Elon Musk, a strong contender for Worst Living Human, now owns Twitter, has fired the CEO, CFO, and head of Trust & Safety, and has promised to lay off some three-quarters of the staff, making the site unusable.
The results of the ownership change have already had extremely predictable consequences, so continuing to use the service is untenable. The only counter to Musk’s determination to make Twitter a platform for neonazi propaganda, coordination of harassment and stochastic terrorism, and widespread dissemination of disinformation on everything from elections to public health, is for a mass exodus of users to simultaneously render Twitter irrelevant. I can’t cause such an exodus, but at least I can leave, and say why I left.
Yes, moderately observant readers will note that a I did a big public “I’m quitting Twitter” thing before, but that was only because I hit the arbitrary milestone of ten years on the site, and I thought a change would be good for me personally. The stakes this time are rather higher.
I’ll discuss my thoughts on the various alternative social media services I think have some promise, but first, in case you got to this post from a pinned tweet on my now-dormant Twitter account, here are all the places I’ve at least parked my username. Aside from this blog, which is my primary web presence, you can find me on:
I only actively use Cohost and Mastodon right now, but I suppose one never knows which site will pick up more users in the future.
There isn’t going to be a “replacement for Twitter”, of course. For better (largely) and (to some extent) for worse, no other social media service works exactly the same as Twitter. The only case I can think of where a new service had even a little bit of success just by providing exactly the same features as an existing one is Dreamwidth, and “fanfic authors and readers who don’t want a Russian-owned company controlling their works” is not a large enough user base to form a critical mass for a new social media site in 2022.
Are.na and Ello are interesting in that they’re specifically focused on art, while the rest of the list are more general social sites. However, I rarely even glance at them. I don’t think I know anyone there and I haven’t taken the time to get a feel for using them.
Dreamwidth is exactly like LiveJournal, if LiveJournal had been taken over by a dedicated collective of developers who deeply valued the kinds of communities people built there, instead of by Russian spammers. If you ever used LiveJournal, you already know whether you’d like using Dreamwidth, so the only question is whether you know enough people there, or are willing to actively engage in finding communities, to make it socially valuable to you. If you never used LiveJournal, Dreamwidth will feel hopelessly Web 1.0 to you.
Pillowfort and Cohost are similar approaches (though with different results) to the question “what would a new, modern social media site be like?”. Pillowfort ended up a little more Twitter-meets-LiveJournal, while Cohost ended up a little more Twitter-meets-Tumblr. Pillowfort was Kickstarted, while Cohost is a project of a not-for-profit company founded by a group of leftist developers who are Very Online.
Mastodon, which has been around longer than most of the above, is also sort of the odd one out, in that it’s the only decentralized service. In all the other cases, the social network resides on a single site owned and operated by a single organization. In fact, even calling this social media service “Mastodon” is misleading. This one will take more than a short paragraph, I guess.
There are many email services, and at a lower level, many different email server programs, and many different email clients; and there are many different web server programs and many different web browsers. But someone using Microsoft Outlook at work, where their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, can exchange emails with their friend who uses gmail, and their nerdy friend who uses mutt in a Linux terminal window to interact with their university’s IMAP server. It’s all just email, and instead of knowing only someone’s username, you have to know their username and their server. Similarly, whether a web page is being served by IIS or Apache or nginx or lighttpd, and whether you’re using Firefox or Safari or Opera, it’s all just HTML data transmitted over HTTP.
“Mastodon” is like “Apache” or “sendmail”. It’s one server program — to be sure, the best known — among many that are all basically compatible because they use the same protocol. Mastodon.social is also the home server (or “instance”) for the Mastodon server software, and one of the biggest servers in the federated network of social media servers (often colloquially called the “Fediverse”) using the ActivityPub protocol. “ActivityPub” is an awkward name, but so were “email” and “http” once upon a time. Another popular ActivityPub server is Darius Kazemi’s Hometown, which offers some features Mastodon doesn’t, which is another thing that happens a lot with decentralized protocols. Imagine you had an email account at fancyemail.com, and while you could exchange regular, plain text emails with anyone who had an email account anywhere on the internet, if you were emailing with someone else who also had their account on fancyemail.com, you could change the text colors and add little animted GIFs to your message. (People at least as old as I am will remember that this kind of feature differentiation with email services was not uncommon, for a time.)
The technical details of how federation works for ActivityPub servers aren’t really all that important for the purposes of this post, but the key is that you can have your account on almost any server, and still follow and talk to people on almost any other server.
In theory decentralization is a great strength (once users become accustomed to the idea), but in practice it has some drawbacks. It’s very hard to imagine Twitter or Facebook shutting down completely, but while the Fediverse continues to exist regardless of any particular server staying in operation, individual servers do shut down, and there have been a few (relatively) high-profile cases of a larger instance shutting down with little or no warning. Most servers in the Fediverse are run by just one or a few volunteer administrators, who can’t always shoulder all the work of keeping the server up, updated, and well moderated. Tools do exist to ease migrating an account from one server to another, but they’re not as easy to use as they could be. As a user, you also have to put some trust in the administrators of the server you choose — this is of course true with all the centralized services as well, but they generally at least have some kind of LLC formed to operate them, while any given Mastodon or Hometown (or, god forbid, Pleroma) server is most likely just being run on a hobby basis by a single individual. Different people will have different levels of comfort with that idea, but many simply assume that communications on a social media service are inherently not secure in the first place, and discussions of highly sensitive information should be avoided. If you want, of course, you can always run a single-user instance of Mastodon or Hometown for just yourself: then you know you can trust the admins, and due to the federated nature of the network, you can still follow and interact with people on any other server.
I would like the future of the social web to look a little more like the Fediverse — decentralized, federated, mutually-interoperable networks where people can control their own spaces and footprints. All the technology to do this exists, but it has a steeper learning curve and requires more overhead work from the end users, on top of not being profitable, so without a very large critical mass it’s a model that necessarily loses out to centralized, capitalist, for-profit services. Still, the IndieWeb folks have the right idea. That’s part of why I’m trying to return to blogging here: it’s currently hosted by wordpress.com but I still have more control over this site than I do over my Twitter timeline, and I could migrate the blog to another hosting service if I needed to. I think here in late 2022, we can probably all see pretty clearly why the less we’re at the whims of enormous, for-profit megacorporations and/or their right-wing oligarch owners, the better.