Welcome to Alt Twitter: where brutal honesty hides behind pseudonyms

We investigate the anonymous, locked Twitter accounts used for private venting on a public platform

There have been lots of attempts to steal Twitter’s crown. Ello, Menshn, even Google+ – the list of failed platforms could go on. They’ve all lacked something, though – the special spark that makes Twitter so thrilling – and no one has managed to tempt, or keep, tweeters away. But now, there’s a real rival to your Twitter timeline: the alt account.

‘Alt’ isn’t some fancy new website: as the name suggests, it’s simply an alternative account used by people who already tweet. 9 times out of 10 they’re locked and mostly anonymised, meaning the user has complete control over who sees their tweets.

It might seem counterintuitive; after all, isn’t the whole point of Twitter to broadcast your thoughts to the world and meet new people? The alt account offers a new dimension to that, though. It’s kind of a mix between LiveJournal and a WhatsApp group chat, an appealingly safe space compared to main Twitter where abuse, arguments and insincerity are rife.

In fact, abuse was the reason I first got an alt. Last year I was sent death threats via email, Facebook and phone by someone who took offence at a tweet I wrote making fun of Ricky Gervais (yes, really), and since then I’ve felt uneasy sharing anything that made me even slightly vulnerable. I wanted to talk about my mental health in terms of how it affects me rather than as a concept, but I just didn’t feel comfortable knowing that it could be used against me. As someone who’s written about feminism and sex, too, I have a small army of dedicated trolls who seem to follow me round, responding to every tweet. The people I follow are great, and so are most of my followers, but Twitter itself just doesn’t feel safe to me anymore. The line of work I’m in, plus my gargantuan sense of narcissism, means that locking my account isn’t an option. Enter the alt.

Coming from main Twitter, where pretty much anyone is given unfettered access to all of your tweets, being able to cherry pick who follows you is really refreshing. It’s like Facebook but without all the people you went to school with and your ex boyfriend’s mum. An alt friend agrees:

“It’s the complete antidote to anxiety inducing ‘perfect life’ normal social media,” she told me. “It’s therapeutic to have a place where you can fire off a tweet summarising how bad you’re feeling without any consequences”.

She’s right – hearing about people’s problems obviously doesn’t make me feel better, but it does make me feel less alone. I feel safe talking about how hopeless I feel, or how hard I find it to shower when I’m depressed, or the fact that my period was totally gross last month. There’s active support too – advice, solidarity or just jokes from people who understand and who want to listen without any agenda. I’ve been talked down from panic attacks, shared concerns about my professional life and more on my alt – things that I could never have done anywhere else online.

This all means it’s a lot easier to be sincere. The ubiquitous ‘personal brand’ has become kind of a meme now, and there’s certainly a level of irony involved, but the idea has actually managed to permeate lots of online discourse, leading to a distinct feeling of performance. Another alt user told me that their insincere personality on their primary Twitter account had become “a rod for my own back… I started to find the lack of sincerity hard to take”.

Social media feeds are full of holiday photos and promotions and Instagram-perfect recipes. It’s alienating at the best of times, but when you struggle with bad mental health it can be suffocating. An alt feed is a calming reminder that nobody’s life is perfect, that other people struggle and that amongst the unidentifiable avatars of a faceless Twitter follower list, there’s comfort, humour and understanding.

How to create an alt Twitter account

  • Use a different email address to your main one (not your work account!) or if you use a service like Gmail that supports it, add +alt to your email (eg. email+alt@gmail.com. Yes, it does work.) Twitter doesn’t allow multiple signups on identical email addresses.
  • Pick a username and screen name that don’t reflect you and can’t be connected to you. Yes, this is hard. Movie references and cartoon characters abound on Alt Twitter – if you want to call yourself Chesty LaRue, go for it.
  • Same goes for avatars and cover photos. Nothing you’ve ever used before on Twitter or Facebook. Nothing that links to interests people might know about. Generic is fine.
  • Tick ‘protect my tweets’ in Twitter settings. This is the big one.
  • Turn off location and search by phone number/email in settings, and anything else you think might give you away.
  • Message the friends you know that use alt accounts (and tell them yours, then send them a follow request. Don’t follow any of your friends’ main accounts, your own main account, or ask any of your friends’ open accounts to follow you. This is how you get busted.
  • Only approve follow requests from people you’ve verified as friends’ alt accounts.
  • Tweet whatever’s on your mind, free of judgement. Ahhh.

Main image © iStock/themacx