15 years ago The Common Craft Show did this little explainer about Twitter:

What strikes me above all is how personal all of this is.

The essence of this has been on my mind for the past few weeks, as we try and try again to find something to replace the Twitter we have lost.

But have we, in the truest sense, lost a social network? Or, as Drew DeVault puts it in this blog post, had it become a “Parasocial Network”?

The account that Drew mentions to illustrate their blog post is NotJustBikes – an account on Mastodon that is in my wider circle of interest in transport policy, but one that I really have any interaction with – because it strikes me that the account wants to be talked about, not actually to be involved in a normal person-to-person conversation amongst equals.

Taylor Lorenz touches upon something similar in this toot – she as someone who commands a major following across a load of different social channels sees it (understandably) as part of her role to be able to boost and quickly comment on the things she thinks deserve a wider audience.

This then brings us to the different networks.

Twitter was and is a social network – you had people chatting away quite happily about their everyday lives there – but it had also become a parasocial network. And those of us who had been lucky enough to build a solid following there were happy to use it as such. The tone might have been informal and egalitarian (Low Context, drawing on Ian Leslie channelling Edward T. Hall) but the power structures were not. You knew there were accounts who would never reply to anyone in the proletariat, but chatted quite happily among an in-crowd they likely also knew offline.

The problem with Mastodon (and, I think, with Bluesky – at least currently) is they are like Twitter in the early days. It is all social, and you have no reach for the things that you might think really need that extra reach. On Mastodon there are no algorithms to generate some sort of extra virality to a post, and even discovery of new accounts is not a simple and easy task. Bluesky, at least in tech terms, seems to have thought of this – but its invite-only status at the moment means you can’t get a large audience, period, if you are outside the USA right now – however you might try.

At the other end of the spectrum Meta’s Threads seems to have tipped the scales the other way. As Jason O’Gilbert puts it in this amusing piece:

“Threads feels like when a local restaurant you enjoy opens a location in an airport.

It feels like a Twitter alternative you would order from Brookstone.

It feels like if an entire social network was those posts that tell you what successful entrepreneurs do before 6AM.”

Or in other words it has gone for all of the parasocial, having skipped the social – that Twitter had and to some extent still has.

A parasocial network without the social is going to feel hollow at best, or like something where the rules are set against the people who do not have the deep pockets. A social network without the parasocial is going to feel like a limit for those people who were quite happy to have their content talked about, but were not really that keen to talk to everyone as an equal.

We cannot build a new network in the organic sort of way Twitter evolved, and our use of it evolved as well. But we can, I suppose, be conscious of these different user types and try to build for them.

Oh, and if you got this far, you can find me on Mastodon (@jon@gruene.social) and Bluesky (@jonworth.eu) where I will be very happy to discuss this post – in a social way, whether I know you offline or not!

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