Years ago I used to run a little parody account on Twitter. Nothing major, nothing dangerous – just gently joking about a European Commissioner. The bio even said it was a parody. And then, from one day to the next, the account disappeared. No warning. I contacted Twitter’s support to enquire what happened. No response. I enquired once more, still nothing. The account was minor enough to not worry about, so I dropped it. But a lesson was learned – if you need something from Twitter’s support, good luck!
Then a few years later Twitter summarily changed how third parties could access its API. That basically killed overnight the app I had been using on my phone to access Twitter – Tweetbot*. Twitter couldn’t show me any ads in Tweetbot, and there was no other way for me to finance Twitter (I’d have happily paid for a subscription back then – as a means to keep the likes of Tweetbot alive) but there was essentially no option but to switch to Twitter’s official app.
My user experience on the network had worsened, but then what alternatives did I have? I tried Ello that boomed and bust. I tried GNU Social. I tried Mastodon – before most people had heard of it. I even tried to replicate some of the political discussion on other social networks where I was already present – to no avail.
The crux was that while the Twitter experience was worsening, there was nothing I could do about it – while all the people who themselves made it a good network, a good community in the first place, were still there and were themselves not moving. And let me be up front about it – both the size of that community, and the types of people in it, matter. I write about political topics, so reaching decision makers, academics, journalists is important to me. I was not on Twitter only have small conversations.
And then along comes Musk.
Suddenly it feels Twitter is heading towards a wall, and fast. Whether it’s as dystopian as Dave Troy outlines here I do not know, but a combination of the concerns about the technology, Musk’s treatment of Twitter staff, and the Verified fiasco add up.
Suddenly the imperative for something else is stronger than ever, more people feel it.
And then came the sense of foreboding.
This blog – back more than a decade ago – used to part of a solid EU blogger community. And then independent blogging steadily declined, and European Union political commentary switched to Twitter. In 13 years on Twitter, and more than 220k tweets written, I managed to built up a solid audience there – through a combination of having been an early adopter, a good dose of luck and privilege, and some hard work.
Can I do that community building all over again I asked myself? Can I try to re-build on Mastodon (which this time looked to have momentum) some of what it looks like I am going to be losing on Twitter?
I’d been on Mastodon a while, but never got the conversations to work. mastodon.cloud where I was remained sluggish, so I switched instance to gruene.social (I am https://gruene.social/@jon/ now) – and put some serious energy behind making it work over the past week. I’ve tried to support other Twitter users making the move to Mastodon. I’ve tried to follow back as many of the people I can identify on Mastodon as I can, although the prevalence of anonymous accounts has been rather tricky to navigate.
But the crux is this: in the main communities of interest where I have been active – UK-EU relations, EU politics, and railways and sustainable transport – there are enough people now on Mastodon to make conversations work there – currently in addition to Twitter, rather than as a complete replacement. But a path to complete replacement also seems possible.
Don’t get me wrong – this is not some kind of panacea, even if the comparative absence of trolling and pile-ons feels very refreshing at the moment. But thinking about how Twitter evolved, and the examples of the parody account and the API access above, I can see how cases like that could work out differently on a network that is structured differently. If my instance is tough on parodies, I can find one that is more liberal. Different instances will develop different funding models, different moderation models, different systems for users to build tools using their data. I have more opportunity to decide the way I want Mastodon to work for me than I ever had on Twitter.
That’s not to say Mastodon will work out right. It is far from given. It could be that the potential Twitter exodus forces a course correction there, and Mastodon itself is a victim as people migrate back – a valid fear expressed by Craig Grannell. It could be that the slightly more clunky tech to use Mastodon maintains the network as something for an IT literate elite, acts as a barrier to entry. It could be that the decentralised network, not advertising funded, sinks under the weight of its own users. There are valid concerns that some groups are under represented on Mastodon, and are reluctant to move given Twitter gave them a voice.
But – for now – it feels like Mastodon is what we, the users, can make of it. It is importantly not what some tech bro thinks he wants to do to us, with some ill thought out vision for the tool. And that, for now, gives me a glimmer of hope.
* – Tweetbot did subsequently re-gain some of the core features later. What is or is not accessible via the API then and now is not my main concern here.