Sitting with elephants
It has been a long time since I dropped an article onto the public side of the fence. Assuming this will one will also be public, that makes a total of two for this year! It’s fair to say that I’ve not been active in public for a while.
In similar vein, I posted only 30 times on Twitter this year, but the chaos that started around April made me pause my account at the end of October, and then in November I deleted the app and have removed its embedding from my site. Mid-November I joined a local Mastodon instance, popped a few shillings in its pot for the upkeep, and am rather liking what I’ve seen so far. Today I embedded Mastodon into my site.
The observation that if one is getting a product for free then you probably are the product certainly holds for Twitter. It was an arrangement that I was willing to tolerate up to a point. Every sponsored ad, without exception, in my decade+ on the platform was irrelevant. What were they thinking? The accounts I followed were OK, but the comments, oh the comments, what a vile mess. Eventually, the cons outweighed the pros and I had to draw a line.
Mastodon, on the other hand, has no money-hungry centre, no advertising to feed that beast, no profit-oriented KPIs. It’s a federation of independently operated instances, run by volunteers and funded mostly by optional donations/subscriptions from its users. Payment gets you nothing extra, other than the satisfaction of knowing that you are helping to keep the system alive. Of course, you can use it all for free too, if you prefer not to contribute financially. Regardless, you are expected to contribute by participating in accordance with the rules of conduct of the instance(s) where you have membership. Behave well and you get to engage with any users on any instance to which your home instance is connected. You can also engage with other ActivityPub-compatible services in the fediverse, like PeerTube, Pixelfed and more.
Twitter needs its users to engage for as long as possible, as that increases the opportunities to push advertising. Thus it promotes tweets that are most likely to make you want to read, follow the comments, and amplify by responding with comments of your own. Messages that quote other messages with commentary can easily slant the discourse, spawning disparate filaments of the original threads. Negative comments tend to get a bigger reaction so while the engagement grows, the quality of the discourse inevitably suffers. Right now, it is suffering a lot.
Mastodon, free from the demands of advertising, does not apply algorithms that funnel its users into fractious engagement. It also doesn’t have any easy way to quote other messages with additional commentary. Instead, messages are made available chronologically. You can choose to filter what you see based on other accounts that you follow, or hashtags mentioned in current messages, by members of your home instance or from any of the other instances to which your home instance is connected. There are other filtering options available and if the rate of messages gets too much you can choose to have new messages queue up for your attention later (known as “slow mode”). The temporal nature of message feeds, the lack of “commented quotes” and the absence of algorithms trying to prolong engagement at any cost seems to greatly reduce negative contributions, making for a generally pleasant experience. To be fair, it’s really the people that makes the experience great.
Twitter’s eyeball-attracting antics perfectly complement its advertising services, which will continue to make it attractive to businesses, artists, journalists and anyone in need of a big audience. There’s a good chance it will be successful, despite the unpredictable behaviour of its current owner. Maybe even because of that unpredictable behaviour.
Meanwhile, I think I will sit over here in a quiet corner with the woolly elephants.