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On Social Media And The Distributed Web

A few months ago, the news of a certain billionaire being ready to acquire Twitter made the rounds left and right, threatening with an exodus of users from the service and boosting the popularity of distributed social media services like Mastodon. I haven’t really written much about this topic, for two reasons: the first is that I work for a social media company myself, so speaking about competitors is a bit of a minefield, and the second is that, as I say on my Twitter bio, I’m all for “mild takes” rather than hot takes.

To take care of the first concern, the usual disclaimer that this post is my own opinions, and does not represent that of my employer. I have no insider knowledge of what went on with the acquisition, and despite having friends at Twitter, I have not spoken with them about the situation whatsoever. Though as part of my compensation I’m exposed to stock of Meta, I don’t own any Twitter stock and have no financial incentive in what I’m writing. Also on a more practical note, I do not work on any of the “typical” social media services of Meta, but rather on a messaging service (WhatsApp), so I don’t even know any of the internals would work!

With this out of the way, let’s take a moment to think of what did happen. A lot of people decided that with the mere thought of Musk buying Twitter, things would either improve significantly or be completely destroyed, depending on their view of the man himself. This is probably a simplification: while the head of a company sets a direction, things don’t just change on their say-so… usually. At the same time. it would be a mistake to think that it wouldn’t be positioning the company to embolden a specific toxic mindset.

For many, the solution to this was to “move” to Mastodon — which either meant stop posting on Twitter, or cross-post from a Mastodon instance somewhere. What’s Mastodon? Think of it as a clone of Twitter but made to interoperate between different “instances” set up by different administrators — a design somewhat similar to the way email is handled in the wide world outside of Gmail. This is not a revolution that Mastodon initiated — a long long time ago, before I joined Twitter, I used to use identi[dot]ca, which was the most common, sign-up-don’t-setup instance for StatusNet, which was basically the same thing.

After identi[dot]ca went away, we already had another revival of the concept, with Diaspora. The problem with both of those came down vastly on the amount of spam vs signal of using them. Open systems tend to do that: it’s very hard to maintain spam under control when anyone can send you replies, messages, follow-requests and whatever else from any other instance. The solution appears to be “outsourcing” the spam problem to your instance admin: your instance gets to choose who to peer with, so if you are sensitive to the possible different policies of instances, you can set up your own and decide which ones to allow or not.

This is not a complete upside though — it adds a lot more weight on the user signing up for the service to figure out which instance to use, adding competition not just in term of availability and reliability, but also policy. And while some policies are clear cut (for instance don’t support Nazi sympathizers), there are some other aspects (particularly around the communities I’m member of) where people tend to take dogmatic approaches that try to classify people as in or out of a group based on technical opinions.

This particular problem is compounded by the fact that I read many people trying to tell people not to sign up for an account on the de-facto default Mastodon instance, due to terms of use and opinions of its admins that lead a number of other instances not to actually peer to them. This is the kind of information discovery that pushes people away from adopting services: not only I would have to figure out the likeliness of the instance itself staying up for a long time based on its business model, but I would have effectively to run a background check on the admins to figure out whether I’m likely going to be banned from interacting with people I know and that they have disagreed with in the past. It’s IRC all over again!

As it turns out, I did set up a Mastodon account, and I did use the default instance because that’s where people would have been looking for me if Twitter really went away overnight. I have posted there for a short while but then I realized two things: most of the people I already followed on Twitter would be cross-posting on Mastodon, one way or the other (and would still reply on Twitter), and Mastodon is not as well integrated with any of the other systems that I use already Twitter for.

For the first problem, it could be an easy fix, obviously: you could unfollow the people you follow on Mastodon, and just use the latter — and that would work, except that for at least some of the people I followed, their Mastodon posts (I’m not going to call them toots, nope) ended up with a “content warning” interstitial because of the cross-posting. Which means it was actually easier to read them on Twitter than on Mastodon. Retweets on Twitter also didn’t always get cross-posted so it was a partial feed at best.

But also, a lot of the non-geek figures I follow don’t actually use Mastodon in the first place. Which meant that either I had to choose to say goodbye to them, or I would always be carrying an extra network, rather than replacing it. It was the same when Google+ was released — I know a few people who decided to abandon Facebook out of it, but personally I just curated two different sets of people, until Google+ shut down and then some of them got back on Facebook, while other I lost contact with. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since different networks can be curated for different uses – while I sometimes cross-post between Twitter, LinkedIn, and the Facebook Page, this happens rarely, as I use the three very differently, and the main point of connection for them is this very blog – but in this case I couldn’t figure out a good niche for me to use Mastodon. Also it turned out that most of my feed ended up in German (which I don’t speak), for reasons that shouldn’t be hard to figure out.

As for the tooling support — the answer is kind of gave away above. Like a bit of a wannabe John Scalzi, I’ve been blogging for 18 years by now. This site is my main presence, it even recovered pieces of posts that went away through me moving out of projects such as KDE and Gentoo Linux and losing their related hosting. Which means when I’m writing a new blog post, I want it to show up on the “broadcast” social media accounts I use. WordPress posts a link to the new content on Twitter, LinkedIn and the Facebook page for me — but there is no Mastodon integration. Similarly, while I could set up IFTTT to share the stories I shared on my NewsBlur Blurblog on Twitter, there’s again no option for me to share that content on Mastodon, the IFTTT applets at the time of writing are only reading from Mastodon but not posting to it.

There’s an argument to be made about not wanting automated content to flood a platform, obviously. But that argument ignores the fact that there’s quite a bit of utility of having a way to do so. Maybe the solution for this would be to be able to follow a WordPress blog as if it was a full-fledged Mastodon account, but that would still leave out the ability to interact with people as part of the same account.

As a “final nail” for me, is the fact that the designs of Mastodon, and basically any other distributed social network, tend to be vastly incompatible with what businesses are looking for: the lack of analytics, which for the privacy advocates is a strong positive, gives agencies nothing to show for their work, which means they don’t usually include these alternative social networks in their packaged options. So I would still be needing Twitter (or Facebook) to follow the news of my local council, Pokémon Go, or my local restaurant chains, reducing the utility of Mastodon for me to the point of near-uselessness.

Where does this leave me? Well, basically once again to refer to one of Scalzi’s posts, since he’s always more insightful as me. I’ll stay on Twitter, for the time being, but I reserve the right to move somewhere else if it becomes more convenient. If you do follow me on Mastodon, you’ll probably get a few odd posts here and there, particularly if they come in response to someone else sending me over to Mastodon to check. And you’ll get the cross-posts, most of the time, since those I do manually and might as well add Mastodon to the list of places where I cross-post.

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