There is no social media alternative

There is no social media alternative

I really do not want to turn this publication into an Elon Musk anti-fansite, but as another awful person* once said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

The message is clear: Sometimes you don’t get to choose when or how to fight. If the world’s richest man is going to do a series of incredibly stupid things with his new toy, we have to deal with the fallout, like it or not.

So, you want to pack your bags and leave Twitter? Be my guest. I will meet you in the airport boarding area, where the destinations are all … obscure.

Seriously, Twitter has managed over the years to become an indispensable part of the global information ecosystem even as it failed to become a profitable business. Every major worldwide news outlet has a presence on Twitter and uses it to drive traffic to their sites. Government agencies large and small use Twitter to make announcements. Ordinary people—citizen journalists, if you will—can share news and suddenly find themselves in an international spotlight. People entertain themselves by talking with other people who share their interests.

Also, @darth is there.

Even if someone builds an absolutely perfect functional replacement for Twitter’s feature set, they can’t replicate the user base and its content. Just ask Devin Nunes.

If you leave Twitter, where will you go? You’ve probably already been advised to sign up for Mastodon. My friends, I have been toMastodonand I regret to report that it is not the answer you seek.

Mastodon is the desktop Linux of social media. Sorry, but that’s a fact. It’s an impressive technical achievement that is deliberately decentralized and requires advanced technical knowledge to master. Those two attributes pretty much vaporize any chance that it will become a credible replacement for Twitter.

I’ve just gone through the hassle of signing up for a Mastodon account, and hoo boy let me tell you it is not easy. The most popular servers are unavailable right now; you have to join a waitlist or find a more obscure one. It took me a day to get the confirmation email after I did sign up. (I can’t even get to my profile to change my bio.) And that server has been strained to literally the breaking point, so I was only able to follow three other people and scan the federated timeline for about five minutes before it crashed.

I do this stuff for a living, and I found everything about Mastodon to be unfamiliar and occasionally inscrutable, much like desktop Linux. Busy people who aren’t willing to get a degree in open-source decentralized social media are not going to stick around. Which means that although many people will probably find Mastodon to be valuable, it will be practically impossible for it to gain the kind of traction it requires to take over the role of public square from Twitter.

Please don’t let me discourage you, though.This Mastodon tutorial thread(on Twitter, naturally) has some advice that I suspect most of my readers should be able to follow.

How It’s centralized, at least, and fairly easy to sign up for. It’s also a project that was set up by awell-known hackerand is, by design, a haven for left/liberal types looking for a home that’s relatively free of right-wing trolls. Think of it as a left/liberal counterpart to Gab or Parler, where like-minded people can gather and speak without too much fear of heated argument.

If you like that description, you’ll probably feel comfortable at CoSo (as the locals call it). But it’s not built to replicate the rich information landscape of Twitter. The name alone is a giveaway: it’s acounterto Twitter, not a replacement.

I’ve seen several people in recent days suggest, unironically, that the crisis at Twitter is a signal to revive the blogosphere and bring back RSS feeds. I have some sympathy for this argument. Before there was Twitter, there were blogs and RSS aggregators that helped you keep track of everything that was new. (R.I.P. Google Reader.)

Ironically, some of the blogs that were most popular at the time basically published very short posts containing links to interesting items elsewhere on the web, typically with excerpts.

If that sounds familiar, well, yes. It was basically the template for Twitter, which is essentially a micro-blogging platform. Here’s a great interview with Prof. David Perry from 2008 that explains things in a very prescient way. A reminder, Twitter was only a year old when this interview happened:

It's a networking, water-cooler-talk kind of environment, where you don't see people every day, but you feel connected because you get updates on what they are doing in their life every day. Also, it's a mixture of the insightful plus the mundane. So students will send me "I am looking for rain boots" or "I am going to meet someone at a coffee shop to buy something that I just bought on craigslist" along with the insightful, where they'll say something like, "Oh, I saw this news article on TV that relates to what we talked about in class." But is has to be both of those things for Twitter to really work.

Heh. Indeed. (If you followed the political blogosphere in pre-Twitter days, you will recognize that reference.)

In fact, as Twitter became richer in content, as more and more people started using it to micro-blog, I began doing the same thing. Within a year or two I had stopped posting anything to my personal blog, because it was much easier to just tweet that thought out, perhaps over the course of several bursts of activity, in what we know now as threads.

I can’t imagine going back to those days, although newsletters like this one are doing a fairly good job of rebuilding a small but important portion of the old blogosphere.

But unless Elon Musk actually burns down the data center housing Twitter’s core assets, Twitter isn’t going away. People like me are going to continue visiting because that’s where the interesting people are and that’s where you can reliably find news before it has a chance to make Google’s search index.

I will, no doubt, try to spend less time there and write less there. That’s probably even good for me. Twitter will probably become a much less interesting place, but it will still be a very powerful place.

All of this can change, of course. I am certain that right now a bunch of smart people are looking at the social media landscape and figuring out how to exploit the massive weaknesses of Twitter (which are being exacerbated rather than repaired by the company’s new overlord). Maybe in a year or two something will emerge that will do what Twitter did in 2008 and Mr. Musk and his band of merry capitalists will find themselves owning the new equivalent of MySpace.

Let me know when you find it.

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