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What might come after Twitter?
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Remember the Fail Whale?
If you got a version of this from Puck, good for you! There’s some custom stuff in this personal edition so keep scrolling.
I’m recovering from excessive amounts of Pickleball during this holiday week. It’s a real sport and my shoulder is stiff. Yes, I’m one of those people. I also spent some time on Thanksgiving thinking about the holiday itself and ways to enjoy the time off without co-signing on the the idea of it as a consumerist, colonization-infused celebration of gluttony. I recently started learning more about the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Known as “Iroquois” in French, this multi-nation alliance predates European settlement in North America and inspired some of the structure of our democracy. They have a “Thanksgiving address” which they recite at various gatherings, and I think it’s inspiring. I recommend contemplating and sharing it for your own gatherings. Turkey slaughter not required.
You’ve probably noticed the headlines about demonstrations occurring across China. I wanted to use that as an opportunity to remind us of what’s happening in Iran. It’s a remarkable display of resistance, and I encourage you to follow my old friend Saman Arbabi who is regularly posting on Instagram with scenes from the ground. Looks like a revolution.
Elsewhere in the Baratundeverse, we’re making Season 4 of How To Citizen right now, and you can sign up to join the interview recording sessions online. Today we had a super lively session with Claudia Chwalisz of DemocracyNext on democracy without elections. The audience chat and question time were lit! We collected so many resources from people who showed up to share how they are finding ways to get more involved in their communities. Don’t feel bad for missing it. We have more coming up including two more this week!
Nov 29: Nsé Ufot. formerly of the New Georgia Project on new ways to organize people while making it fun and loving. Also how do Georgians withstand the onslaught of political ads. .
Nov 30: Priya Parker on the art of gathering. How we gather affects how we citizen, so let’s make gatherings better. Yes, we could be talking about party planning.
Dec 6: Jon Alexander on changing the way we think of ourselves from consumers to citizens.
Dec 8: Alex Zhang, “mayor” of Friends with Benefits, on the future of digital common spaces. Yes we’ll talk ways to citizen with DAOs and web3!
Dec 9: Tim Phillips of Beyond Conflict on how we can overcome political violence and extreme polarization. Might be relevant.
Dec 15: adrienne maree brown!!!!!!! You just want to clear your entire day for this one.
Below are some thoughts I shared in my most recent Puck piece. Full version available here behind ye olde paywall. It’s a chaotic and inspiring time in social media as Elon radically and often thoughtlessly changes Twitter. I have so much emotion and history tied up in the birdsite. Comedy, friendships, community organizing, political action, memes! I’m trying to stay focused on what might come next rather than cling to what was. So the thoughts below are written in that spirit. It’s still early for the next chapter, and I’ll be exploring many new lands on which to build community and blast out self-promotional messages.
There’s no single social media space to which Twitter refugees are fleeing. There are blockchain-based protocols that promise user ownership of their social graph like Lens and the Decentralized Social Networking Protocol (disclosure: DSNP is a project associated with Project Liberty, whose Unfinished conference I regularly host). There’s Tribel which promises to be a “kinder, smarter social network.” Through Kara Swisher, I learned about Post, a news-focused platform she advises which was founded by former Waze C.E.O. Noam Bardin. Mostly, though, I hear about Mastodon.
Mastodon isn’t a single service. It’s federated, like email systems or like the United States, and your experience depends on your home. Mastodon is open source software that anyone can set up and run. Each of these is called a server or “instance.” You can think of instances as neighborhoods or, to stay with the U.S.A. metaphor, as states. There’s no universal “United States” experience because your state of residence determines things like taxation, access to health care, guns, and languages spoken. Mastodon is similar. Instances differ based on the demographics of the users, technical customizations, and policies around moderation. Some instances are small—they might have a thousand users or less and cater to niche communities like tabletop gaming or information security. Others host hundreds of thousands of accounts with no subject matter or demographic focus. Still others are private, invite-only for groups of friends or coworkers. In this way, Mastodon is a return to a more local, diverse internet we had in the era of Bulletin Board Systems, Usenet newsgroups, and Internet Relay Chat (IRC).
But what’s new today is the large numbers of people online, and the speed with which information can travel, resulting in sudden, rapid migrations of populations. Mastodon had been flying below the radar, catering to a relatively small group of people by V.C.-backed social media platform standards. Now, because of the Twitter exodus, it’s been thrust into the spotlight, and some instances have become overwhelmed with new users. There’s a wave of digital migrants, and Mastodon has become a social media sanctuary city for Twitter emigrants who bring our expectations of culture, technology, and user experience with us. But it’s not Twitter. There’s no algorithm. Posts appear in reverse chronological order. There’s no universal timeline. You see who you follow or the activity on your instance or the hashtags you choose, but there’s no Mastodon “fire hose” to search. The way you get “verified” isn’t with a government I.D. check or a monthly subscription fee. You put some code on a website you control verifying at least that you have access to it.
Even talking about Twitter on Mastodon is coded. Most Mastodon folks I’ve seen refer to Twitter simply as “the bird site” which I find hilarious. I’ve appreciated the generally patient attitude of Mastodon veterans toward the Twitter expats. I’ve seen Mastodon users try to gently remind the Twitter newbies that this isn’t a place to “go viral,” and with a 500-character post limit, it can be more like blogging or public correspondence than flipping off zippy one-liners. I’ve engaged in thoughtful discussions about the service itself, Thanksgiving traditions, and World Cup fandom. We’ll see over time what the culture settles on, but it’s also possible there won’t be “a culture” because there’s no single Mastodon.
The most interesting shift from Twitter that I’ve found has to do with moderation. Behavior allowed in one part of Mastodon may get you suspended in another part. Within a few days of activation, I learned that an instance popular among journalists (journa.host) had been “defederated” by other instances because of their failure to moderate hateful content. That means if my moderator on mastodon.fakeexample blocked journa.host, I wouldn’t see any content from users over there. In another example, a Black Mastodon user I followed moved instances because he was getting heaps of racist abuse and death threats, and the moderators on his server weren’t doing anything about it. The bad news is, he had to leave his home. The good news is, he could, and he found an instance with a better set of policies and culture for him.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. But also, it has to be. Perhaps Mastodon really is a microcosm of our society in a larger, more paradigmatic way: a V2 of the metaverse, a place where our digital selves roam with some laws and boundaries; perhaps not enough for us all to feel both safe and fully ourselves, but a step in the right direction. I saw someone post that Mastodon is “like states rights as a service,” and that feels about right. The fake news thought leader Dan Sinker commented recently, “most people don’t care about decentralization and governance models, they just want someplace to hang out that’s not a hassle.”
I also agree with that. We’ve gone back to the future with this model. Sometimes it feels like a very 1990s internet but built with very 21st century tools and coordination happening to improve the experience. Mostly, I’m excited to see people take ownership of their space again. Hoping for or fearing what Elon might do next is not a healthy, small-d democratic way to create a society, digital or otherwise. Getting our own hands dirty, making mistakes, and figuring it out together feels much better.
If you want to find me in the fediverse, I’m at email@example.com (for now). If you want to find your Twitter friends, check out Debirdify or Fedifinder. If you just want to learn more about how it works, I recommend this guide to Mastodon.
A little more from the piece, out of order from the Puck original, but I figured for you I’d bury the Elon analysis because he’s exhausting.
The richest man in the world has continued putting his fingerprints on Twitter by welcoming back previously barred users, revamping the predictably-failed verification subscription program, and vaguely hinting at a Twitter phone. Yes, like a physical smartphone. Right. Let’s start with the banned accounts.
In May, Elon Musk promised to reinstate Trump, so we all expected it. But on October 28, Musk appeared to reconsider and tweeted, “Twitter will be forming a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints. No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes.” This came amid fears that advertisers would be inclined to sit out a toxic, Trump- and insurrection-friendly environment. For a brief moment, handfuls of people thought Musk might actually take a considered approach to the Trump reinstatement decision. Of course, he would not. As is well known, on November 18, he tweeted a poll offering “Yes” and “No” choices on reinstating Trump. The “Yes” votes narrowly won, so that was that. Vox populi, vox dei?
Musk has barrelled into his new role by firing people, sometimes the wrong people, then re-hiring them, only to fire them again. He’s complained that he’s working really hard at Twitter, spending weekends at the company’s headquarters. He clearly doesn’t have time to hire members of a content council. That’s precious firing time. That’s precious launch-new-features-without-thought time. So he replaced those new jobs and their associated labor costs, with an online poll from his own account. See? Efficient automation! It’s just like self-landing rockets. The next day, Trump’s account was back online, though Trump himself was not. He’s so far said he’ll stay on Truth Social, though my Puck partner Tara Palmeri recently reported that this is merely a negotiating technique. Even Trump knows he can’t mount a viable presidential bid with four million followers on a captive network for insurrectionists. Sad.
Finish over here.
Thanks. Don’t forget to breathe and stay hydrated.