My love affair with Twitter is over.
I know I’ve said before that I’m not much of a fan of birdsite, but some time in the last month, I finally hit the critical threshold wherein I just can’t comfortably go back to it any more. Somewhere among the Nazis, the TERFs, the harassment, the racism, I realized that I just wasn’t having a good time being there. I said in the beginning that I set up a public-facing Twitter as an obligation, the Information Age equivalent of a hung shingle so folks who aren’t in my social circle could find my work.
As the kids might say these days, “juice not worth squeeze.”
To be sure, it might have been once. I’ve used it to good effect before, and I’m pretty sure it still has good uses. Twitter’s a tool, and like any other tool, it can be used for good or bad purposes. My issue is that at this point, the amount of work I have to do to put it to good purposes so dramatically outweighs the benefit I get from being there that I’m better off putting my energy and time somewhere else. I spend a lot of time when I’m there having to actively ignore people that I don’t feel like dealing with. And sure, you could make the argument that I can just ignore the haters, but the problem is that I can’t, and more importantly, I shouldn’t have to do so. Something has gone seriously wrong with the discourse on Twitter. A meanness has settled into the rank and file that Jack and the rest of the board has no real interest in fixing.
Here’s my real problem: Twitter could be doing more about its Nazi problem in the States, and it’s not. Why do we know they could? Because they do it in Germany, where Nazism is illegal. They’ve got the technology to take action, but they choose not to do so, because it’s not illegal in the United States to be a Nazi. It’s immoral, abhorrent, and degenerate; but it’s not illegal. And so Twitter doesn’t take action.
You might say this is a victory for free speech, and many people have made that case, but you might want to reconsider. Turns out, some pretty reliable research suggests that when most people say “free speech,” what they mean is “public prejudice.” As it turns out, most people just don’t bring up the First Amendment in defense of marginalized and minority views; but they’ll use it pretty heavily to protect toxicity, discrimination, and bigotry. And again, you can say that’s not true of any particular instance of free speech, but it’s something to keep in mind in any given interaction online with an asshole.
The real reason I’m posting this, however, isn’t just to tell you that I’m leaving Twitter. It’s to implore you to consider doing the same. I know, it sounds like a huge impediment, but I don’t think I’m overstating the case to suggest that the country might depend on it. Twitter — and Facebook, to be sure — have become a threat to decency, to intellectual rigor, and possibly to democracy. It isn’t creating dialogue; it’s breeding disinformation networks. Given the way in which people tend to cluster, and the impact of both confirmation bias and the backfire effect, this is killing our ability to dialogue with others. The right-wing Twitter bots that fed Trump the win tried to take down Macron, tried to help Geert Wilders, and went after Angela Merkel, too. Some scientists are saying that these bot networks, and their rate of disinformation deployment, are actually threatening our ability to have a democracy.
We are, in short, in danger of becoming illiberal. I don’t think we’re at risk of losing our civil liberties, per se, but that their application will be without value. We may not lose our “free speech,” but we’ve seen above what that often means. We’re already seeing how Trump’s campaign has explicitly benefited from attacking the media directly. Every marginalized identity is under assault, increasingly in support of xenophobic extremist Christian nationalism. There’s an argument to be made that Trump’s cabinet was deliberately picked to crash the federal government. Even in a “liberal” bastion like Washington, we’re having to fight against an HB2-style bathroom initiative.
If you feel like having nightmares some night, go take a look into Aleksander Dugin and compare some of his rants to what’s been happening. Some researchers are starting to worry about a coming “bot war,” and your emotional reserves are the resource over which they’re fighting. Some people are even signing on with the robots, and not in the sexy conversion-uplift narrative that ends with joining a digitally-mediated hive mind like I would enjoy.
Twitter has no incentive to stop any of this, because Twitter’s revenue relies on advertisers, and advertisers rely on you. They’re getting bigger because of the controversy, because everybody loves a train wreck. It’s why they don’t want to ban users, even the worst of the channers and the trolls. It’s because Twitter and Facebook have become modern-day digital Omelases
So what can we do? We can walk away.
Twitter survives because of the network effect. People stay because people are staying. It’s why, despite everything wrong with FurAffinity, people can’t seem to escape it. It’s where all the traffic is. That’s a hard thing to abandon. It’s where our friends are. Nevertheless, I’m saying it may be necessary, both for us as people and us as a people to abandon these platforms before they destroy us.
And for once, I can help reduce the switching barriers, because there’s an alternative: Mastodon. It’s a federated service, meaning local admins decide with whom they’re connected. There’s nothing blocking you from having different accounts on different instances, and a lot of instances are focused on specific audiences. There’s instances for artists, writers, book lovers, ponyfolk, queers, furries, and queer furries, E, and any glyph that isn’t that. There’s even a “central instance,” though nobody really thinks of it like that and you don’t have to federate with it to still work.
Administration of Mastodon is local; you can get to know the people who’re running your service. You can make a difference in the culture of your local timeline. Development is funded via Patreon, and the code is all visible on GitHub. You can put a content warning on every post, if you want. You can give every post its own access level, from locked-down to federated. There’s no advertising on it, because there’s no way for advertisers to monetize it, and — at least presently — there’s a userbase pretty strongly opposed to the presence of anything that shits in your head. Even if some instance did sell out and let advertisers onto it, it’s a pretty good bet a lot of other instances would just refuse to federate with that instance, and we’d be right back to the furry queer anarchocapitalist witch haven that it currently is today. That’s why I don’t run into any alt-right folks there now; all the GNU/Social instances that harbored them have been defederated, and the admins on the instances that had them have booted them off. Let them have Twitter. We have something better.
So is Mastodon an echo chamber? No. It’s our best attempt to make a safer space for ourselves, away from the mental health hazards that Twitter and Facebook represent. It’s no replacement for Dreamwidth, to be sure, but it’s definitely better at being birdsite than birdsite is, and a good deal healthier to boot. Did I mention that you get up to five-hundred characters a toot? Because you get five-hundred characters in a toot, not just the measly not-quite-an-SMS to which Twitter limits you.
I know I’m asking a lot of you, but really, this isn’t about what I want you to do. This is what I’m doing, and this is why I’m doing it. I’d like you to join me, and wherever you end up, I’d love it if you sent me a note telling me where you landed. Even if you don’t choose to leave, I’d love to keep in touch with you, because if at all possible, I won’t be going back there, and I don’t want to lose touch with anybody who stays behind in Omelas.
But me, I will be walking away.
I tried shouting
I’ve tried praying
But I was dreaming