The Post-Twitter Promised Land

Musk
Twitter polling appears to be Musk’s new love language: a bow to his primal narcissism, the veil of populism, and an element of C.Y.A. executing on the fly. Photo: Michael Gonzalez/Getty Images
Baratunde Thurston
November 27, 2022

The richest man in the world has continued putting his fingerprints on Twitter by welcoming back previously barred users, revamping the predictably-failed verification subscription program, and vaguely hinting at a Twitter phone. Yes, like a physical smartphone. Right. Let’s start with the banned accounts. 

In May, Elon Musk promised to reinstate Trump, so we all expected it. But on October 28, Musk appeared to reconsider and tweeted, “Twitter will be forming a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints. No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes.” This came amid fears that advertisers would be inclined to sit out a toxic, Trump- and insurrection-friendly environment. For a brief moment, handfuls of people thought Musk might actually take a considered approach to the Trump reinstatement decision. Of course, he would not. As is well known, on November 18, he tweeted a poll offering “Yes” and “No” choices on reinstating Trump. The “Yes” votes narrowly won, so that was that. Vox populi, vox dei?

Musk has barrelled into his new role by firing people, sometimes the wrong people, then re-hiring them, only to fire them again. He’s complained that he’s working really hard at Twitter, spending weekends at the company’s headquarters. He clearly doesn’t have time to hire members of a content council. That’s precious firing time. That’s precious launch-new-features-without-thought time. So he replaced those new jobs and their associated labor costs, with an online poll from his own account. See? Efficient automation! It’s just like self-landing rockets. The next day, Trump’s account was back online, though Trump himself was not. He’s so far said he’ll stay on Truth Social, though my Puck partner Tara Palmeri recently reported that this is merely a negotiating technique. Even Trump knows he can’t mount a viable presidential bid with four million followers on a captive network for insurrectionists. Sad. 


The Pollster

Twitter polling appears to be Musk’s new love language: a bow to his primal narcissism, the veil of populism, and an element of C.Y.A. executing on the fly. (Hey, I asked the community…) Last week, Musk tweeted a new poll asking if the company should offer “general amnesty” to suspended accounts that haven’t broken the law or engaged in egregious spam. (Sidebar: I wonder when we can consider his tweeting of policy polls to be egregious spam.) In classic Musk fashion, there’s no indication of what laws would be considered—it’s safe to assume there’s no actual process here—or who would be welcomed back. We know it includes Jordan Peterson and Kathy Griffin. Are we also talking about Steve Bannon and David Duke? Maybe. All kinds of folks spreading hate, misinformation, and harassment? Sure! 

On the pay-for-verified-badge scheme, Musk has belatedly realized the obvious: to get a verification badge, you should probably have your identity verified, so the company will do this manually when it relaunches the feature. Soon, he promises, a set of colored badges will return with different colors for individuals, governments, and companies. Do you get credit for undoing a dumb thing everyone told you was dumb before you did it? Not in my book. 

The good news is that the service is still working. That’s somewhat shocking considering the alarm bells that went off with the mass exodus of staff. Perhaps the service didn’t need more than 7,500 employees. (Say what you will about Musk, but he’s made more executive decisions in a few weeks than Jack Dorsey did after yanking Twitter back from the well liked, extremely competent Dick Costolo in 2015.) But mere technical execution is just a small piece of Twitter. And, frankly, it’s table stakes. 

The bad news is I’ve felt like Twitter has become less welcoming over the past few weeks. I’m encountering more meanness and trolling. In my 15 years on the service, I’ve tweeted a lot on controversial topics. But I’ve also escaped the types of harassment that often accompany such posts, especially for women. That’s feeling different now. I’m getting more tweets than usual of the Elon fanboy variety, people telling me essentially, if you don’t love America then leave it, but for Twitter. 

Some advertisers may be doing just that. According to Media Matters, 50 of Twitter’s top 100 advertisers have gone away, at least for now. That fact may have prompted Stephen King to post, “Pretty soon the only advertiser left on Twitter will be My Pillow.” Beyond ads, I’ve noticed that many of the people I follow on Twitter are tweeting less, or not at all. Journalists I follow are leaving and posting social media forwarding addresses in their profiles. Some celebrities have left the service too, including Shonda Rhimes and Trent Reznor to name a few. I’m seeing more tweets about leaving Twitter. On the one hand, it’s classic old school social media behavior: use the service to complain about the service. And no population is better at self-referential commentary than journalists, so my experience with that group shouldn’t necessarily be extrapolated to an entire trend. 

On the other hand, I’ve seen folks defiantly declare they won’t be forced out by the new owner. Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah expressed a version of this in a thread explaining that the trolling isn’t new for some Black Twitter users, and she’s not going to be run out of town. It’s a version of, “If we leave, we let the terrorists win.” Access to raw Twitter data would settle this question of whether or not Twitter is dying, but I don’t have that. Instead, I have my experience, some digging around, and a theory. Overall,  I don’t think “everybody” is leaving Twitter, but I do believe there’s an attention migration underway. For advertisers, it’s possibly temporary. For users, it could be irreversible.

Even with the study I cited above about top advertisers pausing their Twitter spend, I don’t believe many of them will commit to that for the long term. Twitter accounts for only one percent of the global ad market, so it’s easy for them to virtue signal; let’s see what happens if Musk grows that share to five or eight percent. Also, Fortune 500 companies are capitalistic entities with shareholders and fiduciary bonds; they’re here to make money, not statements. Remember all those Black Lives Matter pledges by brands that never materialized? But for actual usage of the service by actual people, the change in Twitter may be damaging and irreversible even if, on the surface, usage and other engagement metrics increase in the future. Basically, the nature of Twitter could change in ways we’ve seen before, not in metrics, but in culture. 

Changes ripple through culture often imperceptibly at first, and then obviously. Remember when Trump changed who showed up to political events, selling out arenas with NASCAR levels of enthusiasm? His recent announcement of his ’24 candidacy felt like an insurance salesman’s retirement party. His aggressive tactics and regular deployment of lies were all “disqualifying” for a major political figure, until they weren’t, and we saw them repeated at every level of government, and in the wider society. Twitter feels like it’s ripe for that sort of transformation. Musk signals a certain right-leaning, grievance-oriented politics of owning the libs that is only peripherally about free speech. When you tweet things like, “the woke mind virus has thoroughly penetrated entertainment and is pushing civilization towards suicide,” and then post right-wing conspiracy theories about the attack on Paul Pelosi, it’s clear where you stand, and what culture you value. People attracted to that worldview will spend more time on Twitter and invite their like-minded friends; those turned off or merely confused by it will spend less time there and look for other places to hang out. 


The Mastodon Age?

There’s no single social media space to which Twitter refugees are fleeing. There are blockchain-based protocols that promise user ownership of their social graph like Lens and the Decentralized Social Networking Protocol (disclosure: DSNP is a project associated with Project Liberty, whose Unfinished conference I regularly host). There’s Tribel which promises to be a “kinder, smarter social network.” Through Kara Swisher, I learned about Post, a news-focused platform she advises which was founded by former Waze C.E.O. Noam Bardin. Mostly, though, I hear about Mastodon.

Mastodon isn’t a single service. It’s federated, like email systems or like the United States, and your experience depends on your home. Mastodon is open source software that anyone can set up and run. Each of these is called a server or “instance.” You can think of instances as neighborhoods or, to stay with the U.S.A. metaphor, as states. There’s no universal “United States” experience because your state of residence determines things like taxation, access to health care, guns, and languages spoken. Mastodon is similar. Instances differ based on the demographics of the users, technical customizations, and policies around moderation. Some instances are small—they might have a thousand users or less and cater to niche communities like tabletop gaming or information security. Others host hundreds of thousands of accounts with no subject matter or demographic focus. Still others are private, invite-only for groups of friends or coworkers. In this way, Mastodon is a return to a more local, diverse internet we had in the era of Bulletin Board Systems, Usenet newsgroups, and Internet Relay Chat (IRC). 

But what’s new today is the large numbers of people online, and the speed with which information can travel, resulting in sudden, rapid migrations of populations. Mastodon had been flying below the radar, catering to a relatively small group of people by V.C.-backed social media platform standards. Now, because of the Twitter exodus, it’s been thrust into the spotlight, and some instances have become overwhelmed with new users. There’s a wave of digital migrants, and Mastodon has become a social media sanctuary city for Twitter emigrants who bring our expectations of culture, technology, and user experience with us. But it’s not Twitter. There’s no algorithm. Posts appear in reverse chronological order. There’s no universal timeline. You see who you follow or the activity on your instance or the hashtags you choose, but there’s no Mastodon “fire hose” to search. The way you get “verified” isn’t with a government I.D. check or a monthly subscription fee. You put some code on a website you control verifying at least that you have access to it. 

Even talking about Twitter on Mastodon is coded. Most Mastodon folks I’ve seen refer to Twitter simply as “the bird site” which I find hilarious. I’ve appreciated the generally patient attitude of Mastodon veterans toward the Twitter expats. I’ve seen Mastodon users try to gently remind the Twitter newbies that this isn’t a place to “go viral,” and with a 500-character post limit, it can be more like blogging or public correspondence than flipping off zippy one-liners. I’ve engaged in thoughtful discussions about the service itself, Thanksgiving traditions, and World Cup fandom. We’ll see over time what the culture settles on, but it’s also possible there won’t be “a culture” because there’s no single Mastodon. 

The most interesting shift from Twitter that I’ve found has to do with moderation. Behavior allowed in one part of Mastodon may get you suspended in another part. Within a few days of activation, I learned that an instance popular among journalists (journa.host) had been “defederated” by other instances because of their failure to moderate hateful content. That means if my moderator on mastodon.fakeexample blocked journa.host, I wouldn’t see any content from users over there. In another example, a Black Mastodon user I followed moved instances because he was getting heaps of racist abuse and death threats, and the moderators on his server weren’t doing anything about it. The bad news is, he had to leave his home. The good news is, he could, and he found an instance with a better set of policies and culture for him. 

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. But also, it has to be. Perhaps Mastodon really is a microcosm of our society in a larger, more paradigmatic way: a V2 of the metaverse, a place where our digital selves roam with some laws and boundaries; perhaps not enough for us all to feel both safe and fully ourselves, but a step in the right direction. I saw someone post that Mastodon is “like states rights as a service,” and that feels about right. The fake news thought leader Dan Sinker commented recently, “most people don’t care about decentralization and governance models, they just want someplace to hang out that’s not a hassle.” 

I also agree with that. We’ve gone back to the future with this model. Sometimes it feels like a very 1990s internet but built with very 21st century tools and coordination happening to improve the experience. Mostly, I’m excited to see people take ownership of their space again. Hoping for or fearing what Elon might do next is not a healthy, small-d democratic way to create a society, digital or otherwise. Getting our own hands dirty, making mistakes, and figuring it out together feels much better. 

If you want to find me in the fediverse, I’m at baratunde@mastodon.social (for now). If you want to find your Twitter friends, check out Debirdify or Fedifinder. If you just want to learn more about how it works, I recommend this guide to Mastodon.