"GET YOUR ASS OFF TWITTER CAUSE IT GIVES YOU FUCKING MENTAL ILLNESS" - fraxiom
on the day that i write this, noted rick and morty fan elon musk has bought twitter1. everyone is freaking the fuck out.
now, i've gone on the record as saying that i don't actually think that anyone who is claiming they're going to leave twitter over this is actually going to leave twitter2. and i frankly don't think that it's because everyone is too "addicted" to the "dopamine." i find the medicalization of social problems like that really gross, actually. i think twitter fills a genuine role in people's lives. but this buyout could mean the end of something. it's possible musk will run the company so poorly it will just shut down. it's possible he'll change core features to an extent that the site no longer fills the role it currently does. it's possible the "free speech absolutist" is actually full of shit, and he'll ban anyone who criticizes him. and ultimately, all things are impermanent3. we will eventually have to leave twitter. where do we go?
first, let's try and identify what it is that twitter provides for people, enough that despite referring to it as a "hellsite" and regularly bemoaning how miserable it makes them, people still return every single day to post there.
twitter is a place where you can put a thought that you have without imposing on anyone else that they must interact with or consider the thought in any way. in a group chat or IRC, you can't just post whatever's in your head. there's already a conversation going on. if your chat room is small enough that there's sometimes lulls in the conversation, then there's the expectation that anything that gets posted should be read and acknowledged by the other people in the chat room.
twitter is much more like forums. in a forum, you can make a new thread about anything you want. however, threads that are low-quality or off topic or redundant will be deleted by the moderators. most forums are pretty small and focused. if you regularly hang out on a forum that talks about video games, there probably isn't a great place for you to also post there with your friends about your gardening hobby.
twitter is unlike forums in that it enables you to have slightly more control over who sees your posts. when you make a post on a forum, it goes to the top of whatever subforum you posted to. this means everyone who checks that subforum will see it and can respond. on twitter, when you first make a post, the only people who will see it are your followers. you have some control over who follows you -- you start with no followers by default, and you accrue followers who are interested in what you post. so if you post about video games and gardening, you'll accrue followers who are interested in, or at least don't mind seeing, posts about both of those things.
the other, much more significant way in which twitter is unlike forums is that everyone is on twitter. twitter has the all-important "retweet" button, which allows your posts to reach beyond just your followers, to your followers followers. this is crucial for discoverability, and is why twitter is the marketing platform of choice for game developers, artists, and sex workers (among other people). on a forum, the only people who can possibly see your posts are people who are already on that forum. for something you make to spread outside the forum, people there have to post it to some other forum or IRC channel. this is like retweeting, but slow, and much higher effort for the person spreading the word. you could post to several forums yourself, but you'd probably get banned for spamming.
twitter is very unique in this respect. instagram, youtube, and tiktok can all show your posts to people who don't follow you, but at the whims of mysterious and ever-shifting algorithms. people on these platforms have developed minor folk religions to attempt to divine the inner machniations of these algorithms. twitter is much simpler. if you post something your followers like, they'll retweet it. if their followers like it, they'll retweet it. just make something good and post about it, and it will reach people.
here is what is going to happen: twitter will eventually become unusable for its current purpose. it will either be fundamentally reshaped into something besides what it is today, or it will shut down entirely becuase social media tech is not financially sustainable. while continuing to use twitter is the path of least resistance, switching to an alternative when the time comes will present significant challenges. everyone will choose different potential twitter replacements: some people will go to mastodon, some people will go to instagram, some people will go to whatever will arrive between now and this inevitable future. all of these places will be missing the key advantage of twitter, which is that everyone is already there. some people will create multiple accounts on several of these platforms to try to keep in touch with all of their different friends, but inevitably they will use one more frequently than all the others. faced with the reality that all the people you want to keep up with aren't on this website you've just joined, the negatives of using twitter-like social media platforms will rapidly outweigh the positives, and people will stop using them. where will they go then? discord.
now, the frontrunner for "twitter replacement" right now is absolutely, without question, discord. many people are ignoring this because they don't see discord and twitter as filling similar roles. but the reality is that of possible other social outlets, discord has by far the most users. discord has the same advantages that twitter has: it is a large, centralized platform where all your friends already are. it's easy to use, because discord's funding, like twitter's, depends on venture capital, which in turn depends on user growth. tech companies that rely on venture capital have to make the onboarding process as smooth as possible, because making the number go up is the only way to continue to trick dipshits with a lot of money into investing in you in the hopes that at some point in the future, you'll either miraculously figure out how to monetize your userbase, or more likely some bigger fool will buy you out in hopes that they'll miraculously figure out how to monetize your userbase. venture capital investment is, in this way, exactly the same as NFTs and crypto: it's a bigger fool scam. this is the fundamental cause of platform-hopping. building, getting investment for, and then selling a social media platform is a pyramid scheme, and you, my dear friends, are the worthless products being sold.
in 2014, the internet fundamentally changed forever. there had been internet harassment before gamergate, there had been mass harassment on twitter before gamergate, but gamergate radically altered the relationship everyone had with strangers on the internet. it suddenly became completely unignorable that anyone who hopped into your twitter mentions, anyone who you played an online game with, anyone who commented on a blog post of yours or a youtube video you uploaded could be a right wing freak. they might be scoping out if you would provide a safe haven for them, if you'd look past their tweets or their occasional weird opinions and continue to call them a friend, or a valued part of your audience. they might instead be scoping you out as a potential target of harassment. trying to bait you into saying or doing something they could use as evidence to head to /pol/ or /r/kotakuinaction and rile up a mob to fill up your mentions with gore and porn, email and dm you pictures of your front door, and call your parents screaming racial slurs. this is the background radiation of the internet now. every public post we make, every interaction with a stranger must be carefully audited for signs that the person you are talking to won't suddenly say something racist, or take something you say out of context to incite a hate mob. it is exhausting.
in contrast, discord is safe. your discord group chat just has your friends in it. you've known them for years, you trust them. you can finally relax around them. you can know for sure that if they say something you disagree with it's not a dogwhistle for white supremacy, it's just something you can hash out like reasonable adults. the discord servers you're in are all run by trusted friends too, or if they aren't, they're small enough to be effectively moderated. if you don't like how one is being moderated, you can just leave, and none of those people can get you. the world is miserable enough without having to constantly be on alert for if something someone said to you is about to start off the worst week, or month, or year of your life.
this comes at a cost, however. there's the relatively minor cost of a mode of interaction that's more restrictive than twitter's microblogging. as i outlined earlier, it is not as easy to simply post whatever you're thinking in a discord group chat. there's no outlet for those little silly thoughts or jokes anymore, now everything you say is implicitly putting pressure on everyone else to have a reaction to it.
the much more significant cost is that of social mobility. discord servers and group chats are invite-only. some may be public, but they're public in the sense that the invite link is posted somewhere publicly. people who have large audiences are the ones that are most impacted by the constant threat of internet harassment, especially people who have large audiences while also being trans, or black, or disabled, or any number and combination of any other marginalized identities. people who have large audiences are also the ones who are most valuable for people who are trying to build an audience to reach, and in cutting off those who might harass you, discord also cuts off those who might benefit from your reach.
the only reason i have an audience, the only reason i have a career, is because in 2015 the game critic lana polansky retweeted a post i made about a game i was working on. that can't happen on discord, that can't happen on a mailing list, that can't happen anywhere but on twitter. the future career of anyone who lives outside of a major city, who doesn't have connections, who can't get their foot in the door any other way, depends on them being able to get the attention of people who have an audience.
lana polansky isn't on twitter anymore, for what it's worth. i don't blame her.
this is when a lot of people chime in and ask about mastodon. i have been using mastodon every day since 2016, and i am here to say: mastodon won't save us. there are a lot of problems with mastodon. at least once a month, without fail, there is some huge blow-up where someone on a supposedly leftist instance says something racist, there's a lot of hand-wringing from the instance admins over whether to ban them, and then either the instance implodes or gets blocked by enough other instances that it becomes functionally unusable for anyone stuck there. there are several large instances who only federate on a whitelist, meaning that unless you're on one of their approved instances, you'll never be able to see or be seen by anyone on them. issues with federation can sometimes limit the reach of posts, though i have had posts on mastodon go as viral as posts on twitter, albeit scaled down for mastodon's smaller userbase.
mastodon, as a software project, is also still centralized under the guidance of lead developer eugen rochko, and if you ask most people who use mastodon, he's doing a pretty shit job of it. as just one example, the "sponsors" section of joinmastodon.org right now features several online casinos and one of those companies that will do your homework for you4.
i will now address a specific, incorrect criticism of mastodon i have seen multiple times today. admins of mastodon servers cannot read your DMs, not in the way these critics are insinuating. i don't know if all of them know that they're insinuating that the admin dashboard for a mastodon instance has a section called "SNOOP ON PEOPLE" where you can read the private messages of everyone on your instance, but that is how most people will interpret the statement "mastodon instance admins can read your DMs." the sense in which this is true is that mastodon direct messages are stored in all involved instances postgres databases in plaintext. this means that a sufficiently motivated admin could SSH into the server and look into the database directly to see every direct message. if you aren't enough of a pervert to know what "postgres" and "SSH" are, just know that this is not a trivial task and it is not something anyone would ever do under normal circumstances. also know that this is exactly as possible for your DMs on twitter and instagram, and your emails through gmail, and all your discord messages. any sufficiently motivated employee of any of these companies could also SSH into their database and read all of your messages. if you don't like this, advocate for end-to-end encryption in all messaging services. this is not a criticism of mastodon, this is a criticism of almost all social media.
darius kazemi has suggested some solutions to these problems, and i generally agree with him. he's posted about how "whole communities need to move, together,"5 which i agree with! but i think a big problem is that most people don't have "whole communities," not in the way he means. i am in several different communities, which wouldn't necessarily all trust each other enough to all get together just for my sake. discord supports this kind of multi-community drifting well, but mastodon does not, and almost can't because of its decentralized nature. kazemi's runyourown.social6 has lots of great tips for running a small, federated social networking site, but it bypasses a much greater issue: most people don't want to read a ten thousand word guide on how to talk to their friends.
the reason twitter works, the reason everyone is on twitter, the reason everyone will switch to discord, is the very same reason twitter is unsustainable. venture capital backed platforms must pathologically fetishize user growth in order to keep VC funding rolling in. this is why they are able to make the experience of joining seamless enough that everyone can be on them. platforms that lack venture capital backing lack both the incentive to prioritize onboarding and usually the financial resources to do so.
now, ultimately, i don't think that signing up for a mastodon account is that hard. it's actually no different from having an email account, which also has the idea of different servers with domain and user names that can all talk to each other. but the point is that it's more work than many people will be willing to put in to get the unique benefits of a twitter-like environment, and that it can feel like more work than it actually is. many people who keep abreast of the fediverse will talk often about the benefits of various different instance options, different options for hosting an instance, and different software you can use. you can solve the problem of eugen rochko being kind of a dumbass by running a fork of mastodon like glitch.social, or even entirely different software like pleroma or misskey. but this is just, quite frankly, too many options.
computer perverts such as myself tend to feel like having lots of options gives us freedom. we like to spend a lot of time customizing our experience, and we like to have options. i personally think that having control over your computer environment is extremely valuable, even if right now you don't need that control. but i have to acknowledge that most people do not think like me. i can think that they're wrong, i can try to convince them, but most people just want something easy that just works. most people see a dizzying array of options and get overwhelmed. the knowledge that there might be better options out there for you can easily become a nightmare of constantly wondering if you could have made a better choice.
so what do we do next? i don't know. i don't, in general, think our individual choices matter all that much. i started this blog to have a place to put thoughts that wasn't twitter. i hang out on discord. i run my own single-user mastodon instance. but frankly i think there's too much of an urge whenever something bad happens to try to figure out what the right thing you can do is. thinking of yourself as having any agency over massive societal problems like this is a great shortcut to feeling bad for feeling bad. a lot of people seek out personal changes they can make in their life because taking action feels good. i have personally lost the ability to delude myself into thinking anything i do has any effect on anything at all.
Roth, Emma, and Russell Brandom. “Twitter Accepts Buyout, Giving Elon Musk Total Control of the Company.” The Verge, The Verge, 25 Apr. 2022, https://www.theverge.com/2022/4/25/23028323/elon-musk-twitter-offer-buyout-hostile-takeover-ownership.
@prophet_goddess. “I Don't Believe for a Second That Any of the People Being like ‘Where Will We Go If He Buys Twitter???" Will Actually Leave If That Happens. Every Single One of You Will Be on This Website until It Is Literally Non-Functional or You Get Banned. I'm Not Excluding Myself from This.” Twitter, Twitter, 25 Apr. 2022, https://twitter.com/prophet_goddess/status/1518632167756034049.
Wijeratna, D.C. “The First and Last Words of Lord Buddha.” Academia.edu, 20 Sept. 2018, https://www.academia.edu/37451745.
Rochko, Eugen. “Mastodon.” Giving Social Networking Back to You - Mastodon, https://web.archive.org/web/20220425123745/https://joinmastodon.org/.
Kazemi, Darius. “Also This Is Why It's Important to Have People You Care about on a Server with You. Even If the World Defederates from You, You Still Have Each Other. I Maintain That Individuals Moving to Mastodon Etc Is Not Going to Stick as a Solution. Whole Communities Need to Move, Together.” Twitter, Twitter, 25 Apr. 2022, https://twitter.com/tinysubversions/status/1518682345607503872.
Kazemi, Darius. How to Run a Small Social Network Site for Your Friends, https://runyourown.social/.