Thoughts on Social Media in 202312 Feb 2023
In November last year birdsite went through a big change. Since then I wanted to write down some opinions, and even though back then it was pretty obvious what was going to happen, it didn’t hurt less when those changes became true. This post is rather a group of thoughts on what Twitter was, and what are the next steps for me.
Since 2007 Twitter was a public square for me. At the beggining I shared my posts from my Spanish-written gamedev blog El Chigüire Literario with some fellow Venezuelan bloggers. We were just a few back then, so we were a lot more candid. The Venezuelan government intervened heavily our media, which meant a lot of people starting turning towards Twitter for finding out what was really happening around. Twitter went from a mere curiosity to a very important place for daily discourse. We were no longer just a few in the public square: we were a lot now. And with such amount of people we reaching critical mass, and with that virality.
Virality implies that a well placed message can reach very far. But it also implies writing with a mentality that a post could be read potentially by hundreds of thousands of people. And not just read, but also reply back. Twitter never had effective tools to handle such a situation. Even worse, not everyone has the correct mental preparation to handle that. Being viral just does not happen in the physical world. Reading the barrage of good and bad comments can be a hard mental hit.
I still think that I tried to make out of that space the best I could. I met wonderful people, not so wonderful people, I found a job, I connected with people who I consider my friends, even though distance might mean I don’t see their faces each day.
I’ve been online for long, maybe too much. It’s not the first time I’m migrating from a social network. I’ve been in social networks before Twitter (I miss Pare o None). At the beginning, when Twitter went down frequently, I was shortly on Plurk (a name that I still think it’s hideous). I think the most important lesson here is that you should be able to preserve your relationships. This is known by social networks: that’s why there’s a really high barrier when you try to migrate. The most valuable social network is where the people you know and talk to are in. With that in mind, social networks try to keep you in as much as possible. Twitter was maybe the one who said the quiet part loudly when for a while they forbade to link to other platforms, but every single one is a walled garden in its own way.
Maybe this is why I’m so insistent in running a personal website. This is just a bunch of texts hosted on a server. I wish this didn’t need so much technical knowledge to maintain (can I tempt you with a Zonelets template and host it in Neocities?). It doesn’t allow a lot of interactivity either. At most you can write me an email (I have a mailing list with El Chigüire Literario in which I seldom write, just when there are new posts).
And that’s how we reach Mastodon, and the Fediverse in general. Mastodon emulates a lot of Twitter functionalities, but implements a protocol called ActivityPub. ActivityPub allows anyone (big asterisk here) to host a community, and share the posts from that community to other communities. Mastodon is a community that looks like Twitter, but there are other communities that look like Instagram, like the ones that use Pixelfed.
The idea of federation (and the Fediverse) is that you can join any community (or server, or instance, however you want to call it), and from there you can follow other accounts, regardless of the community where these accounts live at. Like email. In your community you have at least 3 timelines: your personal timeline, with the accounts you follow, the local timeline, with an automated selection of accounts in your instance, and the federated timeline, with is an aggregation of accounts from other communities that we all follow locally.
The big asterisk in “anyone can host a community” is that if hosting a bunch of file in a web server is already limiting for some people, running a Mastodon instance is a whole new level. I had considered running my own instance for me and my bots, but there is an economic and time barriers that made me reconsider this. Even with cheap options for using a managed instance, there are many things that I still don’t get about “federation”, and I don’t want to feel that in my main accounts.
As with real life, there are Mastodon servers that are like cities, and others are rather small towns. The one I’m in right now, mastodon.social, is the server maintained by the Mastodon developers. Given that it’s one of the first instances, and given how difficult it has been to separate the concept of Mastodon, the software, from Mastodon, the community, it’s a huge instance that grew up a lot when Twitter changed hands.
So there are people that prefer smaller, more specific servers. Like a server for infosec people. Another one for game developers. Another one for queer people working in tech. Federation in theory allows us to follow each other and read each other no matter which server we picked. I say in theory because in the way you can block other accounts, server can block other servers, and that’s when things get a bit more complicated.
One of the nice things about Twitter was that the sheer amount of people it attracted meant that a lot of communities were there too: academics, professionals, artists, etc. Losing Twitter means that that big Babel Tower we had of interconnected communities will be lost. Not everyone wants to migrate to Mastodon. Exporting your contact list on Twitter became more difficult as API gets locked down and applications can’t do this anymore.
Anyway, I think it’s worth paying attention to Mastodon in the years to come. As someone who has always believed in the open network, these spaces have to be occupied for them to be defended. Otherwise they’re lost. In joinmastodon.org there is a big selection of communities you can join. I hope I can see you there soon.