Mastodon and the Miocene Era of the Internet
It’s no irony to me that the up-and-coming internet platform is named after a once-extinct animal whose period on earth ended some 5 million years ago. For many, it’s a refreshing reminder of the idealism of the early days of mass internet use ushered in the 90s. Oh, how sweetly naive and innocent we all were back then – with our talk of “information superhighways”. Little did we know what kind of virtual world we were constructing almost 30 years hence. Like the mastodon of yore, those heady days seem a lifetime ago, but the reality is those changes happened within our lifetimes. So in this post, I want to reflect on where we came from, where we have been and where we might be going.
For some, the woes of Twitter started a couple of weeks ago with the acquisition by Musk, and a series of miss steps that would make even Liz Truss blush. The reality is the rot had set in some years ago – and had always been there hiding in plain sight. There’s been a lot of analysis of Twitter and its impact on our culture – which I find personally a bit troublesome. Twitter exerts its influence far in excess of its subscriber base. Compared to other platforms like Facebook, its relative minnow – and those who are on it – who have far more followers than follow – it exerts an influence on the public discourse which reveals the vast inequalities of our societies. Twitter was meant to be the great leveller – giving ordinary folks access to persons of note, and making persons of note more accessible. The reality is Twitter merely reflects the power differential at play in our society and culture. Why should a site of some 200m have so much influence it has compared to the 8 billion people this earth currently houses? The vast majority of my friends and family have no interest in Twitter, never have and never will.
Sometimes I’ve been a bit embarrassed by the world of “Social Media”. It’s an environment my generation helped in part to build and sanction – that we let loose on our kids. We assumed that people would happily give up their data in exchange for free stuff – and we naively and optimistically assumed it wouldn’t be used to groom people for terrorist organisations or promote suicide as a viable option for teenage girls. And to this day we allow unregulated algorithms to be bought and sold by political parties – so they can push a hateful agenda to an unsuspecting public. If Twitter and social media are a cesspit – it is in part because we and our politicians have allowed it to become so. And because we said they were platforms, not publications – where free speech absolutists can say what they like, to who like – without consequence. This is not a great message to send to the young – that what you say doesn’t matter, and therefore you can say what you like.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that Twitter started out with the same idealism that Mastodon currently enjoys. Over time it became an engine by which people with polarised views took lumps out of each other. I joined Twitter in 2009 when friends told me there was a discussion about a blog post I’d written. I challenge anyone not to be interested in a conversation where they or their content is the primary subject matter 🙂 . Reader. I held up no resistance. Back then I had a small Twitter community of some 100 followers and 100 followed. And it was like an early Slack channel (I remember IRC), a real-time extension of some of the VMware Communities forums where I’d first met people who I would later meet for real, and also come to call friends.
It didn’t stay that way. Pretty quickly Twitter evolved or our use of it evolved to pushing “content” to our “followers” and building status as “influencers”. Of course, that was limited to the mainly esoteric world of enterprise IT. I think that’s when I started to lose interest – when it was less about shoutouts for help, advice and opinions – more of a one-way broadcasting system. As my number of “followed” increased I found I couldn’t keep up with the volume of Tweets. In short, I discovered I could not read the whole of the internet.
Can Twitter ever make money? I would argue not. It turns out it’s really difficult to turn a micro-blogging site of 200m users into a viable platform for advertisers. Unlike FB which is primarily used by a generation of users who seem to relish filling out profile pages with valuable metadata – Twitter doesn’t seem to hold that information so readily. I guess that’s one fear folks moving to Mastodon have – that in a desperate bid to monetize that which has been resistant to monetization – the privacy and protections previously “enjoyed” will be open to ML/AI engines to be mined for advertising-friendly metadata. It’s one of the reasons I archived all my tweets and then used TweetDelete to remove them. Clearly, the attempts in the shape of Tweet Blue have been so bad, the “product” was withdrawn within 48 hours. That to me demonstrates the unwillingness of the user base to pay for a system they have previously enjoyed for free. Maybe the only viable and stable model for micro-blogging is minimal-cost Mastodon instances like one’s personal blog which then allows a micro-blogging presence in a non-commercial environment. IF that is the case – then don’t expect it to look anything like Twitter in practice.
Can Mastodon avoid becoming yet another cesspit? I would hope so – and someone would say that system that is NOT built on an algorithm that rewards conflict and hate means that it will. I’m more sceptical. Sadly, I believe there isn’t any human invention and innovation that doesn’t come with negatives and fail to see why Mastodon will be any different. The truth is there is light and darkness in the human population and people bring that light and darkness into everything they do – there’s nothing really in Mastodon that would stop darkness – except for a well-expressed server rule and good moderator. That assumes everyone doesn’t set up their own Mastodon host and become their own self-policing person. Bad actors and bad servers can be blocked – but won’t that merely create a series of different echo chambers creating a false impression of unity and harmony – which could be quite different from the world outside your door?
This week seems feels less insane than the last couple of weeks in the Birdsphere. Whether that continues is anyone’s guess. Right now although lots of people have moved, it’s far from the mass exodus many predicted. Musk is calculating that his users are emotionally tied to their followers and unwilling to abandon the network they have created there. As for myself, this feels like a good time to move on. I recently renamed my Twitter account to “Michelle Laverick Music” and use it to promote my music, videos, gigs and recordings. The truth is a felt queasy doing that. My “audience” (if that doesn’t sound too egotistical) followed me for my contribution to IT, not music. And it did feel like a was grifting my Twitter followers for entirely different purposes. The move to Mastodon seems a good time to start afresh with a tabula rasa. Also, I was cautious about “pushing” issues that my original Twitter followers might not be interested in such as my politics or my views on trans. With a new ID on a new platform, I feel more at liberty to express those views.
Finally, no one knows what the future will bring – Musk himself has warned about bankruptcy, and introduced the working culture of presenteeism and long-hours common in a start-up. Twitter isn’t a start-up, and it’s unclear to me why any experienced member of staff would hang around for Foxconn-style T&C of employment. Some predict that Twitter will become unstable, unreliable and unusable within 6 months – personally, that seems to be a bit pre-emptive – but who am I to predict the future? That remains to be seen – my concern is that if the mass exodus does occur and at a swift pace – Mastodon’s distributed model isn’t yet able to absorb that demand – and there needs to be a method distributing new sign-ups beyond people picking the most popular hosts within the system. I’d love to see the big WordPress hosters start to offer a personal Mastodon instance. I’d love to see vendors like Synology offer native Mastodon instances on their NAS arrays. I’d also love to see a more enhanced method of finding and following individuals than the process we currently enjoy.
And for all our sakes I hope it starts a return to civil discourse not based on character assassination and smear – but a space that allows for the curious and kind to debate and discusses real issues in good faith. You see, forever the idealist.