Here’s yet another post on this blog where I describe a computing change. My first one was where I moved away from 1Password and the second was where I built a hackintosh. Now, I’ve moved away from Twitter. This has been a long time coming, and recent actions and inactions by Twitter have made me be introspective about my use of the platform and about social media in general. Actually, this decision happened months ago. I am just now getting around to putting it in writing.
The Killing of the Web
I was an early adopter of Twitter; many of us webheads were. We saw the potential of the platform as kind of an interactive RSS feed, and we were entirely the reason for its success. Many of its features were invented by our small community from retweets to hashtags and even the term “tweet”. When the masses flocked to Facebook away from MySpace we flocked away from our blogs to Twitter. In doing so, those of us who championed the Web have been instruments in killing it because of our own lethargy and addiction to alarming personal conduct and scandal.
I’ve never used Facebook for longer than a week or so. Its toxicity was apparent long before Twitter’s was. I was bombarded with racist garbage from family and acquaintances who wanted to “friend” me on the platform and got into an argument with someone who was bullying a friend. I closed my Facebook account and have never looked back. Social media is addictive; we are social creatures, and these services are designed specifically to prey upon — and twisting around Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent words in his first inaugural address — the worst angels of our nature. I have never received peer pressure so intense as I have from people livid at me because I do not have a Facebook account. So many people willingly spew every little aspect of their private lives online for everyone to see so much that it is now expected, and when you do not do so you are berated for it because others cannot spy and comment on your private life where they can count their likes and retweets for validation to their points of view. It’s appalling behavior, and the Web has become a cesspool controlled by a few social media websites instead of the platform of freedom and democracy it was intended to be.
I am not pointing my metaphorical finger at others here and proclaiming my moral superiority. I am just as guilty as everyone else. Especially over the past couple of years my content on Twitter has mostly consisted of political retweets and comments on such. We Americans are experiencing a national dumpster fire spearheaded by our — and it loathes me to call him this — President and his Nazi allies in the Republican Party. Britons are watching as both of their major parties are causing their country to circle the toilet and break from the European Union without any means whatsoever to do anything about it. “Brexit”, the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and the Russian war on democracy that took place in both events have turned everyone’s Twitter feeds into garbage, and I apologize for contributing to it.
However, political commentary itself isn’t the worst of the disease that has spread through Twitter. The worst part of Twitter is in fact Twitter’s own refusal to take responsibility for its platform. This complete lack of professional ethics in computer science permeates every aspect of Silicon Valley and has created very public platforms where the most degenerate facets of our societies can have a voice and gain the ligitimacy they so desperately seek. Nazis and other mentally unstable individuals are allowed to bully and prey upon others with impunity while time and time again the victims and those who report such behavior are the ones punished. Donald Trump can on a daily basis violate Twitter’s terms of service by promoting violence and hate, but they don’t dare ban him from Twitter; he makes them too much money through the outrage generated by each and every single tweet that comes out of his diseased mind and to the fingers tapping on his phone. They openly promote him, even. Twitter isn’t alone in this. For far too long many technology companies are perfectly content with making money from those who promote hate and fear; they are headed by individuals who are every bit devoid of morality as those to whom they make bank promoting.
This promotion is carefully designed. Facebook pioneered the use of algorithms to determine what shows up in its users’ feeds. Originally Twitter feeds consisted of a chronological feed of content from and only from those people who were followed. Today Twitter uses algorithms and machine learning akin to Facebook where feeds consist of content the user did not ask for mixed in with followed users’ content in no logical order whatsoever. It is a frustrating user experience, but the worst part of it is that there’s a method to the madness. The content is scrupulously chosen to generate the maximum level of engagement so advertisers will get the most out of their money. Twitter doesn’t care what kind of engagement is generated, and outrage seems to be the most lucretive. In other words, Twitter and other social media services are specifically designed to make you miserable and unhappy to make these companies and their advertisers money.
These same companies also make money by not only selling ads but also selling the very information people post to their services to advertisers, and apparently also to organizations that use the data to manipulate elections. The scariest part about all of this is that most people do not care and have no concern for their own privacy, and they do not care about the amoral behavior of the companies whose services they use. Because of this most governments aren’t concerned with holding these companies accountable for their actions — or in cases of abuse — inactions. No one is holding these people accountable, and that is scary.
For years Twitter has allowed access to its service through its API. I and many early adopters of Twitter have used third party applications to access the service. On August 16, 2018 Twitter decided to shut down necessary features of its API to third party applications in an attempt to force users to use their applications and website so we third party application users would be subjected to the algorithmic feed of enragement like the vast majority of their user base. I simply refuse to use their first party offerings for reasons that should be apparent by reading this essay to this point, so I no longer will actively use Twitter. This is all for the best because I cannot in good conscience continue to contribute to the tempest of filth that the service has become. I did not use the service at all for a month, and quite frankly it has been mentally liberating. I have since tweeted promptional stuff there, but I will not interact on there anymore.
Possibly the biggest mistake we have made concerning the Web has been to allow major communications platforms to be controlled by single entities. We are entirely naive thinking if we use a service, promote a service, and our communities contribute features and ideas to a service it is largely ours. We even expect the data on those services to be ours and private, too. We are genuinely shocked when we learn the hard way time and time again that this is not the case. What idiots we are. Almost every service we use today is centrally controlled by a corporation using proprietary technologies. We have absolutely no control over these products because we neither directly pay for it nor do we truly own the data stored on their servers.
Free and open source federated software is our solution to this problem where users of a service are distributed over many servers and yet are still capable of communicating with one another. This used to be the typical behavior of many Internet-based communication platforms years ago. Email is federated. People with Gmail accounts can communicate with people on Yahoo! and with anyone who runs an email server. This is how Facebook and Twitter could work. Facebook and Twitter could even communicate with each other, but they don’t.
There is pushback from this from many people who believe having a service be centralized is the way to go, and until recently they seem to have been winning out. Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of Open Whisper Systems, is one such person. He wrote a lengthy blog post assailing federated services a while back. I won’t pick through the post debunking it because it isn’t the focus of what I’m wanting to write about here, but it is nonetheless worth a read because it is a fantastically constructed piece of spin. Of course he is against it; his entire business model is predicated upon a centralized system.
There are actual drawbacks to federation, of course. It is more difficult to develop because you have to account for other servers in the federation. If one signs up for a hypothetical federated Twitter on feditweet.com and it shuts down in six months one would need to sign up for another one and start over. Both of these issues are surmountable.
Mastodon is a free and open source federated microblogging service developed by Eugen Rochko. It implements features similar to Twitter, but not exactly. Aside from obvious things such as lack of advertising, tracking, and a business model it has designed its features to curtail some of Twitter’s most reprehensible behavior.
One of the absolute worst features of Twitter is the ability to add your own comment to a retweet. A typical use of this feature is to retweet something a Nazi has said along with a comment explaining how horrible it is. We’re all guilty of doing this. It does nothing but give them what they want and promote the fascist’s point of view while filling your followers’ feeds up with what are literally statements of pure evil. Mastodon instead has what are called “boosts” which perform the same function as a retweet on Twitter but deliberately does not allow for commentary. The name of the feature correctly describes what it is for — boosting other people’s content; it becomes always a positive action rather than what has become over time a predominantly negative one.
Mastodon also has a feature that allows people to hide content behind a content warning. This is most notable on the service today when discussing politics or instance administration. It is, however, useful for all sorts of things from hiding spoilers or showing joke punchlines even. The feature is an example where interface design can encourage behavior on a service. It has become ingrained in the culture of Mastodon to hide controversial posts as a common courtesy.
Because of its federated construction Mastodon instances can be rather small from a single user to hundreds to thousands. Instances are essentially small communities of like-minded individuals who can communicate if they wish with other instances. This allows for better moderation where moderators and administrators are responsible for policing each of their instances. If a particular instance gets out of hand and starts harassing other instances they can be blocked.
Mastodon isn’t perfect and isn’t a utopia by any stretch of the definition of the word. There have been issues, especially a quite nasty one surrounding Wil Wheaton where a community of trans people harassed and threatened him, causing him to leave. On Twitter he encouraged adoption of a blocklist that blocked Nazis and other nasty people maintained by someone else. The maintainer started adding trans people to the list, and since a lot of people — including myself — used this blocklist many trans people on Twitter found themselves isolated. They were bitter about it, and decided to attack Wil Wheaton as one of the promoters of this blocklist (before he found out it blocked trans people) thinking he was transphobic and hateful toward them. He added fuel to the fire himself by reporting anyone and everyone including those who were supportive and sympathetic to his plight, so it wasn’t entirely one-sided.
This incident especially has caused discussion around how to improve moderation tools, and that’s where things really improve upon Twitter. Discussion of it is public, and development of it is public. Anyone can contribute. We don’t know how Mastodon will turn out, but we definitely can strive to do better.
Mastodon isn’t the only federated social media service. It isn’t even the only microblogging one, and in that is where the real potential is for these services. All of these services exist in a network that has come to be called the Fediverse. Most Fediverse services today are free and federated reimplementations and reimaginings of existing social media platforms:
Mastodon implements a W3C standard protocol called ActivityPub. Any platform which implements this protocol can communicate with Mastodon instances. Pleroma is a service that’s almost identical in features to Mastodon and can communicate freely with Mastodon instances. However, other platforms such as PixelFed and PeerTube directly can as well without having to interface with proprietary APIs unique to each platform. This provides a far superior experience to what we’re used to.
The best thing is that there can be and are multiple implementations of different kinds of services. I am interested in Pleroma because of its greatly-reduced dependencies over Mastodon. If I wanted to switch to Pleroma as my microblogging software I can — provided they support subdomains in the future.
These federated platforms and the W3C’s interest in publishing standards which aid in this have a chance of taking back at least some of the Web from the grips of companies intent on ruining our lives for their monetary gain. The Fediverse won’t replace them, but it doesn’t have to.