This is the short, tl;dr version of this, for people whose lives are too short, who are living close to the edge of existence and who don’t have time for flowery prose. I’ve stripped out all the funny bits and also the reference to Seán, so that’ll teach you. A wholesome bowl of uncooked oats for your mind.
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.
So we’re clear about what Twitter is, and also the sheer scale of it. Anyway, 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. He 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.
He has, it’s important to point out, allowed back many people who are objectively terrible. Racists, homophobes, transphobes, Nazis; if they were kicked off for being terrible, he allowed them back on. In case it isn’t clear, this is very, very bad.
He’s an idiot, and with every passing week, sets about demonstrating this with more and more dedication. 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.
The alternatives to Twitter
And so, where do people go to get the experience of Twitter but without the billionaire Elon Musk? One of the answers to this is Mastodon.
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’m on Mastodon, obviously, here: @firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
There is a lot of prescriptive lecturing. It has died down lately, but it’ll flare up again from time to time. Every time something changes tangibly on Twitter (most often these days, it stops working for a few hours, or people’s feed becomes 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.
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 don’t get a free pass on people just ‘getting’ you because you’re doing what you’ve always been doing and everyone gets your in-joke. This is Day One.
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. You know who you are.
A downside is the lack of service accounts, be it Dublin Bus, the rail service, the weather, Government departments, software companies, news services… 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. And there’s no good search.
Is there even something to like?
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.
The engagement here 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.
Mostly, people are lovely, and maybe there’s no pressure to engage in the negative behaviour, but it feels good. There’s a sense of positivity. 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)
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
Honestly, if you can read these, you can read my full-length version which is by an authoritative source, which is me, but ok, go on then.
- ‘On Moving to a New Social Media World‘, by me, here on this site
- 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.