This is a longread which as much for your and my entertainment as for information, and so if you just want the ‘elevator pitch’ on why you should consider moving to to a different social network from the awful tyre fire that you’re currently using, I’ve provided a tl;dr/short version for people with busy important lives who watch YouTube tutorials on 1.5x playback mode and who get impatient at shrews and squirrels here.
What we’re all doing
As so many of us are and very probably you, reading this, I’m on social media. By social media, I mean that I have accounts on all of them but until recently what I really meant was Twitter. You may have naïvely meant any of hundreds of sites, from Facebook to Instagram to WhatsApp, or some other sites that probably exist such as Google+, but I meant Twitter, the system that is the closest that we’ll ever get to experience to telepathy enabled on a global scale, the ability to immediately experience the deepest thoughts and desires of any of our fellow humans and have immediate regret at having done so. And dogs too. Any of us could just fire our impulses into the void, and the void would… Well, probably the void would argue with you and insult you. Or agree with you, if you have enough money. Agreeing with billionaires is one of the proven ways in which you can also become a billionaire, or at the very least have them notice that you exist.
If you’re reading this, you probably know how Twitter works. It’s a website, but you can use apps either from Twitter itself or by other developers, you have an account, and you type ‘tweets’ of up to 280 characters (for a long time, the limit was 140), possibly with up to four images or one short video, or a poll with up to four short options. Maybe you’ll include a link, which will include a small preview of the linked page. Or a quoted tweet, which shows the tweet you’re sharing as well as your commentary on it. You post the tweet, it goes into the global feed. If people follow you, they get to see it. It’s very simple, as a concept. That’s what I and many millions of others like about it; it is very simple, and as social media goes, very ‘honest’. If you just want to see the latest posts by the people you follow, you can. I like this. It’s straightforward.
Just to note in passing that like most of the other social media sites, Twitter is a commercial company. It’s somehow one that has simultaneously become a piece of vital Internet infrastructure across the world, an information and misinformation transport medium, and a famously unprofitable company. It’s an ad company that does something remarkable, but is not particularly good at its core mission statement of making money.
So we’re clear about what Twitter is, and also the sheer scale of it. The next bit, however, is something that you can’t help but have heard about and at this point you may have heard or read enough. No more, you say, not another analysis, laden with a powerful mix of gleeful schadenfreude and at the same time genuine regret and sadness. Click here to skip to the next bit, although you’ll be missing some of my delightful prose. Yes, Twitter was just another company owned by shareholders, a thing that can be bought, and someone bought it. A single individual, a billionaire. A Musk. Elon Musk bought Twitter.
The Elon Musk bit
Elon Musk, the billionaire who is an incredible genius because he invented electric cars and commercial space travel, loves to use Twitter. He announces ideas and opinions there, and apparently humours the suggestions of his fellow users, and believes that he is by some margin the most interesting and influential user of the platform. Now, because he’s a billionaire, he experiences the world differently to you and I. We’re not billionaires. The physical laws and limitations, and occasionally the legally defined ones, apply to him as they do to you and I, but he experiences them differently. He is one of the wealthiest humans to have ever existed, so when he has an idea, be it to have a seven-seater electric family car that can outrun a sports car, or to colonise Mars, or that he can buy an entire social network, he can actually do it. People will do everything that they can to make it happen for him, so he no longer perceives difficulty. And he had the idea on a whim to buy Twitter for far more than it was worth, he announced it, he travelled down that path a bit, and then… he discovered that he might be forced to see it through by a court. He might actually be told to do something by someone else. And so he saw it through to avoid being made to do it, and bought Twitter for $44 billion. And turned up to the Twitter office carrying a sink, so that someone could film him doing it and then he could tweet about it on his social network.
He quickly set about firing everyone who knew how to run Twitter as a business, and then everyone who knew how to run Twitter as a system, and was eventually left with a company of people who either saw an advantage in staying, or in many cases, had no choice for one reason or another but to stay and play along with the impulsive billionaire who had some very clear ideas on what was going wrong with Twitter (actually, he later fired a load of them as well – that’s right, he fired his loyal cheerleaders too). To be fair to him, it’s surely less complex than programming a car that can drive itself, or at least it appears to until a few seconds before it hits something and kills people, which they seem to do a fair bit. I won’t get into all the various suggested, implemented, and withdrawn schemes, but there have already been many, clearly with very little planning or long-term thought and delivered in haphazard fashion, all while the service gets slower and less stable. Also, he has allowed many people who were banned for very good reasons to go back on to the platform, which makes life difficult (if not outright dangerous) for people on and off the platform. Working in Twitter right now is probably like being locked in a disintegrating barrel full of fissile uranium and burning plastic while it tumbles down a rocky hill. A fraction of the original employees remain, and they are not the ones who know how things work there.
In fact, the daily rate of incidents is such that if I wrote here the last remarkably stupid incident, then by the time I hit publish it will have been superseded by something worse and more stupid. I’ll try anyway, I’m not short of bad ideas of my own: As of this writing, Musk had spotted that his tweets were not getting the sort of traction that one would expect of the most interesting person on Twitter, so he demanded answers of his engineering team. His lead engineer suggested that perhaps perhaps people had lost interest in his tweets. Impossible. The engineer was fired on the spot. The next engineer looked into it with his team and concocted an obvious and elaborate lie, which was there was a bug, and so they amplified his reach, spending precious development hours on that instead of anything genuinely important. Also, since I wrote that, Musk has gone on to fulfil my prediction, but since that was the funniest of his recent stupid actions, I’ll ignore them for the benefit of entertaining narrative, but if you want to see something that shows his meanness and at the same time effortlessly owning himself in public, here it is, by John Gruber. Oh wait, while I was psyching up for the edit, he did something else that was stupid. It’s just an endless cascade of stupid.
Remember, just because someone has billions and billions of money, more wealth than anyone in the world has ever had before, doesn’t mean that they are smarter than the average twelve year old, and indeed quite possibly less so.
The man has (between the purchase of the site and the drop in value of his shares in, for example, Tesla) effectively spent $250 billion to become the most important person on a social media site, where people are free to leave and go somewhere else if they don’t like it. $250 billion on this instead of ending world hunger, climate change, you name it.
The alternatives to Twitter
And so, where do people go to get the experience of Twitter but without the billionaire Elon Musk? This is a question that enthusiastic software developers ask themselves all the time; if there’s one consistent thing about software developers, it’s the desire to solve every problem from scratch, regardless of how well the problem has been solved already by someone with greater skill, or even if the problem needs solving at all, never mind in ten different ways. My friend Seán and I set about trying to ‘solve’ social media a few years back. We looked at distributing it (not unlike BitTorrent), or figuring out how how everyone could ‘own’ their own social media. Self-replicating media nodes. It’s actually quite difficult as a problem to solve; there are a lot of moving parts and even something as simple as a feed of text messages of limited length is more complicated than it seems.
About seven years ago, a young German man by the name of Eugen Rochko asked himself this question, and ended up creating his implementation, called Mastodon, which does a lot of what Twitter does (and where it doesn’t, it’s usually a conscious decision) but with the critical difference that anyone can host a Mastodon server themselves. Yes, you can have your own Twitter, running on your own server, with your own rules and you can be the Elon Musk of that server, only you’ll do it better because you’re not a billionaire idiot.
The technical bit
[ skip ] Mastodon is a part of what is an ecosystem of social media servers which can communicate with each other using a clearly defined protocol (called ActivityPub), with the unattractive name of ‘the Fediverse’. Yes, I know, it’s not ideal. But hear me out! So there is Mastodon, but also Pleroma (similar to Mastodon, or Twitter), PixelFed (similar to Instagram), Friendica (similar to Facebook), and many more, and each of these is a server application which can be installed on a server, with its own URL (for example, https://social.andcurve.farts – no, it does not exist) and people can sign up, start following people on other servers (by and large, regardless of what software those other servers are running; for example, like following people on Twitter from your Instagram account) and of course, start posting. Each server will have its owner and rules, and settings, and so on. And because of ActivityPub, your posts on a PixelFed server can be picked up by a user following you from a Mastodon server. And we can use different apps on our phones or different web interfaces, and apart from local server rules, there is no single authority over it, which is a great strength and also a weakness. Servers can be well-run, or badly run. Good people can have servers, and so can racist homophobes. Servers can shut down at short notice because someone didn’t pay the bills. But, users and entire servers can be blocked. As a whole, the ecosystem is resilient, because as a whole, it can survive the failure of parts of it. The fundamental design of the Internet.
Explaining this to people can be a handful. We’ve become collectively trained to understand that the web is a handful of sites or even apps on which we do a thing that is more or less unrelated to the other websites on which we do things. If you have an account on Twitter, that is separate to your account on Instagram. They are silos, protected from the outside world. The idea of various separate sites connecting to each other (which is what the web is, hence the name) is not in the best interests of the people running these big monolithic systems. They want you to think that they are the web. Even email, that oldest, most basic tool for communicating on the web, is something that any of us can run from our own server, our own domain, but we generally think of it as Gmail, or Outlook (formerly Hotmail). In fact, one of the ways in which enthusiasts were trying to explain this situation was to use email as an analogy, and of course that failed because the idea that you might have email somewhere other than Gmail is now ludicrous for most people. Well, it is until Google decides that giving people email for free is not actually a profitable business to be in. Which it isn’t, and one of these days Google will realise that.
By and large, these servers in the federated social media world are run by individuals or small groups as a hobby. There are no investors, no advertisers, no algorithms, no monetisation plans; just people who wanted to install, run, and manage a server for social media, which is very hard work. By all accounts it’s a full-time job, and with some unasked-for insight into how awful people can be.
On using Mastodon
[ skip ] Mastodon is the best known of the server types (and synonymous with this alternative scene, even though it is only a part of it), and even then it was relatively obscure until recently. I created an account a few years ago, but… there wasn’t much happening. Not the dopamine storm of a good day in the content mines over at Twitter.com! No main character, no rollercoaster of passive-aggressive interactions, skirting the edge of a ban, quote tweeting today’s bête noire for kudos with my peers. I came back to it in April of 2022 when it became clear that Elon Musk really was going to buy Twitter. Now, what Mastodon as software needed was a bit of attention, and money (which attention would help with, to encourage sponsors – not investors!), and some sort of incentive for existing app developers to stop looking at Twitter and focus on Mastodon instead, and if you were going to really get into ‘blue sky thinking’, what would really help was someone setting fire to Twitter and convincing a lot of people to leave it, particularly the people who influence others. Normally, this would be a tall order, but here are, and I write those words as truth with a smattering of sarcasm instead of naïve hope.
So there is it, we are all signing up to different ‘Twitter’ sites, and we can connect with people, follow and be followed, by people on different ‘Twitter’ sites. Find a server that looks like it fits your ethos and interests, sign up, maybe they’ll verify you, and you’re away, start following and posting. A lot of Irish people signed up to an Irish Mastodon server, and have built a community there. Pick a server here (if you’re from ‘Irish’ Mastodon, mastodon.ie is a good bet). I’m on @firstname.lastname@example.org
The Fediverse is a very interesting place. Much more varied than Twitter or other social media, simultaneously more exciting and open, and yet stricter and more dry and serious. It’s a cliché, but it’s really what you make it. It’s a stark reminder that what we experience on other singular platforms is the result of years of use, where it finally bedded in for us and felt comfortable after years of use (well, that or it was Google+), and enough started happening for it to feel like home and we could get onboard with throwing elections and genocide. In this distributed world, you have to start again, making connections, finding people to follow and converse with, discover new features and etiquette. It’s actually a bit of work, and the rewards don’t seem immediately apparent unless you view leaving Twitter as a necessity.
Weirdly the age profile of the Fediverse skews older; elder Millenials, Generation X. Someone said to me that Millenials take a while to adapt to new social media, and I have a theory about this. Bear with me, it’s great, I love a good (terrible, poorly articulated) metaphor as you know, and I have one. Generation X (that’s me) grew up with multiple device cables, charging adapters, and plugs. USB arrived once we were already used to all the various connectors. Millenials had to cope with all different types of USB connectors: A, B, mini, micro. The generation after: different types of USB-C. The kids these days, they think Internet is available for free from the air, and they don’t even know what electricity is or why cables are. Stuff just works and if it stops, you get a new one and put your parents in the bin. Older people are used to friction, and deal with it. Younger people find that hard.
What’s not to like?
This is going to seem counter-intuitive, but I’m going to start with what will look a lot like a list of negatives. I’m going to start with the ‘bad news’ first, and build up the good news. These are the things that have gotten people to stick with Twitter, even as it descends slowly but inexorably into a flaming, unmanaged, toxic mess run by an egocentric idiot, and when there is an alternative to that experience, which really has as its main drawback the human impulse to avoid change. Here we go, bear with me, we’ll get to the good stuff!
The concept of the Fediverse and Mastodon can seem complicated at first, but it isn’t really. You pick a server to join, you follow people, you get an app (free or paid) and you use it. The process isn’t always so clear and it can seem daunting because it is different.
The Fediverse can be intense and so very earnest. People aren’t there to fling words at the virtual wall and walk away. They mean business. On Twitter I’d say, for example, “Ugh, I hate putting things into bins, they’re made of cats and hatred” as you do, and maybe I’d get a reply like “Sorce??? What’s wrong with dogs?” from eric83263473464 and then I could decide whether to argue with eric83263473464, block them, ignore them, but… in the Fediverse someone with a PhD in bin design replies with “I’m afraid I’ll need a citation from a reputable source for this statement? Studies have consistently shown that bins are not made of cats, more usually thermally-resistant plastics…” and the replies get even more into it, and this can oddly be more daunting and tiring. Sometimes you play the stupid games to win the stupid prizes, and you don’t want to come away with valid points and knowledge.
The etiquette bullet-point lists, the endless ‘how tos’ on the correct use of the federated social network, the endless admonishments of people who have not annotated their images (to be fair, a good habit to get into), the schadenfreude posts about what’s going on over at Twitter, ahhh, have you even seen it now, the Great Quote War: There are people who use this social network to… complain almost exclusively about the lack of a single feature that was excluded for specific reasons, the quote tweet, and for them any social network that does not allow a quote tweet-like feature is worse than useless, it actively undermines humanity, and they will tell you this endlessly. Can’t you just paste the link in into your toot? No, it’s not the same, it’s violent oppression.
Every time something changes tangibly on Twitter (most often these days, it stops working for a few hours, or people’s feeds become just posts by the new owner and racists or something), waves of people arrive and start either complaining about how things are not exactly the same as the awful place where they were until very recently, or explaining how everything should be used by everyone that’s already in the place where they’ve just arrived, with an arbitrary set of strict rules that they learned about from someone else’s second hand post. Yes, I have done this too, I have great regrets.
The Chad Loders: Now, this is a little mean-spirited, but bear with me, it goes somewhere, and also I hope that neither Dave Troy nor Chad Loder (who does in fact apparently work hard to better the lives of his fellow Americans, and Americans need more people like that) read this. There were a burst of posts by people on both Twitter and then the Fediverse about how Elon Musk was executing a grand plan, which was incredibly clever and devious, and involved Musk voluntarily burning billions of dollars in order to benefit his fellow billionaires by buying and destroying Twitter, and something something something, read the Medium post, sign up today. For me, all of these people have been conflated into a single person, or indeed a band.
Seriously, I really hope Dave goes back and rereads his article about Elon Musk and long-termism for a chuckle once in a while. It hasn’t held up well.
What’s really not to like
These things that I’ve listed, they’re not really downsides. The feed can be intense; as my girlfriend suggested, this is because the intense posts, which skew strongly to neurodivergent, are not diluted by various services and news feeds which drop neutral, impersonal information into your feed, or people just having their daily or hourly thoughts, such as “I like tea, and biscuits are cronchy. Tea is not cronchy.“. It breaks it up. If you’re not careful, your feed on the federated timeline is a lot of “I like tea, but tea is an indicator of how society handles systemic oppression given the beginnings of the tea trade. Biscuits are ‘cronchy’, because of their origins as a seafarer’s food source for long journeys, such as taking tea from third world” and so on and so on. But it is what you make it, and it has settled down a lot since the huge heave in November.
It’s a new network. You have to build it from scratch. You get a leg up from finding a bunch of people who you were following or were following you on Twitter, and that’s a start, but… It’s not the thousands of adoring fans you had on Twitter. It’s a handful of people to start with, and it’s a come-down. You’ve been coasting on the inertia of all of your interactions for up to a decade and a half, and now, you’re back to basics. It might feel daunting, if your audience matters to you. And you have to get past the long-forgotten feeling of posting into the void at people who don’t know you or get your references or in-jokes. You don’t get a free pass.
More importantly though, if you rely on a group or some source of information, that’s not going to automatically exist somewhere else. If you need to find information that you can’t get elsewhere, or more importantly to follow updates on a topic, Twitter is often the only show in town. It can be life or death for some people, to have access to this, it’s really no joke. It tends to be things like mental or physical health, and minorities on every axis who need a community that perhaps they don’t have access to the physical world.
I miss all my regulars from Twitter. Very many people that I’ve never met in real life, never physically met, but who nonetheless feel like part of my world, especially since the start of 2020 and we spent long periods discouraged from going out and meeting people, and I am inclined towards this virtual, text-based interaction, for better and worse. So I miss Jason and his anecdotes and gentle shitposting, I miss Rubot’s observations, I miss Siobhán’s public transport tweets, I miss the vast array of Orlas and Orlaiths, I miss The Foggy Jew’s political analyses, Shivvy, Paul, Cassia, Gerry, Sue, Dara, and so many more brilliant people. It was a world to tune into, join in, put my foot into it here and there, start a romantic relationship even (true story). I miss all these people (that haven’t moved to the Fediverse – some did, with varying degrees of commitment).
A downside is the lack of service accounts, be it Dublin Bus, the rail service, the weather, Government departments, software companies, news services… Very few of them are looking ahead to the time when there will be no more Twitter. Some are, and have set up already, but most haven’t. The day will come when it will be clear that putting all of our services communications into the hands of a wealthy idiot was in fact a very bad idea; but for many, this realisation will be like running into a wall at speed.
Another downside is the lack of corporate accounts. The earnest friendly accounts, urging you to share your personal details across social media with an outsourced social media presence which may or may not solve your problems. Like when Bank of Ireland moved its customer service desk almost entirely onto Twitter, including for business users with urgent problems such as myself. Or when corporate accounts share a joke, and all the corporate accounts get in on it together, it’s brilliant, the apex predators of Capitalism getting together at the meme watering hole and having a laugh at some in-joke, fantastic! And the rest of us cringe so hard that we come within a hair’s breadth of some sort of event horizon of embarrassment.
There’s no good search. Search on the Fediverse is hard. It’s partly by design; it prevents the Ricky Gervaises of this world name-searching themselves and finding that you’ve mentioned him, and either blocking you (which is fine) or by instigating a pile-on (see above about quote tweets). But on the other hand, it’s tediously difficult sometimes to find people you know in order to follow them, and hard to search even your own posts, never mind anyone else’s. I used to use my tweets as a source of inspiration for blog posts like this, recycling individual witty nuggets into longform.
Is there even something to like?
Well, that was the classic anti-sell, isn’t it? if you came here looking for reasons to move from Twitter to the Fediverse and you made it this far, I doubt that I’ve sold you on the idea. In fact, I’ve reinforced the idea that you made a good decision to stay put in what is operational terms a burning tyre factory. We shall see.
In spite of all of the apparent downsides, it is… actually a lot better. It really is, once you get settled in. Is it possible that I’m labouring under the weight of a sunk cost fallacy? Maybe. But it really feels better, like a more positive place to be. People who have committed to this find Twitter hard going now. It’s like being in a loud, rowdy room at a party, and going into the kitchen where it’s quiet. Maybe you’ll get into a few interesting conversations. When you speak, people hear you, they engage, they’re interested. And when you step back into the noisy rowdy room, maybe you realise that it’s too loud, people are too drunk or maybe even coked up, too aggressive, and maybe you were part of that and it wasn’t a good way to be. Or: You don’t notice the absence of ‘dunking’ until you go back to Twitter and realise that a sizeable percentage of your timeline there is dunking. And ultimately, it’s a toxic activity, no matter how awful the account being dunked on is.
The engagement in the Fediverse is far higher, and generally feels much more positive. It really is. If you post regularly here, and put effort into just being yourself and sharing, people will see you and they will share what you’re writing and take an interest. It feels so utterly different here in that regard, and it is wonderful. It can be a lot, if you’re used to flinging coins into the Twitter well and have resigned yourself to the idea that no-one is paying attention, to suddenly get traction and have people taking an active and sometimes very intense interest in what you’re saying. It’s healthy though. It feels more like socialising than Twitter. The flip side is that you need to work at it. You need to be you, and to add to what’s happening here for people to take an interest. You can’t show up, post sarcastically for a few days, and then wonder why nothing’s happening for you here. You might be tempted to provoke a little by saying something outrageous, or offensive (if ultimately tongue-in-cheek). But if someone came to your house and did that, you’d probably ask them to leave.
A lot of people have repeatedly mentioned here that Twitter has gone downhill as an experience. They’ve been here for the last three or four months, and they’ve popped back over, and it has apparently become worse as a place to be. I don’t think so though, not entirely. I think that technically Twitter has degraded (this is not debatable, it has started to destabilise), but for the most part, people are behaving on Twitter as they always have. What has changed is spending time online in a place where things are quieter and more measured. Certainly more intense and usually more personal. When you swing your arm here, you will very quickly find out if you’re brushing too close to someone else. On Twitter, you become accustomed to hitting your keyboard with abandon, free from consequence, desensitised to how others might feel about what you’ve written. That doesn’t work here, you get used to behaving differently, and when you go back to Twitter, it just all looks and feels wrong.
The Fediverse doesn’t reward negative posting in the way that Twitter does, nor the sort of controversial, edgelord, skirting of the edge of acceptability. Twitter does, not least of course because of the algorithm, which is also what gives us the Main Character effect. Now, you can experience Twitter without the algorithm, and just get your latest tweets (or whatever they’re calling it today), but most people don’t see the difference, and so get whatever the site decides they should see. This place only has the linear timeline, and people boosting (retweeting). Twitter rewards a certain type of negative post that just looks forced and awkward here, and it doesn’t get traction, because people don’t share it. It can happen of course, but it usually doesn’t.
You don’t feel shitty after spending time in the Fediverse, like you need a shower because of the things people have said to you. That’s a good thing. That’s how it should be.
Conclusion (if any)
I opened an account in the Fediverse (as a number did) as soon as it became apparent that the billionaire idiot would in fact impulse buy Twitter. It seemed prudent. When it became official, I committed to the move, and while I looked back wistfully, I took what I could with me. I’m surprised that it’s still running as reliably as it does, to be honest, but as it degrades, and people note the cut-offs for various things and you have to start paying for the basic features, I think it will be a matter of time before what’s left is sold for scrap, and the credit card and personal details in the system will be sold on to someone with an even lower moral threshold than Elon Musk. Yes, if you’re paying for a blue tick right now, get your Goddamned card out of there, for your own good.
The disintegration is real. Fascists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, they’re all being let back on. The monetisation strategies and the owner favour these people, and as they start to dominate your Twitter timeline, you’ll be slowly boiled in hatred.
I hope that some of the people I’ve built friendships (or perhaps, uneasy online relationships) with will eventually come across and join me in this new place, maybe build something new, create new communities, learn new things. But we’ve definitely all learned something about the hold that oligarchs have on our lives.
Look, Twitter is done. That’s a fact. I know it’s still running, technically, but it’s running out of road financially, as a business, as an idea, technically… It’s just a matter of time. Join me. @email@example.com
Some reading material, or footnotes
- Mastodon Sign-up, on Join Mastodon
- ‘Extremely Hardcore‘ by Zoe Schiffer, Casey Newton, and Alex Heath on The Verge
- ‘Twitter is dying‘ by Natasha Lomas on TechCrunch
- ‘Musk is remaking Twitter into a climate denier sanctuary‘ by Ketan Joshi
- ‘Elon Musk’s Compelling Case for Worst Human of 2023‘ by Ethan Zuckerman
- ‘The Gist: The Twits‘ by Simon McGarr on The Gist
- A link I can no longer find back putting a compelling case for giving Twitter 6 months, where either the FTC or a lawsuit for redundancy/severance payments materialises, and then the show is over. See above about searching Mastodon. Ugh.
- ‘Can Mastodon seize the moment from Twitter?‘ by Nilay Patel, interview with Eugen Rochko on The Verge
- ‘What Is an RSS Feed? (And Where to Get It)‘ by Coletta Teske Whitehead on Lifewire
- Feedbin, the RSS reader site that I use. This is how you get news by the way, not the dubious, unverified opinions of ted02482983928 on Twitter
Edited on 03/04/2023 to add an extra footnote.