A dictum of Lenin’s we’ve all probably seen too many times the last few years “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen” seems particularly apt for technology in late 2022 for two unrelated reasons, that will likely reverberate for a long time to come.
To round out 2022, today I’ll look at the first of these–the collapse of Twitter–and next week, a topic I covered a number of times during the year, and which got no small attention at our Summit a couple of weeks back, the rise and rise of generative AI.
The collapse of Twitter, the rise of Mastodon?
With Elon Musk’s acquisition some held out hope it would be improved (somehow magically through more unfettered speech, which Musk promised, though perhaps not unsurprisingly has not exactly delivered). Others (I was certainly in the latter camp) were concerned precisely because we’ve seen going back decades how speech, unfettered by civility, honesty and good faith tends to destroy communities, and much more quickly than you might imagine.
In the very early days of the web (and even predating the Web), Usenet newsgroups, sort of like forums, were where much internet use occurred. Newsgroups (which still exist after a fashion with Google Groups) were often focussed on specific technologies, and allowed folks from around the world to connect over shared interests. One of many newsgroups I followed assiduously was alt.hypertext (here’s the first public announcement of a new project at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee on alt.hypertext, in 1991, which you might have heard of). It was eventually the first, but not the last newsgroup I frequented that was more or less destroyed by one or a small number of posters maliciously or otherwise (perhaps by very frequently engaging in ‘debates’, or posting large volumes of often extraneous posts, or repeatedly asking previously answered and easily discoverable questions).
Thriving, vibrant online communities are very difficult to create, and to nurture, and disproportionately easy to destroy. And we are, I believe, seeing this play out in very short order with Twitter right now. Hundreds of folks I’ve known for decades, and who have helped shape the web, and indeed Twitter itself (coining terms and usage like the hashtag) have essentially abandoned the platform.
I follow thousands of people there, and until recently, between refreshes of my timeline (look I’m extremely online as the kids say, don’t judge me) there would be typically dozens if not hundreds of new tweets. This feels to have dropped by an order of magnitude in the last week or two.
And while we’ve long seen the theatrical leave-taking of social media, only for those folks to return in short order, with less flourish, this time feels very different.
In part because many of these folks have somewhere else to go, somewhere that serves a similar purpose, but which also harks back to the early days of Twitter–your feed is simply a reverse chronological stream of ‘Toots’ (yes, yes) from people you follow, or as ‘boosted’ ( essentially retweeted) by them, no machine algorithms in sight. Couple that with Twitter’s recent, if quickly rescinded (for now) banning of journalists who have a record of criticising Musk (for, lets face it, transparently retconned reasons), I feel the most engaged folks on Twitter, those that for the most part made it better, not worse, are going if not gone.
Will Mastodon replace it? Will something else? What even is that ‘it’? Short bits of text that could be informative, combative, humorous, hot takes–is Twitter even one thing?
My very lukewarm take is that in 2009, when at a fork in the road, Twitter chose (the path more travelled) to be not the realtime backbone of the Web–essentially shutting off developers who’d help make the platform successful, with various client apps and other innovative uses of the platform. It committed to a business model (advertising and selling user attention) over becoming something more pervasive, more important, though less obvious–a publisher, not a platform. Competing for attention with Google and Facebook. And that made all the difference.
My kids and their generation–young tweens through to young adults–have never used Twitter, or Facebook, maybe Instagram a bit–their internet is Snapchat and above all Tik Tok. Twitter is definitely for them what old people use, and the chances of them and their generation using Mastodon is barely measurable on a quantum scale.
But if Twitter is valuable to you personally, or professionally, I’d recommend getting on board Mastodon. Choose a server to join (unlike Twitter where all users exist essentially on a single ‘server’ (or namespace), twitter.com, on Mastodon there are potentially countless servers, you can even host your own, and then these are all connected–kind of like domain names and email addresses). Folks tend to join servers associated with a professional interest–so for those reading this, if you do web related design or development, some that are likely to be of relevance are indieweb.social (you can find me there), toot.cafe, hachyderm.io, mastodon.design and mastodon.social.
It’s worth noting that moderation and enforcement of codes of conduct are done at a server level, and folks report that some servers are more welcoming environments, particularly for people of color, and the LGBTQI community than others (tech.lgbt may be of relevance).
It’s also worth noting that built into the protocols and technology of mastodon are portability and reports are moving from one server to another is straightforward.
Mastodon has been around for some years now, and from time to time has seen an uptick in interest. This time really does feel different, and numbers do bear that out–while the impact on Twitter, at least anecdotally for me, is pronounced.