OVER THE LAST few months, as Elon Musk and his fellow right-wing nitwits barreled in to complete the ruination of Twitter, a lot of people signed on to the rival open-source platform Mastodon (including me, and I’ve been having fun writing about it).
Now that Twitter has become a raging fire of hate speech, mismanagement and lies, the future of social media in the production and sharing of news and journalism around the world has grown into a matter of worried speculation. Will it be possible for all the readers, writers, academics, journalists, technologists, travelers, students—everyone who once relied on the service, imperfect as it was—to find new ways to exchange ideas, find like-minded colleagues, locate experts or other sources, or conduct lighning-fast, direct research online?
After a few weeks at Mastodon, much of the worry is over, for me at least. Mastodon is already a viable alternative, for those who want one.
Once I got it cranked up, my Mastodon feed felt like the old Twitter right from the start, with Clinton-era labor secretary Robert Reich (@email@example.com) demanding that members of Congress be prohibited from owning stocks, and former Snopes editor Brooke Binkowski (@firstname.lastname@example.org) fulminating at Facebook. I learned how to follow hashtags, which is a fun way to find new people; I especially love #bookstodon. I’m having many more conversations about art, design, films, literature and other everyday subjects, like I used to on Twitter.
To follow hashtags, by the way, just enter a hashtag in the search bar, like this:
If you use the “advanced” screen display on Mastodon (setup pictured below), you can pin followed hashtags in a Tweetdeck-like column. Otherwise, if you just click as indicated above, hashtagged posts you follow appear in your Home feed.
You may have heard by now about how much kinder and more interesting people are on Mastodon, and for me that’s been the case, consistently and for many weeks now. Part of this may be some weird kind of selection bias, part of it that the 500-character limit engenders a relatively laid-back approach to discussion, and part of it is definitely the baked-in hatefulness of Twitter:
It’s more work to find people and do research on Mastodon, and that was apparently a conscious design decision: If you make it very, very easy to perform full-text searches on any word (“TERF,” say, or “antifa”) you also make it easy for stalkers, griefers and other no-goodniks to gather around their prey. There are good ideas on how to manage a future search function on Mastodon floating around; Anil Dash just yesterday posted the beginnings of an excellent solution. But for the moment I don’t mind taking a bit of extra trouble on Mastodon to find people, and figure things out, because the payoff is immense; the social media part of my day has become relaxed and interesting, absorbing rather than enraging.
Even at its far smaller size—with some two million “active daily users” to Twitter’s estimated 229 million—my experience at Mastodon has been so very much richer and better than Twitter that it’s greatly altered my perspective on what might make for a better, healthier relationship between news, journalism, and social media “at scale”.
What does it mean, to have “followers”? I have not quite 1,500 at Mastodon, and just over 15,500 at Twitter. And yet, when I conduct casual experiments by posting the same message and links on both sites at once, I’ve found that more people respond, and more people “boost” (roughly the same as retweeting) on Mastodon than on Twitter.*
Some obvious reasons for this might be:
- Mastodon users, many of whom are new, necessarily follow fewer people on Masto than on Twitter—there are far fewer people there to follow—and your post is maybe a little more likely to be read and thought over;
- Twitter is known to be full of bots, so who knows how many of my alleged 15,500 “followers” are people, who can read;
- Those who have fled Twitter for Mastodon, many of whom are journalists and media people, might be like-minded in other ways and thus more interested in my posts.
More importantly, how, and why, do these stats matter? Right now, in these circumstances, why are any of the world’s journalists outsourcing or in any way entrusting the distribution of their ideas to our mortal enemies? Why should we be so bewitched by the numbers, especially when the one-man management at Twitter is 100 percent free to lie about any or all of the scores in this pointless game?
Interesting, congenial, original, adult conversation is everywhere on Mastodon, whereas it has very nearly disappeared from Twitter, for this longtime user at least. In recent days I’ve enjoyed an entertaining exchange (excerpted below) commiserating on the sadness of Drynuary, which ended with a recommendation for this cocktail.
There’s been a lot of talk about Nick Cave’s fine essay on the emptiness of ChatGPT-generated “Nick Cave songs”. Just in the last few minutes I saw a video of a potter doing new glaze experiments, and a hashtag new to me, #frostodon, for pretty photographs taken in the cold. On the serious side, and in sharp contrast to Twitter “discourse” on the same issue, there are thoughtprovoking and informative conversations on Mastodon about the UK Tories’ attempt to gin up a culture war against the Scottish parliament, which recently passed laws making formal gender self-identification easier—legislation the Sunak government is planning to block. It’s hard to believe that this vile move will do anything but turbocharge the Scottish independence movement, while failing entirely to take anyone’s mind off the mess at the NHS.
Anyhow. I don’t advise leaving Twitter entirely. I’m spending probably 15 or 20 percent of my social media time on Twitter now, but all my quality time is on Mastodon. It’s still worth sticking around a little bit for a number of reasons, the simplest being that if you leave Twitter, anyone can take over your old handle and impersonate you; it’s also worth keeping a “forwarding address” in your Twitter profile. If possible, it’s worth trying to persuade the good and interesting people who’ve yet to jump ship to pack up their “followers” (via Movetodon, say) and vamoose; everyone who stays is contributing directly to the welfare of these fascists, liars, and ultra goons who are unfit to manage a corner lemonade stand. Mockery and rebuttals are worth distributing freely, and the more stinging, the better.
It’s been twenty years, give or take, since the Internet reached “wide adoption.” Over that time, people were lulled into forgetting that we ourselves, not corporations, need to build our own solutions to problems. This seems like hyperbole, maybe, but it is the plain truth: If we don’t roll our own, if we reject solutions that seem too messy, or too expensive, or too difficult—when there’s a nice clean tidy free EZ-to-use billionaire-funded surveillance ‘n’ monopoly website right here, made just for you!!—we’re only helping the Man with his smooth, painless operations on the body politic to eliminate egalitarianism, democracy, and freedom.
*I’d be most grateful if you’d try this same experiment and post the result on Mastodon, and tag me (@email@example.com).
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