I signed up for Twitter in February 2007—its first year—after reading about the app throughout the last fall semester before I left college. I don't think I qualified as an Early Adopter since I wasn't on at launch, but I've seen the site's journey from the original slime-saturated Twttr logo to the Muskian dumpster fire today.
Like others in the bird app cohort, I'm collecting my thoughts about what's happening. And it is not lost on me that, like so many others, I'm actively doing that thought-collecting off of the platform itself.
- I remembered something.
- There's no telling when it's all going to blow up.
- Mastodon, maybe, but probably not.
- I'm getting back into the indie web.
Building go boom
One summer when I was a kid, a cousin took my brother and me down the street to watch an old steel mill get imploded. Were we watching a symbol of a dying industry getting wiped off of the map? I don't know, we were there to watch a building go boom. Using Twitter the last two weeks has this same energy: half of me is watching infrastructure collapse while the other half is laughing at the implosion.
The difference here is that this implosion, while every bit intentional, is not nearly as well planned. With a building, you have to worry about debris large and small and the area of effect as it were. There are defined processes for this sort of thing, after all. Meanwhile, Twitter is just a web site. What damage could be done?
Our prediction math has no power here
The Billionaire Baby's public plan was firing a majority of people on staff guarantees the decline of the platform. The loss of knowledge is too great, whether you become a grindhouse, you will crash.
I argue that there is no point in trying to call the time on the Last Major Outage. No amount of domain expertise can account for Elon Musk's erratic decision-making. Working for a person with no plan but a lot of pressure means you cannot meet their expectations or anticipate their demands.
But also, six months. I think the sun will rise on May 1, 2023, and Twitter will be gone. As I was finishing this up, news broke that, after Musk presented a "work longer hours for same pay, mandatory in-person work, and you cannot make fun of me" ultimatum to 3,000 employees, 75% of them declined the offer. Baby we are in endgame! The World Cup is here, and the remaining engineers will be ground into pulp to keep the site running through the outages the games bring. Outlook is not great past that.
I'm on Mastodon. It feels like trying out a new coffee shop or bar, components are familiar but the overall space is foreign. The app feels a lot like Twitter circa 2008-2010, but the experience itself is not that. I like the federated design, it feels like the old web. So we'll see how it goes.
I think Tressie nails the secret behind Twitter, and its existential threat.
Despite my appreciation for its philosophy and my respect for its implementation, Mastodon is not part of that existential threat. I am happy to be wrong, but I doubt I'll ever know that joy. There's too much overhead before you even begin to sign up. Before even signing up, new users are met with friction both from the concept of federation and the burden of choosing a server. Choosing a username is hard enough.
But more than that, Mastodon lacks the established communities of Twitter. Does it have its own? Sure. Are some communities migrating to its fediverse? Also sure. Do either of these things prove me wrong? 🙃
First, there is a baseline of exhaustion from the social web. That is true of all the platforms, but I think there is something special about Twitter users: we don't give up. We stay on the app, no matter what. We know it's bad for us. We know this, we know this, we know this, and we stay. On the other hand, Mastodon is a lot. And the more people who find out it's a lot, the more people talk about how Mastodon is a lot.
Without a base of casual users to consume their content, you find the second group who won't migrate: Twitter power users. If they don't have a built-in audience, I don't think they have a reason to move. This group includes the influencers and social media strategists warning about pouring resources into establishing a Mastodon presence until they know if their audience is moving, too. Makes sense.
There is an overlap between the first and second groups: the Twitter power user who is going to move to an existing platform, they just haven't decided which, but who is at a level of tired that precludes them from signing up for something new. This is our third group. This is the jaded Twitter power user. They may have hundreds or they may have hundreds of thousands of followers. Twitter has worn them down, but their other platforms are lighter, more fun. We are Twitter, we change you.
We break you.
The jaded Twitter power user isn't going to pick up Mastodon, not because it's a lot, but because it's ultimately unnecessary. They will migrate by path of least resistance. This group knows the power and the benefit of the social web, but they also understand the ephemeral nature of these platforms. Why invest in the new Peach, or the new Ello?
Without these three groups, Mastodon does not reach either the literal or the influential scale that Twitter achieved, even at its lowest. This is not a bad thing. Mastodon does not have to be a 1:1 replacement to be great in its own right.
The web is dead, long live the web
The social web isn't going to die when Twitter dies. Twitter is famously used by fewer people compared to its impact on news, on politics, on culture in general. Its collapse will have different kinds of effects, but it won't weaken the social industry over all. The users will move and shift, maybe a viable replacement pops up since there are a lot of subject matter experts on the market.
For me, this is it. I nuked both Facebook and Instagram. I'm read-only on TikTok and a general lurker on Reddit. Feels like I will be offline more—always a good thing—and when I'm online, I'll spend more time on the indie web. RSS feeds. Web mentions. Mastodon for a little town commons time. The DIY indie web fits in great with the hardware and networking tinkering I do for fun. This makes me hopeful the web can be a fun place again.
That's sustainable. That seems like a lot by comparison, but it's a level of attention-investment I can live with because, from where I sit, there's a built-in limit. The scale of the indie web is inherently limited to what you want vs what an algorithm chooses for you.