The discourse on Twitter and Mastodon, as Twitter slowly fails into irrelevance, has been fascinating. At this point, I’m mostly still on Twitter for the entertainment factor of wanting to see what Elon Musk will do next. Last night, he reinstated Trump. Maybe I should feel bad about watching somebody have an emotional breakdown in public, but fuck him. He’s a terrible person from a mining family in South Africa. He’s been profiting off the mistreatment of others his entire life.
The people gnashing their teeth over the failure of the “public square” are totally missing the point. A software platform owned by a public company with absolutely zero responsibility to society was never the public square. Yes, for a brief period of time we thought Twitter could be something really cool and enabling for the world, but then Twitter, Inc. needed to hit its quarterly targets, and they started shutting down the openness that made Twitter interesting and potentially world changing. People complaining about the lack of specific features on Mastodon mostly are too young or too new to social media to remember that Twitter started as a way to post from text messages. Almost every interesting feature of Twitter was created by its users and by third party apps when the ecosystem was open and allowed just about anybody to create apps that interacted with Twitter. That was all killed off 10 years ago, which not coincidently is when Twitter started it’s long slow fall to irrelevance. Mastodon, as an open source tool, will enable that sort of distributed creativity and I think we’ll see fascinating things coming from that community now that it has critical mass to make it worth an app developer's time to build new tools for it.
The green revolution in 2009-2010 in Iran was a watershed moment for Twitter, and may not have happened without it. However, I don’t think life in Iran is better today because of it. (I’m not a Middle-East scholar, so feel free to correct me if there were improvements not so visible from the West). Also, it was a one time thing enabled by the authoritarian governments of the world not taking the power of massive distributed real time communications seriously. That’s not a mistake they’ll make again. Trying to organize any sort of movement or protest on Twitter today would just ensure that the authoritarians would be there to break it up and bust heads before it ever starts.
However, the authoritarians also learned that they can use Twitter (and Facebook) to influence public opinion. It turns out most of us are not media savvy and not equipped to deal with an onslaught of disinformation pushed by Russia, China, the GOP, Fox News, corporations, etc. Russia actively interfered with the 2016 election in the US by using Twitter and Facebook to spread dissent and misinformation. The Republican Party did the same thing. It resulted in the election of Donald Trump and a prolonged and continuing attack on the ideas of equality and fairness that are supposed to make America great.
Yes MAGA hats, equality and fairness made America great, not segregation and the domination of life by racist, misogynistic, white males.
Some of us have made good friends because of Twitter, some people I know met spouses due to Twitter. However, how much of that happened in recent years? All my Twitter friends date back 8-10 years. Not much good has come from it recently, and pretty much nothing good has come from Twitter since 2016.
A worldwide communications platform that is free to use is a great idea, in theory. In practice, I think we’ve learned it’ll be undermined by authoritarian and corporate interests. Mastodon today feels very much like Twitter circa 2007. Stuff doesn’t work sometimes, and the social norms around using the platform are still developing. The decentralization should make it harder for it to become Twitter 2.0, as one billionaire having a midlife crisis can’t buy the platform. The platform is thousands of individual nodes run by different people. If it becomes a major success, it will be tens of thousands or more individual nodes. In that way, it looks more like email than Twitter.
However, it’s only fair to note that email is more decentralized in theory than it is in practice, as Gmail and Outlook Online control about 70% of the market. It’s entirely possible, and maybe even likely, that Mastodon will end up similarly if it achieves that level of success. It’s way too early to worry too much about it, though.
In the end, we all stayed in touch and stayed informed before Twitter existed, and we’ll all continue to do the same if Twitter dies tomorrow, or next year. I think its importance in society has being exaggerated, maybe on purpose, by interests that have a reason to see it succeed. I’m aware that disabled and other traditionally marginalized communities have found Twitter helpful in ways that me as a white dude don’t notice. However, I am also aware of the tremendous price they pay in exposure to abuse when on Twitter. I can’t say if it’s worth it or not. If they think it is, I’ll defer to that judgement. But I also do think we have enough other tools at our disposal in 2022 for those communities to adapt and thrive, and maybe be better off in a post-Twitter world.
So, to bring this ramble to some sort of conclusion. Twitter was really cool and maybe world changing for a few years early in its existence. However, that Twitter died by 2012, and it’s not coming back. Malignant interests such as authoritarian governments and corporations have been winning at Twitter for years, and I don’t see any reason to believe that will change under new leadership. At this point, I think the world is better off it Elon runs out of money to dump into Twitter, and he pulls the plug on the entire thing. Central control by a corporation eliminates any possibility of Twitter’s influence on the world ever being a net positive again.
Kill it with fire. It’s the only way to be sure.