Something I’ve been interested in for a few years is pinpointing exactly where the internet crossed the line from progressive techno-utopia to massive libertarian shopping mall. The answer is probably not “when Twitter launched”, but understanding one helps explain the other.
I signed up for Twitter in the early days, and at first it was fun and interesting. Management and priorities shifted quickly, and the platform slowly changed into a showcase for influencers, celebrities, or the main character of the day. Something novel had become just another form of mass media, easily gamed and controlled by the same corporate interests as always.
But Twitter could never translate ubiquity into profit. Its moderation problems also went unaddressed, basically forever. That lack of moderation also lead to an infiltration by the far-right. In short, last week’s exodus from Twitter to Mastodon may have been the largest, but it was not the first. Many users wanted the core of Twitter, without the nazis and misogyny.
If you’re reading this, you likely already know what Mastodon is. (You may have even come from there. Hi.) But for the uninitiated, Mastodon is an open source Twitter-like platform. Part of the problem with moderating a platform like Twitter is its size; Mastodon’s response to this problem is to allow users to set up and operate their own individual instance that can talk to all the others, but which might theoretically have a more manageable number of users. It’s a classic open source solution to a problem: dismantle and route around it.
As such Mastodon still feels like the old, curmudgeonly, aggressively open source internet of yore. Users are helpful but also concerned with making sure the influx of users from the “birdsite” don’t bring all their bad habits with them. It’s a lot like compiling Linux from source, with help from Usenet, in 1998. And it feels great.
People on Mastodon are a little older, less concerned with amassing millions of followers and having one way conversations. Mastodon users index heavily on genuine human interaction, with an active disdain for the “dunking” and quips that dominate so much of Twitter. Time spent there feels very similar to Metafilter, another outpost of pre-social media internet vibes.
Where all this ends up is anyone’s guess. Mastodon has added thousands of new users in just a matter of days. That’s meant performance problems on several of the more popular instances. But as those issues are resolved, people seem happy to stay. Social media is just a reality now. Given that’s the case, finding a platform that is not about dark patterns, about gamifying our worst human traits, is like a glass of ice water in hell.