I somehow stumbled across this 2016 piece by Giles Wilkes last week. The economic blogosphere, he writes, is like “eavesdropping on clever people arguing”. Those words are perfect, and if you can get past the paywall, the whole piece is worth reading.
It might have been the very worst of our politics in 2016 – when the UK chose to vote for Brexit – but the three years of online analysis that followed, in blog posts and newspaper columns, all glued together by the social web – Twitter in particular – were precisely that. You could eavesdrop on clever people arguing. And producing amazing analysis in real time, from their own standpoints and areas of expertise. For my own professional development, in terms of how to understand political processes, and play my own small role explaining them, it was – looking back – an amazing period.
But not only did Johnson winning the 2019 election, and closing that chapter of UK political turbulence, mark a departure, but – it would now seem – around the same time social networks were going sour too.
The process Cory Doctorow and others call enshittification was already advancing – although then it was more on Facebook then, although even a Dorsey-run Twitter was showing signs of it. That’s how it seems, looking back. Musk’s 2022 takeover of Twitter has taken us through the stages of enshittification on that platform at extra fast pace.
But why this blog post now?
I’ve been teaching political communication to EU politics masters students at the College of Europe in Bruges and the University of Maastricht in the past couple of weeks. How high is the enshittification level on different platforms I asked them. “Complete” was the answer they basically gave me for Instagram – which is the platform they all use more than any other. Quoting Doctorow, “Surpluses are first directed to users; then, once they’re locked in, surpluses go to suppliers; then once they’re locked in, the surplus is handed to shareholders and the platform becomes a useless pile of shit.”
And, dear students, you are still using that service?
The answer to that, I think, is that our alternatives are only slightly less shit – for different reasons. So maybe my students have a point.
Twitter/X is for sure no option – not for anyone. You’d be on a platform run by an antisemitic conspiracy theorist. Avoid.
And Facebook is obviously over the hill.
Try as I might, but I still cannot bear LinkedIn – the place where many Brussels-EU-Bubble people have ended up as a result of Twitter’s downfall. I follow a bunch of people relevant for railway policy there – CEOs of rail companies for example. But the selfie-quotient is only slightly lower than on Instagram, and the comments full of people trying to ingratiate themselves with these influential ones. It feels like the parasocial relationship between rock stars and their fans, only without the redeeming feature of good music.
LinkedIn, like Instagram and Facebook, are dominated by a feed algorithm you as a user cannot control, so you cannot put order in your feed even if you want to. And so that elemental combination of structure of randomness, of searchability and spontaneity that Twitter once had is by design never going to be present on those networks.
And then on the other end of the spectrum there is Mastodon, that shuns so completely and totally all of these bad business behaviours of the other networks, it ends up at the opposite extreme – it feels like you’re eating impeccably ethically produced gruel, but gruel still. Sure, by using good apps (Ivory on Mac and iOS, and I hear good things about Tusky on Android) and making judicious use of lists I have made it work in some ways. The nerdy community of transport people there is excellent. If you login often you can maintain a sort of overview of what is going on, but if you’re a sporadic user, or try to find something through search it is often a disheartening experience. And I have been told off for using the wrong tone on it more times than it has genuinely made me laugh, something touched upon in this excellent essay by Erin Kissane (that I read last week, via Mastodon, but then couldn’t find again – typical).
Bluesky by contrast has some things going for it. It is making some steps to guard against the enshittification danger, although I am not fully convinced yet. And its policy to be able to put users in control of way they assemble their feeds – something in between the algorithm controls it all of a Meta tool and the reject algorithms altogether of Mastodon – has potential. But the interface – even in deck.blue which is progress on the default – somehow mitigates against meaningful discussion. I follow more than 1000 accounts on Bluesky and my feed is still empty and slow. [UPDATE] 5 mins after I hit publish on this post I stumbled across the blog post detailing Bluesky’s future plans – these plans are ambitious, sensible, and ethically solid. Impressive!
What about POSSE then – Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Everywhere. Explained here. This very blog post – if you found it – is going to be an example of this. The article will be posted here, you can get it via RSS, and it will go out at 8am as an email alert. And it will be posted on Mastodon, Bluesky, LinkedIn and Facebook. And – I’d wager – it is going to absolutely tank. Because all of the content on my various sites has tanked in recent years, because the way most people used to find content – via Google – is itself enshittified, and its search results increasingly clogged with AI generated junk.
So, to conclude, I’d like that “eavesdropping on clever people arguing” function of the social web back. But if that is to be on blogs, I am not going to find them. On a bunch of enshittified networks the content from those people is not going to be what the algorithm pushes to the fore. And Mastodon and Bluesky might have their uses, but they’re not ready replacements for what we have lost – not yet anyway.
What, I wonder, are we to do about this?