December 25, 2022

Why Mastodon (and Nostr) won't repeat Twitter's success

Mastodon and Nostr are open-source, decentralized social networking platforms that were created as alternatives to Twitter. Both platforms have gained popularity in recent years, but they have not reached the same level of mainstream adoption as Twitter.

There are several straightforward reasons why Mastodon and Nostr will not be able to repeat Twitter's success:

  1. Network effects: Twitter has a large user base, which makes it more attractive to new users. When a social networking platform has a lot of users, it becomes more valuable because there are more people to connect with and more content to consume. This creates a virtuous cycle where more users lead to more value, which leads to more users. Mastodon and Nostr, on the other hand, have much smaller user bases, which makes them less attractive to new users.
  2. Ecosystem: Twitter has a robust ecosystem of third-party tools and services that make it easier for users to engage with the platform. For example, there are tools for scheduling tweets, analyzing performance, and managing multiple accounts. Mastodon and Nostr do not have as developed of an ecosystem, which makes it harder for users to fully utilize the platforms.
  3. Brand recognition: Twitter is a well-known brand with a strong reputation. This makes it easier for users to trust the platform and for businesses to advertise on it. Mastodon and Nostr, on the other hand, are not as well known, which makes it harder for them to gain the same level of trust and attract the same level of advertising revenue.
  4. User experience: Twitter has a simple, user-friendly interface that makes it easy for users to navigate and engage with the platform. Mastodon and Nostr have more complex interfaces that may be intimidating for some users.
  5. Novel Use-case: These platforms just don't allow you to do anything new. Twitter clones with fewer users will always be just that: lesser versions of Twitter, that remind you how much better Twitter is, or was.

Mastodon, has absolutely succeeded in solving for point #4: User Experience. With time, it could chip away at #1 (Network Effects) and #3 (Brand Recognition) a tiny bit. But #5 (Novel Use-case) is the thing that made Twitter a huge success, and will absolutely destroy its clones.

I think most Twitter users today take social media for granted, and are forgetting the use-cases unlocked by Twitter when it launched in 2006-2007, when a group of tech nerds took the stage at SXSW and conned a bunch of famous people into interacting directly with their audiences on a novel digital platform, with no monetization, network, or even the stability to stay online most of the time.

In 2007, this was crazy, and it had never been done before. Even though many accounts were puppeted by an agent or social media "expert", it gave the impression you were hearing and interacting directly with "famous" people, previously out of touch for the general public.

See a timelapse of top Twitter accounts over time

Twitter gave people the ability to do something (as Twitter users, not creators), that they previously couldn't. And this made it one of the must-have apps of the late 2000s, and supercharged it's growth for the next decade.

The problem is, while you might not like Twitter anymore, and Twitter may become a lesser version of what it once was, it still has the network, and it still fulfills this basic purpose. And you can't just build a carbon copy of Twitter without the bad parts, and convince people to switch over, if Twitter still kind of works. It spends years, up until the theoretical point where it has "all the users" being a crappier version of Twitter, with an unclear value proposition.

In summary, Mastodon and Nostr face a number of challenges in their quest to repeat Twitter's success. These challenges include network effects, a less developed ecosystem, lower brand recognition, and a less user-friendly interface.

The next platform that capitalizes off Twitter's rumored demise will need to enable users to do something they couldn't previously. And neither Mastodon or Nostr really do that.