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Today I’m leaving Twitter, because I don’t like making unpaid contributions to a for-profit publisher whose proprietor is an alt-right troll. But also because it’s probably going to break down. Read on for details.
I was beginning to think the End-Of-Twitter narrative was overblown, but evidence is stacking up. First, the increasingly-toxic politics; check out Elon Musk and the Narcissism/Radicalization Maelstrom by Josh Marshall, and Elon Musk Bans CrimethInc. from Twitter at the Urging of Far-Right Troll.
Then there’s the technology. Because of the way modern Web Services work, it’s unsurprising that it ticks along even with much of the workforce gone. I expect that happy state of affairs to end as soon as they start deploying new features or really any kind of update, because the greatest threat to a service is the team that operates it. And the threat is sharpest when they need to upgrade the service, to fix a bug or unleash a new feature. Especially when the sane people have all left, the ones who don’t want to commit to a “hardcore” lifestyle to enrich Elon.
What I’m doing · I’m not closing or deleting my account, because Twitter might come back, who knows. But I’m going to stop posting pictures and observations and amplifying worthy voices and all that stuff. Remember: Unpaid contributions, alt-right troll, fuck that.
I’ve deleted the app from my phone.
For the moment, my short-form notes on the world are available on Mastodon (and on various other channels); for details see my blog’s Author page.
I have roughly one-tenth the follower count that I do on Twitter, and am following only one sixth as many, but it has already become as amusing and instructive as my experience on Twitter.
I’ll still use Twitter to post pointers to ongoing pieces because that benefits me, not Elon.
Oh, the other thing I’m doing is working with the excellent people at CoSocial.ca to build a coop-based Canadian Mastodon presence. Check it out!
Are people really leaving Twitter? · Yes.
But it’s super-hard to measure. There’s an API for exploring the Mastodon instance space and then the Mastodon API itself lets you query an instance for its activity. There’s a feed full of graphs that apparently relies on this stuff. It’s been showing several thousand Mastodon sign-ups per hour ever since the Musk poison started flowing, I’ve seen as many as 10K and as few as 2K. It’s growing, but it’s not clear how fast. And the data may be sketchy.
Another metric, much more personal and anecdotal: The really interesting people and organizations I follow on Twitter are steadily showing up on Mastodon. I’m not using any of the migration-support apps, it’s just that the word seems to get around, naturally and organically.
So, suppose I’m right about Twitter…
What’s next? · I’m not exactly the only person who’s noticed the problems. In response, the noösphere is thick with alternative social-media offerings trying to fling themselves in front of the Twitter exodus. They fall into two baskets, companies and “the Fediverse”.
I think they’re all doomed. Twitter’s achievement — concentrating a high proportion of the world’s interesting voices in one place — was the result of an insanely lucky accident of history and is not gonna be replicated by any startup wannabe in 2022.
Speaking as a random was-successful-on-Twitter person, I can see no good arguments for redirecting my voice into anyone else’s for-profit venture-funded algorithm-driven engagement-maximizing wet dream.
Federation · I’ve already written about Mastodon. Experts will insist on pointing out that the real story isn’t Mastodon as such, it’s “The Fediverse” and ActivityPub and OStatus and so on. They’re right, and if you’re one of my geekier readers, you’ll probably enjoy diving into that stuff. But if you just want to get away from that Twitter stench right now, Mastodon is a decent proxy for the whole sector, and “Go to Mastodon” is good advice. I recommend it.
The great thing about Mastodon is that it’s not just one thing, it’s thousands of different instances, and from any of them you can follow and interact with anyone on any other. The worst thing about Mastodon is that to get started, you have to choose an instance. But it turns out that doesn’t matter very much, because, as noted above, if you find you’d rather be on another one, you can migrate with one click and your followers come along with you.
There are lots of getting-started guides, but I wouldn’t worry too much. As long as you’re basically a decent human being, you’ll figure it out and do OK.
Why Mastodon will succeed · It’s because of those Instances. They solve a whole bunch of identity problems, by creating what computer geeks like me call “Namespaces”. I could give you theory but screw that, here are a few interesting Mastodon handles:
(As of writing this, none of those actually existed, but none would be surprising.)
I think each one tells you a story and teaches what you might expect to find if you follow it. And none of them rely on an opaque and unreliable “verification” process offered by an exploitative tech giant.
An instance isn’t just a server with some software on it. It can be a neighborhoood, a faculty, a rock band, an employer, a religion, a lawn-bowling club. But there’ll also be general-purpose instances for anyone who just wants to talk. Here are some predictions:
General-purpose (non-affinity-group) instances won’t be free; typical charges will be $5-10/month.
They will compete on the quality of their moderation and spam/abuse prevention.
Some of them will have familiar names. For example, Gmail, LinkedIn, and Reddit.
Some will be ad-supported, but those (unless they’re big dogs like Google) will be sketchy and unreliable.
Is it perfect? · Of course not! It’s missing features that Twitter has like quote-tweet and search. That’s OK, Twitter launched without most of them, people improvised ways to get what they wanted, and the good ones were absorbed into the technology.
A lot of people are worried about scaling, if a few tens of millions more Twitter followers pile on. I’m not. Oh sure, the current Mastodon stack (a stateful Rails monolith) will, um, struggle. But computers are cheap and we’ve solved these kinds of problems before. There will be Fail Whales but it won’t be bad enough to keep people from having fun and getting value.
The real worry · It’s about abuse and moderation. One of the things that’s shocked me over the last couple of weeks has the voices of a few people from oppressed groups — BIPOC, LGBTQ+, women — pointing out that they are facing some really nasty abuse on Mastodon. In some cases they’re going back to Twitter. It doesn’t shock me that they experience abuse, it shocks me that Twitter had made so much progress that it’s seen as a better alternative.
(It’s not universal, I’ve heard Black voices saying “Huh? I’m doing fine.” But I do believe it bites hard on people who are some combination of visible and articulate and passionate. And it’s not acceptable.)
This is a big difficult subject and if the Mastodon community can’t figure out how to tackle it, I’d have to withdraw my recommendation to come on in. But I’m optimistic that there’s a good path forward; lots of smart people are thinking hard about it, and there already seem to be instances that have started doing a good job of protecting people who need it. But people shouldn’t have to suffer abuse as a consequence of picking the wrong instance. Anyhow, this is a big subject and this piece is already too long; I’ll write more later.
This is fun · I mean, living through the sharp edge of what might turn out to be a social-media inflection point. And I experienced an (unexpected) wave of relief when I deleted Twitter off my phone. Give it a try!