, but that space has been shrinking. Countries such as China and Russia are closing off their digital spaces to the rest of the world, and even governments such as India and the European Union are taking an increasingly hawkish stance against Silicon Valley companies.

Twitter’s demise—or even its current limping along under Musk—could well hasten that process.

“Twitter was kind of that ancient Roman forum where a community could come together, but it could be lots of communities that would meet based on their interests,” Collier said. “The loss of that forum is leaving a huge hole that I don’t see being replaced.”

The big questions for potential replacements will be whether they are prepared to handle a sudden influx of tens of millions of users, and how equipped they are to deal with issues such as misinformation and hate speech that have plagued Twitter and other platforms.

Rochko remains Mastodon’s sole full-time employee, and the company is currently crowdfunded. Despite many approaches from investors in recent weeks, Rochko has said he wants to keep it that way. 

Bidawatka expressed confidence that Koo is “prepared to handle scale” and has processes in place to moderate content and verify users. “Our team is used to handling a sudden influx of people. We’ve had some time to prepare for what we plan to do.”

He did recognize that the company will have to expand and branch out from its current base in Bengaluru, known as India’s Silicon Valley, where nearly all of its 200 employees are based. Around 50 of those are focused on content moderation, he said, backstopping Koo’s machine-learning tools and working with fact-checkers to root out hate speech, misinformation, and other inappropriate or illegal content.

Ultimately, he hopes that Koo’s structural similarity to Twitter and its relative ease of use will convince people to join, and its support for posts in several different languages will heighten its global appeal. “We’ve always kept the skin the same,” he said. “We made it that easy for anybody to connect with anybody else. This is what makes this network extremely thick.” 

Arun said that platforms’ abilities to deal with problematic content will be the make-or-break factor. 

“One is doing a backsliding, and then the others are just all very different models that have never had to moderate content at this scale before,” she said. “It takes a lot of resources to do content moderation and to engage with all of these people who need to feel like the platform is hearing them and changing.” 

Bidawatka, meanwhile, flew back to India on Christmas Day. But he’s contemplating a return to Silicon Valley later this month.

“I don’t look at this as a short sprint,” he told FP in early January. “For me, this is a marathon.”

Rishi Iyengar is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Iyengarish

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