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How Mastodon not going to save us
The myth of decentralisation and centrality of power
Even though there are other pressing topics and problems in the world, like a moth to a flame, we seem to not ignore the recent Twitter drama. So here goes my take on this.
It is great that everyone discovered the decentralised, open source social media tool "Mastodon” as an “alternative” to Twitter. And at the same time showing support (ironically on Twitter) for the people impacted by the mass layoff.
If you want to understand what to do with Mastodon and if you should leave or not, here are two threads (yes, on Twitter). Emily Bender provides a quick overview — what to expect, how to connect etc. You will find plenty of other tips and tutorials. It will take some time to set things up.
Ethan Zuckerman (who btw, has been studying Mastodon for a while), provides a little more context of why we all should not abandon Twitter. He provides a good argument regarding the influence of Twitter in the world.
The bottom line is. Yes, open source, decentralised systems are nice. We all should use them but they are not for everyone. It will take a while for Mastodon to be something effective and influential like Twitter (both in a good and bad way). And when it happens — and here comes the rub — we tend towards a centralised, commercial system. As I mentioned in an earlier post — due to the lack of public support for independent, non-commercial media and basic laws of capitalism, we deserve a billionaire-owner platform. I do not see any strong alternative. We are probably in the declining age of social media until the next big thing comes (and it most likely won’t be decentralised). Charlie Warzel calls this, “Geriatric Social Media”:
There are a few things that I think are probably going on, instead. The first is that some platforms just have a natural network decay. Facebook was, at first, novel and exclusive (I got an invite from a friend who was in college! Very exciting!). Then, it grew and took on a different kind of utility (you could find all kinds of people on it from your past, or whom you met at a party!). Soon, every human you knew was on it, and, overnight, it morphed into a lot of people’s main news source. The loudest, angriest people—many of whom didn’t quite understand how to talk to people online—made it an unpleasant place to be, so a lot of people left or stopped engaging, and the loudest voices got louder.
The same thing is happening on Twitter. One thing I’ve noticed a lot is that a lot of my favorite power users have become power lurkers. They haven’t given up the platform, but they realize that posting is mostly a losing game full of professional liabilities, endless and futile fights, and diminishing returns. And that’s grim because, for those who do post, we’re much more likely to encounter the loudest, angriest, most politically charged voices in response, which in turn makes the place less fun to be around!
In the centralisation vs decentralisation debate, here’s one caveat to remember. Warzel also mentions it:
One place where I do get hung up on the social-media death-spiral argument is when it comes to the future of the “global town square.” Now, almost all social-media sites are siloed. Because people build out follower networks, everyone has a different experience on a given platform. We make our biggest mistakes on social platforms (especially lately) by assuming that any experience on an app is universal. But one thing that’s generally missing from the shift in social-media consumption is a central “town square” space. Right now, Twitter mostly fills this role for the journalists, politicians, and various addicted sickos.
In this sense, there’s not much difference between Mastodon and Twitter. If you setup and maintain your social network, it is a silo. And if this setup works for your community (your silo) then the tool or the platform is just a vehicle. However, the big difference is that there’s money, power, and politics behind the big platforms. Warzel. like Zuckerman, also argues to stick around to see how it all ends:
That nothing has come around to quite replicate Twitter’s incredibly messy “siloed and yet still very public and observable” nature is probably the best argument that the platform is sticking around—for a while, at least. That said, I think that Twitter will likely become even more weird and uncool than it already is. The platform has always been a strange little haven for news-addled nerds, but it seems that, as social-media creation and consumption patterns shift, Twitter will continue to resemble a generational time capsule—full of people who grew addicted to it during a time on the social web when it was A) cool or B) the beating heart of news and culture during a batshit presidency.
I think I am ok with that. As I said, we probably should think about other big problems. In any case, here are a few concluding thoughts:
Human communication is messy. Either is a physical or online town square.
Media and news outlets always have a close relationship with power and money. Yes, there are critical, independent voices but as I mentioned earlier, our priorities are about making a quick buck rather than creating a healthy, educated, media-savvy citizen.
Decentralisation is a myth — either with a technical setup (like Mastodon or Blockchain) or a political setup (decentralisation authority). For argument’s sake, let’s focus on the technical structure. Sure there are examples of successful networks that work in a decentralised fashion (where there is no central authority) but as a society, we haven’t found a way to create a system of trust and accountability that works without a central authority. And this is apparent when it comes to media and news outlet (social media platforms are the new media!). Our technical structure and solutions reflect this as well. Blockchain — the poster child of decentralisation is a perfect example. Most crypto-networks organises various activities through central legal organisation and even for technical setups, the commercial setups manage control and access in a centralised way. Check out Arewedecentralizedyet.com
When it comes to datafication and computerisation, there’s always a centralised aspect — “Computerization is always going to promote centralization even as it
promotes decentralization—often in one and the same motion.” (Golumbia, D., 2016. Computerization always promotes centralization even as it promotes decentralization. https://mediarep.org/handle/doc/12824).
There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Centralised systems can provide wider access and services. Decentralised system can provide autonomy and power. However, either way, unfortunately, we (at a national level or as a global community), lack a media ecosystem where coherent, thoughtful and civic discourse can happen. Maybe this Twitter fiasco will make us think of such a ecosystem more urgently. One can hope.
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Links and further reading:
Revisiting the public commons: “When we use terms like “town square,” “public square,” or “commons” to talk about something like Twitter, do we have an equal understanding of these terms? Or are we perhaps taking its meaning for granted? Here’s a bit of a primer revisiting some assumptions we all make as we look back to build forward.”