‘Building a Platform Like Twitter Is Not Difficult’

When Elon Musk’s reign of toxic chaos began, Christopher Bouzy didn’t just go looking for a rival place to post. He joined the crowded race to create one. (It got difficult.)
Christopher Bouzy
Photograph: DeSean McClinton-Holland

Looking back, I believe I can pinpoint the exact day I loved Twitter most: May 24, 2011. I was in a small Oregon town for work, coping with loneliness and stress in a shabby motel. With a 22-ounce bottle of high-proof beer, I whiled away the evening by churning out a random assortment of tweets: an article I’d read about the hunt for wild garlic in Quebec, images of an apocalyptic Los Angeles mural, my reasons for adoring the 1985 B movie American Ninja. In a reflective moment, I also managed to craft an earnest observation about my job: “The more social media makes journalism an Everyman’s game,” I mused, “the more I’m inspired to dig deep for non-digitized sources.”

To my surprise, that tweet earned what seemed at the time like an avalanche of approval—a whopping six retweets, plus an admiring reply from a minor internet celebrity. This validation sent me over the moon: The account I’d always thought of as mere public scratch paper actually had an audience that considered my ramblings worthwhile.

I kept chasing that same high over the next decade-plus, but it mostly proved elusive, even when my retweet counts occasionally soared into the thousands. As the platform ballooned, I became self-conscious about drafting tweets. I worried that any slight misstep in phrasing or context might reveal to the masses that I am, in fact, an idiot. I regularly found myself sucked into trivial controversies over some pundit’s stupid take; once the thrill of scrolling through the resulting dunks faded, I’d feel dirty for having once again been turned into a cog in the Global Outrage Machine.

There was, of course, nothing unique about the arc of my relationship with Twitter. Almost everyone who became a hardcore user went through a honeymoon phase before posting gradually devolved into a chore with diminishing psychic rewards and an increasing quotient of scathing abuse. My Twitter compatriots posted bewilderment over their inability to leave “this hell site”; our joy at being heard had morphed into a fear of being ignored.

The end for me came last June. I decided to take a break from Twitter until Labor Day, but early September came and went and I never returned to posting. I still used the platform as a search engine, a way to find on-the-ground coverage of breaking news and grainy highlights from paywalled soccer games, but even those visits became rarer over time.

I never thought of rebooting my social media presence elsewhere until Elon Musk completed his $44 billion takeover of Twitter last fall. As the new regime axed hundreds of engineers and moderators, the platform rapidly frayed. Service hiccups became routine, the algorithmic feed degenerated into a soup of useless tweets, and Musk kept trolling through it all. As Twitter became an ever more miserable place, I watched as the users in my timeline began to strike out for new territory.

It started in October with a wave of defections to Mastodon, an open source, ad-free, decentralized community that was hosted on an archipelago of independent servers. For the briefest of moments, everyone seemed to agree that this brainy successor was destined to save social media. But the enthusiasm quickly waned as people struggled to navigate the platform’s sprawling “Fediverse,” and the Twitter exodus flowed elsewhere. Media obsessives gravitated toward Post, a news-heavy platform founded by Noam Bardin, the former CEO of Waze. “Mastodon is complicated and unsatisfying,” tweeted Kelda Roys, a Democratic state senator in Wisconsin. “Post could be a winner if there were a critical mass there.” Legions of gamers, meanwhile, flocked to Hive Social, an Instagram-influenced app run by a trio of recent college graduates. For all their differences, these platforms were unanimous in voicing one aspiration: to recapture the spirit of “early Twitter.”

Though I usually try to resist nostalgia, I couldn’t help hoping that one of these novel platforms might rekindle the elation I’d felt in that Oregon motel. But all of my trial runs followed the same dispiriting trajectory. After an initial wave of excitement, I’d lose interest within a matter of days. Mastodon’s labyrinthine structure was a pain, Post’s commentariat was bland, and Hive’s app kept crashing. In the race to supplant Twitter, there was no clear winner in sight. And because the Bird App’s awfulness kept hitting new lows, it seemed the cycle of restless searching was bound to drag on.

While poking around in search of more Twitter rivals to try, I discovered that a programmer named Christopher Bouzy also had one in the works. Bouzy is the 48-year-old CEO of Bot Sentinel, an automated service that ascertains whether Twitter accounts are part of coordinated harassment or disinformation campaigns. He was frequently quoted in the media on the subject of online misbehavior; most recently, he’d appeared as an expert in Netflix’s documentary series on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. More than that, Bouzy was a fiendishly entertaining tweeter: a relentlessly online figure who’d attracted more than 380,000 followers with election forecasts and acerbic posts on misinformation and right-wing extremism. To his devotees, many of whom are active in the realms of Black Twitter and Progressive Twitter, he was something of a mirror-world Elon Musk—another tech obsessive beloved for dishing out verbal jabs in defense of his principles.

Yet quite unlike Musk, who has reveled in letting Twitter go largely unmoderated, Bouzy said his goal was to run a platform that would proudly identify as a safe space. He planned to weave Bot Sentinel’s technology right into its infrastructure so that each account could be assigned a score based on its 400 most recent posts—the higher the score, the more likely a person is to be a bad-faith actor. Users could then filter out interactions from everyone whose score registered above a certain threshold or just block accounts flagged as suspicious on a case-by-case basis. Bouzy also aimed to create a responsive moderation system that would aggressively stamp out accounts that spewed hateful rhetoric or lies. “You will never have to beg us to enforce our rules and policies,” he promised, “nor will you have to wait days for us to take action.” Thanks to these safeguards, Bouzy asserted, his platform would be free from the poisonous influence of the internet’s vilest characters—the Nazis, misogynists, and nihilists who delight in filling reply sections with bile.

A Twitter alternative designed to let good vibes reign supreme sounded appealing. But beyond that architectural conceit, Bouzy seemed to have something else going for him: a true affinity for the culture of social media. Bardin, the founder of Post, might have more investment money; Mastodon’s Eugen Rochko might have more utopian engineering cred; but Bouzy lived and breathed Twitter, and I wondered how the instincts he’d honed there might serve him as a founder. (At the very least, his sizable fan base was avid enough to guarantee his project an initial audience.) And then there was the pure chutzpah of it all: Most of the other rival services had been in the works for some time, but Bouzy’s would be purpose-built for Twitter’s ongoing implosion. Nothing seemed to channel the sense of grief and possibility in this social media moment better than the prospect of watching a platform get built from the ground up. And so I contacted Bouzy in late November to ask whether I could chronicle his efforts to construct his idyllic spin on Twitter.

I had a feeling, at the last minute, that he was going to decline my request. The day I wrote, I learned from Bouzy’s Twitter feed that he’d just had an unsettling experience: An anonymous tipster had emailed the police in North Bergen, New Jersey, where Bouzy lives, and reported that a child was screaming in the townhouse Bouzy shares with his wife and son. The two officers who were sent to investigate concluded that Bouzy had been the victim of a false report. Bouzy tweeted that the tipster must have been one of the legions of people enraged by his efforts to counter online toxicity. (A spokesperson for the North Bergen Police Department told me they’re still trying to trace the source of the email.) Had a stranger tricked the cops into descending on my house in such a manner, I might have been tempted to lie low and avoid attention. But Bouzy assured me that he wasn’t much bothered by the strange incident and that he was happy to let me watch him build the next Twitter from scratch.

As soon as it became clear that Musk’s erratic deal to acquire Twitter was actually going to succeed, Bouzy says he had little doubt the billionaire would wreck the platform in short order. But Bouzy didn’t initially have any interest in launching a competitor. He instead spent weeks urging an old friend named Phil Schnyder, a veteran software executive based in Florida, to build a rival. Millions of users, he predicted, would become disgruntled by Musk’s antics and peel away from the platform. “They’re going to feel like this is a mini Trump in control,” Bouzy recalls telling Schnyder. “You may want to consider doing a Twitter clone—you know, capture the essence of Twitter and kind of keep it similar.”

But with his wife’s encouragement, Bouzy decided in early November that his experience with Bot Sentinel made him the ideal person to tackle the project he’d been pushing on Schnyder. On November 16, he tweeted to his followers: “Would you switch if we built a platform similar to Twitter but improved the best features while fixing everything wrong with Twitter?” In the poll attached to that post, nearly 60,000 respondents indicated they’d be open to the move. Pleased by the volume of support, Bouzy vowed to follow through with his proposal if 100,000 people joined a pre-registration mailing list. (Schnyder, whom Bouzy hadn’t informed of his change of heart, agreed to become the COO of the startup if it came to fruition.)

As the sign-ups zoomed toward his goal over the next few weeks, Bouzy used Twitter to crowdsource the platform’s details, starting with its name. After early candidates such as “UrTag” and “Yixle” were rejected by his followers, Bouzy took a shine to “Spout”—a nod to the old Twitter error graphic that depicted a whale being carried off by a flock of birds. But Bouzy says that when the owner of Spout.com demanded $1.5 million for the domain, he opted for “Spoutible” instead.

When I had my first extended conversation with Bouzy in early December, Spoutible was just days away from crossing the preregistration threshold. In anticipation of hitting that milestone, he was preparing to announce that he’d have a web-only version of the platform ready for limited testing by mid-January. If all went according to plan, he’d then release a Spoutible app for phones and tablets in the spring. When I said that timeline seemed ambitious, he assured me that the work on the frontend would take only a few weeks. He’d licensed some off-the-shelf code, composed primarily in PHP, that provides a close facsimile of Twitter’s user interface, and he planned to tweak that template to suit his needs.

“Building a platform like Twitter is not difficult,” he assured me. “All it is is a fancy message board—you’re just taking people’s posts and storing them in a database.” The real trick, he continued, would be to design the platform’s backend so that it could seamlessly handle the demands of explosive growth.

That backend engineering would have to be done on the cheap. In contrast to Twitter alternatives like Post, which has received funding from the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, Spoutible chose not to seek outside investment during its development phase. “We want to have something that people can see before we’re saying, ‘Give me your money,’” Schnyder said. The company’s microscopic initial budget came from his and Bouzy’s personal savings, as well as from Bot Sentinel, which subsists on small donations from users.

With money so tight, Bouzy chose to power Spoutible with virtual servers—that is, cordoned-off sectors within shared, cloud-based machines, as opposed to the expensive physical servers that were standard when Twitter launched in 2006. As Spoutible’s users multiplied, Bouzy was confident he could purchase access to scores more virtual servers from Ionos, the hosting company he uses for Bot Sentinel. If and when Spoutible ever got to tens of millions of concurrent users, Bouzy knew he might have to consider investing in physical servers if the virtual ones didn’t work as expected. But he was confident that Ionos could sustain his platform until it reached blockbuster status.

Bouzy also pinched pennies when it came to staff. He handled a great deal of the frontend coding chores himself, rising at 3:30 every morning through December and early January to make sure the work got done. But for the many development tasks outside his wheelhouse, he leaned heavily on a network of low-cost international freelancers he recruited from sites like Upwork.

I was impressed by the sheer nerve of what Bouzy was trying to pull off, and I wanted to get to know the programmers who’d signed on to help him knock Twitter from its perch. But Bouzy seemed reluctant to let me do that. He dragged his feet when I asked to speak to the contractors, a bit of obstructionism that struck me as odd. He eventually relented and agreed to connect me with a full-stack developer based in Calgary, Alberta, and a machine-learning specialist from Egypt. But he only did so on the condition that I refrain from printing their surnames. He said he didn’t want his freelancers to suffer any backlash for being associated with him.

After talking to Ismail and Mahmoud, neither of whom said anything remotely of note, I became mystified by Bouzy’s insistence on secrecy. I understood from his November encounter with the police that there were people who might wish him ill. But I still couldn’t fathom that anyone would hold him in enough contempt to track down and harass an Egyptian contractor he’d hired to write a content-filtering algorithm.

As I learned more about Bouzy’s professional journey, however, I began to understand that his caution might be warranted.

Bouzy describes himself as a poor communicator, but he tells a compelling and relatable story about the origins of his love for code. He was brought up in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood by his mother, grandmother, and aunt. His mother, a Black Panamanian immigrant, worked for the New York Telephone Company. When he was 9, his mom gave him a Mattel Aquarius computer, a $70 machine with a mere 4 kilobytes of RAM; she hoped the gift would keep him indoors and out of trouble.

Bouzy had no interest in the computer until he read a newspaper article that included instructions for writing an elementary program in Basic. After hunting and pecking on the keyboard for hours, he managed to complete the assignment by getting a digital ball to bounce. That achievement made him curious to see what else the Aquarius could do, and his bedroom soon teemed with how-to programming guides from the local library.

As a teen, Bouzy became enamored with writing encryption algorithms, an obsession he credits to a rewatch of the 1983 film WarGames. After graduating from high school in 1992, he eventually joined the IT department at the New York City Department of Education, supplementing his modest income with contract coding jobs. By 2000, he’d saved up enough money to launch a one-man software company, Insight Concepts.

Bouzy gradually carved out a career as a software entrepreneur. His first hit was Cloak, a program that hides encrypted text within images in order to dupe potential data thieves. In 2006, he sold Cloak to the software publisher Avanquest, which specializes in workaday fare such as greeting-card customizers and clip-art collections. (It was through Avanquest that Bouzy met Phil Schnyder, who was then the company’s director of online business development.) Bouzy next developed Nexus Radio, an app that lets users take advantage of what he terms a “legal gray area” by recording songs streamed by internet radio stations. The application spent years on CNET’s chart of most popular audio players, racking up nearly half a million downloads by 2014.

Bouzy admits he produced some flops, too, such as a dating website called IfSolo and a “peer-to-peer rewards network” known as Bytecent. But he denies making any notable mistakes during his foray into the world of cryptocurrency, where he was briefly active in the mid-2010s. Under the handle “IconicExpert,” Bouzy was a prominent contributor to Bitcointalk, a forum popular among crypto traders. He became one of the site’s more divisive figures, with several users accusing him of using bots and sock-puppet accounts to pump up the value of coins he’d stockpiled. A number of these supposed incidents involved a digital currency known as BlackCoin. According to Joshua J. Bouw, one of BlackCoin’s cofounders, Bouzy developed a special wallet for the currency. But many people who bought this $20 “BlackCoin Card” never received it, and Bouzy also allegedly pocketed a number of coins he’d promised to hand out at a canceled promotional event.

“The community went full tilt and started calling him a scammer,” Bouw recalls. “Someone even doxed him, exposing who he is and where he lives, including posting a picture of his family.”

As would become a pattern in the years to come, Bouzy threw sharp elbows when defending himself against these often racist attacks, which he sometimes ascribed to jealousy over his success. “The only other time I have seen such obsessive behavior is from a woman who was dumped,” he wrote to one of his most persistent foes in 2014. “Are you so dim-witted that you do not understand no one cares? While you waste your time focusing on me, I make money every day trading crypto, and in the process make other investors money.” When I asked Bouzy about his crypto days, he characterized all of the allegations about his activities involving BlackCoin and similar ventures as “misinformation and disinformation” perpetrated by people with ulterior motives.

After ending his run as IconicExpert, Bouzy turned his attention to Twitter’s role in shaping the 2016 presidential election. Like many other center-left Democrats, Bouzy assumed that the torrent of smears directed at Hillary Clinton would not prevent her from winning the electoral vote. Clinton’s stunning defeat motivated him to research how political operators, including foreign governments, had shaped American public opinion in part by blanketing Twitter with propaganda—some of it rooted in truth, some completely fabricated. Going down that rabbit hole inspired him to create Bot Sentinel, which purports to use “machine learning and artificial intelligence to classify Twitter accounts” according to how likely they are to be part of organized influence operations.

“Bot Sentinel” is a bit of a misnomer. Many of the 260,000-plus Twitter accounts that its algorithm has flagged as “problematic” are run by humans, albeit humans who may be fixated on tweeting about particular hot-button issues. This became evident when Bot Sentinel waded into the online chatter surrounding Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the duke and duchess of Sussex, whose rift with the British royal family has made them targets of online vitriol. Bot Sentinel identified scores of Twitter accounts that it claimed had been created solely for the purpose of attacking Markle, often with racist slurs. Bouzy’s willingness to talk to journalists about the harassment Markle endured made him a hero to her hardcore fans, who identify themselves online with the hashtag #SussexSquad. But when the owners of the flagged “hate accounts” were subsequently booted off Twitter and other platforms, many blamed Bouzy for taking away their livelihoods and curtailing their freedom of speech. His algorithm, they contended, has the same biases as its creator, so it identifies opinions he disagrees with as nefarious activity.

Some people who felt wronged by Bot Sentinel went to sinister lengths to exact revenge on Bouzy. In December 2021, for example, an anti-Markle Twitter account based in New York started a rumor that Bouzy’s mother, who had recently died of Covid, had been a sex worker in Atlantic City. Then, in 2022, Bouzy used Bot Sentinel to highlight Twitter accounts that were churning out vicious comments about the actress Amber Heard, who was being sued for defamation by her ex--husband, Johnny Depp. This earned him the wrath of several pro-Depp partisans who were attracting big audiences by commenting on the trial. Among the enraged was a YouTuber named Nathaniel Broughty, a lawyer and former police officer who dismissed Bot Sentinel as “a paid propaganda” firm in Heard’s employ. (Heard had, indeed, hired Bot Sentinel in 2020 to investigate whether she was the target of coordinated harassment, but Bouzy says his work during the trial was not at her behest.)

Bouzy’s retort is now the subject of a federal lawsuit. According to Broughty’s complaint, Bouzy claimed last September, in a since-deleted tweet, that Broughty “went from being the son of two crackheads (his words), a drug dealer (his words), a cop, and a prosecutor, to attacking journalists and me on social media. You would think someone with a law enforcement background would know better.” Bouzy then went on to erroneously assert that Broughty was not a real lawyer; to deride him as a “Twitter troll and YouTube grifter”; and to allege that Broughty, in one of his videos, had admitted to planting evidence on suspects when he worked as a police officer. Broughty, in turn, sued Bouzy for defamation on all of these claims, a venture he has sought to fund by soliciting donations from his nearly 300,000 YouTube subscribers. (Bouzy has filed a motion to dismiss the suit.)

While tracking Bouzy’s Twitter posts as he scrambled to build Spoutible, I was startled that he continued to attack Broughty even with the defamation suit pending. (“I hope Nathaniel Broughty was better at selling crack than he is at trying to be relevant,” he wrote in one recent tweet.) But I came to understand that Bouzy is defined by his inability to stay above the fray: Though he’s often warm and witty in conversation, he turns pugnacious when alone behind a keyboard. His penchant for escalating online beefs with surly characters has caused him to become enmeshed in almost too many feuds to track. He is, for example, a codefendant in a second defamation suit brought by a conspiracy theorist whom Bouzy allegedly insinuated might be guilty of rape; Bouzy also has a long-running dispute with a fellow disinformation expert whom he once compared to a woman involved in the murder of Emmett Till.

“Christopher is a man who comes in with honest good intentions and fights everyone who disagrees with him,” Bouw told me. “People notice quickly that he isn’t stable. And when he attacks community members that others respect, it causes more people to abuse him.”

When I tried to ask Bouzy about his combativeness, he didn’t seem interested in exploring the topic. His tendency to go on the offensive, no matter the potential consequences, has surely benefited him at times. But when a business leader drifts into the public eye, the assets that once served them well can turn into liabilities.

Spoutible’s official launch on the morning of February 1 was a bit of a catastrophe. The website became largely unusable soon after it went live; I spent the whole day bumping into error messages like “Gateway Timeout” or “SSL Handshake Failed.” To make matters worse, the platform’s API hadn’t been adequately secured, resulting in the temporary exposure of personal information for thousands of users.

Bouzy’s adversaries reveled in Spoutible’s opening-day struggles, and they tried to pile on even more misery. One frequent critic claimed in a Twitter thread that Bouzy was a charlatan who’d bought Spoutible’s entire source code from a Russian vendor for $89, a purchase some suggested might be in violation of economic sanctions. Bouzy, who vehemently denies that accusation, clapped back by announcing that he planned on contacting his accuser’s employer, a large German bank, to report that he was being stalked.

Fortunately for Spoutible users who kept the faith, Bouzy spent more time fixing bugs than needling enemies in the days that followed. As the platform stabilized toward the end of its inaugural week, I grew to admire some of its innovative and thoughtful features—for example, “spouts” (as posts are known) can be edited for up to seven minutes after they’re published, and users can delete replies they find offensive. The Bot Sentinel scoring system was still inactive, though, so everyone had a blue icon that read “Normal 0%” beneath their profile picture.

The biggest names on Spoutible at this point were progressive icons—people like Joy-Ann Reid, an MSNBC host, and Ritchie Torres, a young Democratic congressman from the Bronx. Though their presence gave the platform an air of legitimacy, it also hinted at a major challenge: If the Spoutible brand were to become too closely identified with the political left, media figures and celebrities who aim to preserve a veneer of objectivity might be unwilling to join. When Bouzy and I had first spoken back in December, he’d assured me that he would be able to convince some of his conservative friends to join the platform and bring their audiences. But as I scrolled through scores of cringey memes about the evils of Ron DeSantis or Fox News, it was tough for me to envision Spoutible’s path toward ideological depth and diversity.

What struck me most was the almost eerie absence of conflict. The atmosphere on the social media platform Bouzy had crafted reflected none of his inherent scrappiness. In Spoutible’s earliest days, I was hard-pressed to find even a single instance of mild disagreement, let alone passionate dissent—even if the Bot Sentinel capabilities had been switched on, they could scarcely have made things more placid. Some users remarked how nice it was to post about, say, their desire for gun control without fear of the sort of racist and sexist abuse that’s rife on Twitter. But I wondered whether even dyed-in-the-wool progressives might tire of Spoutible if the platform was entirely devoid of sparring.

When some nastiness did finally arise, it did not bode well that the spat involved Bouzy and someone who was trying to lend Spoutible a hand. On February 19, Courtney Milan, a former law professor who now writes popular romance novels such as The Governess Affair and Proof by Seduction, spouted about some concerns she had regarding Spoutible’s terms of service. The site’s ban on “sexually suggestive” language and links to “sexually explicit content” was so broad, she wrote, that it might prevent her and her colleagues from promoting their work. “I don’t think the people who wrote the policy thought about the ways people talk about sex,” she spouted. “Can I screenshot a court case about harassment?”

The debate that ensued was fairly tame until Milan volunteered to use her legal expertise to tweak Spoutible’s fine print: “I am happy to help try to come up with a policy that provides clear guidance.” That offer rankled Bouzy, who chafed at the implication that he hadn’t put enough thought into building his site. So when another member of Spoutible’s budding “Romancelandia” community asked whether he’d consider talking to Milan, Bouzy did not mince words. “Milan is more than welcome to start a social media platform and write the terms of service and policies however she likes,” he replied. “But the policy isn’t changing, nor is it being rewritten.”

Bouzy’s curt refusal to engage with Milan, a Spoutible enthusiast who’d even donated money to the startup, irked many of her fans and fellow authors, and some vowed to quit the platform in protest. Milan, meanwhile, hopped over to Twitter to expand on her gripes and voice her dismay at Bouzy’s cold shoulder. The response to her comments turned contentious, with Spoutible’s faithful branding her a “chaos agent” bent on destroying their new favorite site.

Rather than put out a conciliatory statement to defuse the situation, Bouzy opted for a belligerent approach. Just before dawn on February 20, he spouted a screenshot from Milan’s Wikipedia profile. He’d highlighted a sentence that details an upsetting episode from her past: In 2006 and 2007, Milan had clerked for a federal judge who allegedly forced her to watch pornography, an experience she revealed publicly in 2017 as part of the #MeToo movement. Bouzy wrote just one sentence to accompany the image: “It’s clear this person has an agenda.”

That provocation had predictably ugly results. Milan, who had announced she was done with Spoutible, shot back at Bouzy on Twitter: “What made you think it was okay, for one hot second, to send me harassment about the fact that I was sexually harassed?” Then she said she was blocking Bouzy. When some of her followers spouted about their displeasure with Bouzy’s behavior, they found their accounts suspended. (Bouzy denies that he took action against any of those accounts because they had expressed opinions he didn’t like.) But there were also plenty of people who took Bouzy’s side and lampooned Milan as a Karen. “She tried to walk into a Black man’s social media platform and volunteered to write new ToS,” one supporter tweeted. “Do you think she did that with Facebook or Twitter?”

By day’s end, Bouzy had deleted his barbed spout about Milan and apologized to his followers for having written something “inarticulate.” (Milan told me that she never received a personal apology from Bouzy.) When I spoke to him the following afternoon, he acknowledged that he needs to be a more conscientious poster now that he’s the public face of a social media company—especially one that aims to be a paragon of online decency. “Old habits are hard to break,” he said. “And I’m trying, believe me, I am. Because I feel at the end of the day, I don’t want to be Elon Musk—I really don’t, right? I don’t want my opinions on certain things to make someone else feel uncomfortable or to eliminate other folks. It’s something I’m working on.”

Yet later that day, on Bouzy’s Twitter account, I saw that he’d pinned a fresh swipe at Milan. Above a famous photograph of a civil rights activist calmly smoking a cigarette next to a riot cop, Bouzy had written:

You created an account at Spoutible, you didn’t like the adult nudity & sexual content policy, so you asked to speak to the manager. The manager is a Black man who told you the policy stays, and your brain couldn’t process being told no by a Black man. Happy Black History Month.

According to Bouzy, the Milan affair ended up a net win for Spoutible: The uproar had ironically made more people aware of the platform’s kindness-first mission, and daily sign-ups increased by 129 percent right after the drama petered out. I also noticed a groundswell of lavish praise for Bouzy—#BouzyDidIt trended on Spoutible, and fans created memes to celebrate his accomplishments. (One featured a male model applying some Spoutible-branded deodorant, along with the tagline “Try our new anti-Nazi formula and smell sexy again.”)

But as if to underscore how polarizing Bouzy can be, an account called @Vootin proceeded to buck all the adulation by spamming out thousands of GIFs of a kitten on a motorcycle, each accompanied by slight variations of the hashtag #FuckCBouzy. Those profane hashtags quickly became the only ones trending in the Making Waves section on the site’s front page. Once @Vootin had grabbed everyone’s attention, they then posted a series of allegations about Bouzy’s crypto activities from nearly a decade ago; these spouts included evidence purporting to show IconicExpert orchestrating a pump-and-dump scheme for an obscure alt coin.

When I spoke to Bouzy about the incident the next day, he stressed that it would make the platform stronger in the long run. Spoutible would henceforth take additional steps to prevent sabotage, such as creating a blacklist of virtual phone numbers that scammers often use to circumvent verification procedures. And Bouzy was pleased that scores of Spoutible users had reported the spammer, resulting in @Vootin’s speedy banishment from the site.

Yet there was a trace of exhaustion in his efforts to cheerlead for Spoutible, and I eventually asked how his mental health was holding up as he dealt with all the venom being thrust his way. “Look, it’s not like I’m a robot and it doesn’t affect me in some way—I’m a human being,” he said. But he added that the public hate he deals with is balanced out by the supportive messages he receives in private, and those kind notes have given him the confidence to dig his heels in even deeper. “I’m not going to let the trolls get to us,” he insisted.

Bouzy said he hopes to recede into the background once Spoutible, which has some 240,000 registered accounts as of early June, is a bit more established—a plan welcomed by those who understand that potential users may balk at joining a platform whose controversial founder looms too large. Phil Schnyder, for one, is in favor of hiring an executive whose name will be attached to all of the company’s announcements, including the most mundane. “You need to have someone else taking the flak,” he says. “Then it doesn’t get to be a situation where you’re heating up the, y’know, cult of I-hate-Chris.”

Bouzy is not shy about talking up his long-term ambitions for Spoutible, some of which can sound a touch delusional. His platform is still a gnat compared to mighty Twitter, which has roughly 238 million daily users, and Spoutible has attracted significantly less media attention than buzzier peers like Jack Dorsey’s Bluesky, the focus of much excitement this spring when invitations to test its beta version were a hot commodity. Yet Bouzy nonetheless argues that Spoutible is primed to become Twitter’s most successful heir, and his boasts often include shade directed at better-financed rivals. “Back in December, Post News was seeking a valuation of $250 million,” he tweeted in March. “It will be interesting to see how Spoutible is valued with higher traffic numbers.” (Post has yet to share any user statistics; Bouzy was referring to web-traffic data, which doesn’t necessarily correlate with the number of active accounts.) At another point, he scoffed at the much heralded debut of Substack Notes, the newsletter giant’s effort to poach business from Twitter: “I don’t even think Substack Notes is going to be able to compete with us,” he told me.

Those are bold pronouncements from a CEO whose startup has so little capital to burn. In one of our final conversations, Bouzy admitted to me that Spoutible’s cash reserves are dwindling: Though the platform has been asking users for donations of $5 and up, he estimated that he had only enough money to keep going for two to three more months. But he added that advertisements are on the way and that he expects user registrations to skyrocket once the mobile app is finally launched.

Bouzy believes that Spoutible can get over the hump if a fair portion of those new accounts are opened by a particular sort of user. “Journalists will ultimately decide who’s going to be the new king,” he said. “We know how important journalists are to these platforms. And then we also know how important the platforms are to the journalists, to get their reporting out, so it’s kind of a symbiotic relationship. We are going to make a huge effort to get more journalists.”

They did start to arrive in modest numbers this spring, lured in part by Spoutible’s offer to automatically verify anyone who possessed a blue check mark on Twitter. In late March and early April, along with an influx of celebrities like Monica Lewinsky and Seinfeld actor Jason Alexander, several journalists whose names I recognized joined—I spotted respected reporters from major outlets like The New York Times, the Associated Press, and NPR. (NPR had recently left Twitter entirely after its account was branded “government-funded media.”) Yet few of these luminaries have spouted more than a handful of times, and many have been entirely silent; they are, it seems, laying claim to their account names, just in case Spoutible becomes a big enough deal to merit their consistent presence.

That wariness is still a central problem for all the aspirants to Twitter’s throne. In this prolonged moment of uncertainty over Twitter’s future, it seems that everyone is staking out territory on multiple alternative platforms; we’re all still roulette balls spinning around the rim of the social media wheel, waiting to see where circumstances compel us to land.

But if we expect to alight somewhere that will give us the same warm glow we recall from our finest Twitter experiences, we’re almost certain to be disappointed. My months of experimental spouting made clear why that’s the case. The platform gave me tons of progressive venting and mash notes to the Sussexes but little information that had the potential to push me out of my comfort zone—I seldom stumbled across a linked article that taught me something surprising, or incisive commentary from a true expert in their field. My own spouts, meanwhile, about topics ranging from ham radio to parenting to Mark Rothko’s alcoholism, attracted meaningful interest only when Bouzy reposted—or “echoed”—what I’d written to his 40,000 followers. Absent that boost, I often felt like I was spouting into the void.

Perhaps Spoutible is simply not the place for a cynical nerd like me. I can see that it’s a utopia for some—people scarred by the cruelty of Twitter who now thrill to operating on a platform where they can easily get #TraitorTrump or #HappyAnniversaryHarryandMeghan trending amid an earnest and unchallenged chorus of amens. I understand why there’s demand for that type of refuge and that there might be another one that’s more suited to my sensibility.

But the siloing of social media communities still makes me wistful for the dynamic Twitter of a dozen years ago. Because it had coalesced before everyone understood the perils of participating in a single gargantuan chat room, Twitter was a place where people with opposing worldviews came to operate in close proximity to one another. And rubbing together radically different varieties of the human experience can lead not just to bitter conflict but also to the sublime—those revelatory moments when an argument, observation, or acidic joke stretches your perception of lives quite unlike your own. That gorgeous messiness will probably be lost as Twitter, like so many historical entities that were undone by their unwieldiness, balkanizes into numerous collectives of the similarly minded.

Maybe each of us will find some measure of satisfaction in the relative harmony of the new platforms now vying for our attention. When the roulette wheel stops spinning, it seems likely that we’ll all have landed in very different places—or maybe have realized it’s finally time to pry ourselves away from the casino for good. 

This article appears in the Jul/Aug 2023 issue. Subscribe now.

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