[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
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”.
Companies trying to be The New Twitter · For example CoHost, Post, Counter.social, and Hive.
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!
Comment feed for ongoing:
From: Sean Killeen (Nov 26 2022, at 18:36)
> It’s missing features that Twitter has like quote-tweet
One of my favorite things about Mastodon so far is learning (albeit poorly paraphrasing here) that the missing quote tweet is actually by design. Because the quote tweet functionality is a key part in the amplification of negativity/ratios and the performative act of "dunking" due to the way the algorithm prioritized it. It also accelerates disinformation. So I love the idea that not including it was an active choice.
Similarly, I recently posted there:
> Important Mastodon difference I've noticed in myself. I typically reply in good faith, but I've found myself just...not, unless I really truly have something to add.
> I'm realizing how programmed I was to respond or "add" to something because the algorithm or someone's audience might see it.
> Now, it seems like genuine engagement is the best way and there are no games to the contrary. This feels healthier.
This is just to say, I think there's a lot of potential here and enough folks might be invested to make it work. I'm enjoying following you there already!
From: Stephane (Nov 27 2022, at 03:26)
Re: missing features
> 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.
Yeah, I even remember that at the beginning, @-replies did not exist. People invented them by typing the @ plus the handle, and after a while Twitter did the @-reply magic (adding links and creating behind-the scenes database tables to handle links between tweets). Funny how it's now become a ubiquitous basic feature of any social software.
(side note: This being said, quote-toot and search ar not implemented because the people behind Mastodon do not want them (I can't find a URL to back this up though, but heard it extensively during my 4 years on Mastodon up until now). In their experience both are instrumental in harassing and public shaming, and they don't want that. I like the idea of making do without it. The only searchable feature is hashtags.)
From: Rick Wagner (Nov 27 2022, at 05:45)
I urge you to reconsider.
Freedom of speech and of opinions is vital.
You can disagree with Musk (or even Trump) as much as you wish. But when you move to silence them (especially as part of a mob), you become the monster.
From: Kerry Allen (Nov 27 2022, at 08:51)
@Rick Wagner: Your impassioned defense of people who have never, not once in their privileged lives, experienced a period of silence even on a voluntary basis is a demand not for free speech but for a captive audience. They've been heard. They've been rejected. People walking away from them to do more productive and pleasant things with their time is the natural consequence of the speech they freely enjoy.
From: Amanda Walker (Nov 27 2022, at 09:09)
[aside: Rick, I don't see how Tim (or anyone else) leaving Twitter silences Elon (or anyone else).]
One thing I'm noticing in how people are reacting to Mastodon is that it underscores how broad of a spread there is in how people have used Twitter and what they thus expect. For example, I came to it fairly late (2019), and used it as a way to follow a few hundred people that I was already acquainted with. Some of them I've know since the days of Usenet in its heyday. Mastodon is already fulfilling that function very nicely--that's where those people are now posting, so that's where I'll go interact with them.
On the other hand, people who use it to connect with people they *don't* already know are finding it frustrating. No search, virality-limiting feature choices, no ads or "promoted" content, etc. I suspect that people who need those things will end up on something that's not Mastodon. Which is fine.
From: Matt (Nov 27 2022, at 09:30)
I suddenly had a chilling fear as I read the Narcissism/Radicalization article. As he goes after enemies will we see instances of evidence being "found" in their old DMs. And by found I of course mean fabricated. When you control the server you can insert or remove whatever data you like. (for example if I change my mind on this comment ;) )
But I fear things are going to get much worse as he uses his investment to amplify his horrific views.
From: John Abbe (Nov 28 2022, at 00:29)
Great piece, Tim. I scanned through at first and excitedly tried Beyoncé! Somehow I will live (for now) with the disappointment.
So instead I gave you a shout-out here: https://eqpa.wordpress.com/2022/11/27/peak-twitter-is-behind-us/
From: Patrick (Nov 28 2022, at 10:44)
Premature fleeing from Twitter seems to be mainly performative signalling.
If there was a viable alternative we would all be there.
I think the death of social networks is much like the transition from energy sources. You can't force it, it happens when the alternative is better/cheaper.
When it comes to social networks, it needs to be easier and better, and a large part of that is the network effect.
From: Chris Corrigan (Nov 28 2022, at 11:33)
Also weighing in on the lack of a quote feature on Mastodon. I agree with it. I read one person who appreciated it because it slows down the appropriation of another's voice and instead drives engagement into the conversation. And for a person whose post might get boosted in a million places, it helps keep THEM engaged too because there is really only one thread for the conversation. I hate running all over twitter to two or three different conversations on the same idea.
And Rick, I simply don't understand your argument. Refusing to listen to someone is not limiting their free speech at all. You are under no obligation to hear what I have to say and I'm not at all silenced if you simply walk away from me. I can express myself in a million other places.
I would be interested to hear you expand on this argument, because I've seen it before, but I don;t understand it.
From: Carl Forde (Nov 28 2022, at 14:19)
>Freedom of speech
Used to mean the ability to say something without fear of the gov't taking action against you. Now it has come to mean you (royal you) can say whatever you want, <social platorm> has to accept it and I have to read it. Nope. And when I exercise my nope, people (of a certain leaning) tend to get bent out of shape. Too bad. Leaving a platform because I don't like what I'm reading there doesn't silence those making the noise, just that I find leaving more beneficial, to me, than blocking, muting, ignoring, etc.
Those who enjoy the kinds of speech that turned me off of Twitter are welcome to enjoy it without me.
From: Adam (Nov 29 2022, at 21:14)
Patrick writes: "Premature fleeing from Twitter seems to be mainly performative signalling."
My response. I think the situation the other way. The people flocking to Twitter because they hear it is under Attack by the Libs are virtue signalling. I don't think they'll stay. As people leave, it will be no better than Truth Social or Parler or WSJ comment section or...
The people leaving Twitter are consumers in search of a product from a different supplier. There is enormous demand - in the millions. They are willing to use an inferior product as they shop. Their decision to leave Twitter is not a public statement. It is personal - once you leave Twitter, you aren't signalling anything. You're gone.
From: pastels (Nov 30 2022, at 14:31)
just a quick note that cohost is run by a non-profit entity
From: UmmOkay (Dec 06 2022, at 07:21)
Do you think Elon Musk might be using ChatGPT or some unreleased model to either train on Twitter's microservices or rebuild them ?
A more graphic way of putting this (probably more suitable for a twitter post) would be "Is Elon Musk feeding the Twitter codebase to the budding AGI ?"