What’s on your mind? How I’m thinking about microblogging right now

Tree by a muddy footpath. The bark has grown to enclose a sign that reads "Public Footpath. Beware of Flying Golf Balls"

I signed up for Twitter in November 2006. My friends were talking about it, and it seemed like a fun diversion. My first blog post suggesting Twitter might not be as good as it used to be is dated December 2006.

Back in those early days, the service I remember sat at the centre of a little network of third-party apps, and benign bots like Tom’s Tower Bridge one. It was a platform for user-led innovation that spawned the now ubiquitous @-message and hashtag. No single authority created those conventions. Users made them first, before the social media platforms noticed and built the functionality to link them.

As user numbers grew, I became part of some great Twitter-based communities around service design, digital public service, and healthcare. My long-suffering family may say I’m addicted to Twitter. I prefer to imagine I’m just deeply invested in those communities.

But the centralised nature of the service always bothered me – more so when Twitter began to acquire or lock out many apps from its ecosystem. Herding users into a single vision of how to experience microblogging may have made us easier to monetise. It has also made us more vulnerable to bad actors who learn how to game the monolithic system of content amplification – some learn using sophisticated data analytics, others simply soak up subconscious reward reinforcement.

That unease drove me to be an early adopter of open source, federated social networks – first identi.ca and subsequently Mastodon. My optimism about the possiblity of a more decentralised social media landscape has kept me coming back, even when tumbleweed was blowing through my strictly time-ordered timeline.

As someone who spends a lot of time at work trying to promote modern digital principles, I learn a lot from being part of a movement that has inclusion, openness, and interoperability in its DNA. The way Mastodon’s developers actively encourage new users to join instances run by others shows there’s much more to this than simply supporting the ActivityPub protocol. I have chosen to use a small UK-hosted instance where I can make regular donations to help cover the running costs.

It’s fascinating to watch this network of networks negotiate new norms, driven by the commitments and concerns of the diverse groups who set up there, often because they had specific reasons to find regular one-size-fits-all social media unsuitable or unsafe. For example, the fediverse has consistently placed a high priority on accessibility and use of ALT text for images – not something I’d immediately associate with a scrappy “scratch-your-own-itch” open source project.

Since August 2018, I’ve been mainly posting first as @mattedgar@mastodon.me.uk and cross-posting to Twitter using Moa Party. By sheer weight of numbers, most of the replies and conversation I got back after cross-posting have been on the birdsite. However that’s changing.

In the last few years whenever Twitter did something controversial – a failure to moderate egregious behaviour here, an algorithmic degradation to the timeline there – a fresh wave of users would wash up on the shores of the fediverse. Each time the outrage subsided, some drifted back to the comfort of Twitter, others stayed and joined the fun. This last week seems to have been another such tipping point.

The tumbleweed days are over. More old and new friends have accounts on instances that federate. Organisations such as the European Union are figuring out that they can host their own.

The new user experience still needs more work. There’s definitely a learning curve associated with instances and federation. For an open source project though, Mastodon is making great strides.

It’s not the done thing to care about numbers on Mastodon, but here’s a thing I have noticed. My posts on Mastodon are now getting about a third to a half the number of favourites and replies that they get on Twitter – and I have more than 60 times the number of followers over there.

I’m logging into Twitter less frequently, mainly to respond to my mentions. This morning I removed it from my phone’s homescreen.

I wish Twitter no harm. What I really hope is that its owners will recognise the potential for becoming part of a bigger, more diverse social media landscape. That massively outweighs the illusory benefits of enclosing the town square and paying to patrol it with private security guards.

Until then, I’ll keep on posting to an ActivityPub-enabled service first, and treat Twitter as an over-grown instance that doesn’t yet federate properly.

One thought on “What’s on your mind? How I’m thinking about microblogging right now

  1. Nice little summary, thank you. I’m finally exploring the open source, free-as-in-libre, decentralized and federated world now and feeling the quiet thrills that accompany the exploration. I’ve always loved the “early” or “personal” web, and would be happy to see social media fade into an Internet where people worldwide, young and old, more typically knew how to build and operate their own modest corners of it and interacted from there, selecting and leveraging modern advances (like ActivityPub) on the basis of their user-first-ness.

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