Estimated reading time: 11 minute(s)
Mr. Elon Musk’s on-again, off-again quest to purchase Twitter for the sum of $44 billion dollars is, as of July 10, 2022, off again. Mr. Musk is known to be a fan of The Babylon Bee, a popular Christian satire site that one could roughly say fills a similar niche on the political right that The Onion fills on the political left. According to Mr. Seth Dillon, the CEO of The Babylon Bee, Twitter’s decision to indefinitely suspend The Babylon Bee’s account played a role in inspiring Mr. Musk to buy Twitter. Whatever the truth is about Mr. Musk’s true intentions regarding Twitter or the effect of Twitter’s censoring The Babylon Bee on those intentions, there was no doubt that the Bee would produce important news content about Mr. Musk’s decision to pull out of the Twitter deal. The Bee did not disappoint with its July 8, 2022 feature story: Elon Musk Backs Out Of Twitter Deal After Realizing He Can Read The Babylon Bee By Going Directly To Their Website. The Bee’s satirical article reported Mr. Musk as having said the following about his decision to not buy Twitter:
‘Whew! I almost wasted a bundle!’ said Musk to reporters. ‘I almost plopped down $44 billion just to bring the Babylon Bee back to Twitter, and it turns out they had their own website this whole time? Awesome!’
The Bee’s article is funny in and of itself, and like good political and social satire, it implicitly conveys an important point about centralized, censorious social media platforms that endeavor to control and manipulate the media and news consumption of products (I mean users).
Back in February 2021, I published an article recommending RSS as a Facebook alternative (see this post for a general introduction to RSS and Atom feeds). The prompt for that article was that Facebook had decided to ban links to certain Australian news and government sites in response to Australian government policies. Instead of focusing on the debate between Facebook and the Australian Government, I noted that several people quoted in the article expressed grave concerns about what Facebook’s decision would mean for people who relied on Facebook for news updates. I argued that Facebook should never be relied upon for news. Its newsfeed is controlled by Facebook’s algorithm and the objective of Facebook’s algorithm is to keep advertisers happy, keep products (also known as customers) controlled by Facebook, and in some cases, to narrow the universe of acceptable content to that which is amenable to Facebook executives and stakeholders. I suggested feeds (RSS and Atom) as an alternative to relying on Facebook for news – noting that feeds empower users to choose the sources from which they will consume news and other content instead of leaving the decision to social media executives and government officials who have other agendas.
While Facebook has a vastly larger engaged user-base than does Twitter, all of the criticisms I had of using Facebook for news apply with even more force to Twitter. Facebook is objectively terrible, but it is, first and foremost, a commercial enterprise dedicated to monetizing its products (users). To that effect, it provides a substantial number of services to its products that have little to do with news consumption or narrative-shaping. Twitter is structurally different, and its those differences in structure that give Twitter cultural influences that is dramatically out of proportion to its actual user-base. Back in April, I cited favorably to an article by Mr. Auron MacIntyre explaining why Twitter is influential. Mr. MacIntyre wrote:
Twitter is the preferred platform for our elites. Journalists and media pundits, i.e. the people responsible for weaving The Narrative that every American is forced to ingest (whether they realize it or not) all operate within the bird app.
I followed up with my own assessment:
Twitter’s importance derives not from a large number of active users, but from its centrality to the people who create narratives.
One of Twitter’s key purposes is to develop narratives and define the Overton Window for certain journalists, politicians, and corporations. Some people who supported Mr. Musk’s take-over bid of Twitter did so because of his promises to turn Twitter into a proverbial public square where all sentiments that fell within the confines of the applicable laws of the given jurisdiction would be on equal footing. Others, including me, supported the bid because of its promise to break the cultural power of Twitter and those who benefit from it. (See my 2020 post on fact-checking reform for more of my views on related issues.)
But I digress – let us return to the moral of the Bee’s new satire on Mr. Musk. Behind the joke about Mr. Musk suddenly realizing that one does not need Twitter to read The Babylon Bee is a profound truth about content consumption – the very truth that I examined in detail in my post on RSS and Facebook. Social media platforms are terrible content aggregators because they turn users into commodities for their own purposes. Their algorithms curate content in such a manner as to keep users glued to their platforms or enraptured by the preferred narratives of those behind the algorithms. In contrast to finding content on one’s own or consuming content through user-curated feeds, big tech proprietary social media platforms make consumables out of consumers.
Alternatives to Twitter For Following Twitter
Because this article focuses on Twitter, let us consider the three types of news and media content that one may seek to use Twitter to consume:
- Content from individual users and posters;
- Content from around the web; and
- Real-time content on current events.
The Bee’s satire directly addresses the second point. There is no reason to use Twitter or Facebook as a portal to reading articles on the internet. These platforms should not be trusted as content aggregators. To the extent that one may say that he or she can go to the Twitter feed of a website that he or she enjoys, the Bee correctly notes that one can just as well go directly to the source. RSS and Atom feeds provide the optimal solution. With a feed reader, one can collect the feeds of his or her favorite websites in one place and receive real-time content updates without any algorithms or intermediaries.
Although the first and third points are distinct, I will discuss them together because the solution to avoiding dependency on Twitter for both is similar. One use-case for Twitter is commentary on real-time events. I estimate that the myriad Arab Spring revolutions and the ensuing Syrian Civil War brought Twitter to the forefront as a news source for disasters and other major breaking occasions. However, relying on Twitter to choose which breaking news updates one receives from a conflict or other breaking event – for example by searching a hashtag or executing a text search within Twitter – is folly. Twitter’s objectives in conflicts are the same as its general algorithmic objections. Many people have relied on Twitter posters for content about the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, and despite Twitter’s purported insistence that it polices news of questionable veracity, many spurious accounts of the war situation have found their genesis in the tweets of random Twitter users, echoed by commentators and so-called Twitter influencers.
Here, points one and three come together. While I would not trust the Twitter fire hose for reliable reporting on real-time events, it is certainly the case that there are reliable individual posters and organizations. While no one is perfect, these posters and organizations, provided they have the requisite knowledge (e.g., first-hand, on the ground knowledge or knowledge about pertinent issues such as regional history) can serve as content curators, much in the same way that a good news or commentary site can. To be clear, this is not some fall-back on “expertise” – which has become one of the most abused concepts in our public discourse. I am not making a general assertion of what constitutes a good source – I am only asserting that in the case of just about every issue, there are people (even on Twitter) with factual insights or good commentary on offer. In following individual sources in lieu of the Twitter fire hose, one can take Twitter and its algorithms out of the equation (so long as Twitter does not decide to censor or ban said source, of course).
The same idea that I articulated regarding source for real-time events applies to individual Twitter posters. Now, I will append a caveat before continuing. People who themselves are not compulsive Twitter-posters should use discretion in consuming content from people who only post regularly to Twitter. In 2020, I cited to a quote from Mr. Jason Whitlock, who argued that content creators should only use Twitter to promote content, not to produce content. If a creator users Twitter to promote his or her content, the user should go to the source to enjoy the content without the specter of Twitter. If the user posts all of his or her actual content to Twitter and nowhere else, the user should consider whether this content is good enough to be worth following. As Mr. Haruki Murakami noted, most people are bad at posting to social media, and Twitter’s format is not generally conducive to good content. There is good content on Twitter, but in considering whether content is good, serial Twitter users (stop being that) should consider whether the content would be worth reading outside Twitter’s blue walls.
(Aside: No one should produce content exclusively for Twitter, especially in light of how simple it is to set up a website or presence separate from Twitter. If you post Twitter-exclusive content, consider this guide to Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Everywhere (“POSSE”) for ideas on how to ensure that your Twitter content exists simultaneously on a platform that you control.)
Now let us assume arguendo that you concur in judgment with my critique of Twitter (separate and apart from whether you agree with my precise reasoning) and also that there are a certain number of Twitter accounts that produce content that is (A) worth following and (B) cannot be found elsewhere. Is there no hope but to maintain a Twitter account to follow these invaluable posters? Fear not – save for Twitter content that is marked private, one can easily follow his or her favorite public accounts without so much as making a Twitter account or opening Twitter in a web browser.
I recently posted an article on ProxiTok, a privacy front-end for the abomination that is known as TikTok (which should be banned yesterday). I noted in that post that ProxiTok stood on the shoulders of front-ends for other proprietary social media platforms. One of the most-used front-ends is Nitter, a privacy front-end for Twitter. Like ProxiTok, Nitter is installed on a server and it sits between the user and Twitter, while providing a clean, ad-free interface for Twitter. There are a number of Nitter instances (meaning different installations of Nitter), and some are more reliable than others (ambitious users can run their own instances). One of Nitter’s stand-out features is that it creates RSS feeds for individual Twitter accounts (Twitter itself no longer offers feeds). Thus, Nitter provides two ways to follow individual Twitter users without every interacting directly with Twitter:
- Create bookmarks for the Nitter versions of Twitter account pages;
- Add the RSS feeds for Nitter versions of Twitter accounts to a feed reader.
Nitter essentially allows users to follow Twitter accounts as if they were blogs or regular websites. There are two browser extensions, LibRedirect and Privacy Redirect, that automatically redirect Twitter links to their Nitter analogues (I personally use LibRedirect on Firefox and Privacy Redirect on Chromium-based browsers).
Before continuing, I will note that there are a few additional ways to follow Twitter feeds via RSS. A number of commercial feed readers offer support for converting Twitter into RSS feeds. One interesting free and open source solution is Fraidycat, which is available as a web extension and presents feeds in an interesting way that may work well for some users. RSS Bridge is a self-hostable application for creating RSS feeds for sites that do not otherwise provide them, including Twitter, and there are a number of public instances. This list is not exhaustive, and readers may find through their own searches other free and commercial solutions for creating and handing Twitter RSS feeds.
Android-users (and those running operating systems based on Android – including Fire OS) can install a free and open source application called Fritter – which is available on the Google Play Store and F-Droid (it can also be built from source). Fritter is a Twitter front-end in app form, and it allows for subscribing to accounts and saving favorite tweets offline. Fritter also has useful features such as allowing for followed accounts to be organized into groups. It unfortunately offers trending topics (one of the worst features of Twitter’s algorithm), but they are not forced on users.
For Android users, I would recommend using Nitter bookmarks and/or RSS feeds for following a small number of accounts in lieu of Fritter. However, users who for some reason follow a more significant number of accounts may appreciate Fritter’s easy organizational features and clean user interface.
I covered a number of topics in this article. Having done so, let us wrap the key points together neatly in a conclusion.
Twitter, like Facebook, should never be used as a general news portal. Twitter’s objectives are not aligned with the objectives of users who want to read good content from around the internet. The mildest take on Twitter’s objectives is that Twitter wants to ensure users stay glued to Twitter in order that they become more valuable to Twitter’s advertiser partners.
If one discovers a good blogger or content producer on Twitter, he or she should go to the source – either bookmarking the article or website in question or otherwise subscribing to it directly, whether through a feed, email, or other unspecified option. The best use for Twitter for a content producer is to promote external content. But the ideal inherent in that content promotion is that the user leaves Twitter to obtain the content at the source. For example, I syndicate posts about our content that I make to Mastodon to Twitter, but my idea in doing so is to introduce The New Leaf Journal to Twitter users. That is, I have little interest in people following our Twitter account, I would much prefer that they follow The New Leaf Journal itself.
There are some people who are good at posting content but insist on exclusively posting their content to Twitter. This is terrible and should never be encouraged. However, because some posters are stubborn, it remains the case that their content exists within the walled confines of Twitter. In cases in which such a sad situation is identified, I recommend using Nitter, a different Twitter-RSS solution, or Fritter (for Android and Android-derivative users) to follow individual Twitter accounts while avoiding Twitter’s general unpleasantness and overwhelming tendency to make a products of its users.
Conclusion: RSS as a Twitter Alternative
Much like I did in the case of Facebook, I recommend RSS (I am using RSS to describe feeds generally, thus this includes Atom and JSON feeds as well) as an alternative to Twitter and to all news and content consumption via social media. Social media encourages lazy content consumption and facilitates big tech social media companies that take advantage of the laziness Twitter cultivates to populate their user-bases for advertisers. Users should resist the siren song of effort-free content consumption and take the time to cultivate their own content streams, free from intermediaries, and in so doing build their own digital libraries in their digital homes. While feeds are my preferred forms of content consumption, there are many implementations of feed parsers, from traditional feed-readers to terminal-based feedreaders, and from browser homepages to email-based solutions. For those who do not already have a solution, I created a list of free and open source feed readers as a starting point, but I recommend searching online using a quality search engine or tool to find the solution that works best for your own use-case.