16 December 2022 by Jennifer
Reflections on Twitter past and present, and where to find me on the Fediverse. (This is what some people refer to as “Mastodon”, but Mastodon is just one bit of software – like referring to “doing the hoovering” even if your vacuum cleaner didn’t come from Hoover.)
It’s around 10 years or so since I started hanging out on Twitter.
I think I probably heard of it first via Steve Lawson. I definitely remember that Steve was enthusing about it at the time – and at first I wasn’t interested. I tend to write long exploratory things, not little snappy comments, so it didn’t seem like a match.
But once I did try it out, the main thing I started to like about it was nothing directly to do with my own writing: it was the access to news and discussion.
Twitter up sides
When you go on a conventional news web site, typically you’ll get one journalist’s perspective (and sometimes a comments section), limited by the editorial choices of the site.
When you get the same story on Twitter, click around just a little bit, and you can usually find a variety of people both elaborating on the story, and telling you exactly how the other versions got it wrong :-) It’s like a giant free-for-all of a comments thread. Often you can learn more from the replies and critiques than from the original story.
This is especially true around race or racism: relatively few Black commenters get given conventional journalism jobs, yet some are/were delivering sharp insights on Twitter every day.
Also, Twitter often has news before the conventional web sites, because people “on the ground” post there as soon as something happens.
I found this access to information especially useful when covid came along. Researchers and medics were using Twitter to talk to each other and assess new evidence, and anyone could eavesdrop. Over time, I carefully curated a list of people who seemed to me reliable. The UK government and official bodies have often given out quite misleading information, so it’s been very useful to me to have direct access to scientists, even (or especially) while some questions are still under discussion and not yet fully clear.
Recently, Twitter’s had an upheaval: it was bought by billionaire Elon Musk. He quickly fired a lot of the staff, made various comments about freedom of speech, and “un-banned” a lot of accounts, most famously that of Donald Trump.
One immediate effect which many people have reported was an uptick in abuse and prejudice on the site. Even before any banned accounts had been let back on, or any rules had been changed, Musk’s announcements evidently emboldened people to think that they’d get away with comments which wouldn’t have been allowed before. He’s also been (seemingly disproportionately) banning people who bring left-wing analysis; for example, Andy Ngo suggested to him that he ban anti-fascist group CrimethInc, and he did.
As the days have gone along, there have been more and more worrying signs about how Musk will (mis)use his fiefdom.
Stay versus go
Because of all this, there’s been a lot of discussion of the ethics of remaining on Twitter now that it belongs to him. Some people don’t feel right knowing that their time and energy is potentially encouraging others to stay in a deteriorating environment, the asset of a billionaire hostile to gay and trans people. In contrast, some have advocated for staying to “fight for” the space, and not conceding ground before it’s taken.
For the people who advocate staying, a big motive is to do with Twitter’s importance in communication across the world, especially among marginalised groups. There’s a lot of things which have happened partly via Twitter which wouldn’t have happened in the same way without it. For example, a lot of people found out about the Black Lives Matter movement originally via Twitter.
An example I can give first-hand: when we did the research in 2021 on funding for bi groups, we used Twitter to spread the word. That helped us to gather lots of survey responses about people’s experiences of bi groups & nominally-LGBT groups. And more recently, we used it to publicise Little Bit Bi.
Aside from that kind of outreach, and aside from explicitly political uses, a lot of people have a friendly network across Twitter which isn’t the same as their close friends or local neighbours. There are people I “see” there, and sometimes swop messages with, whom I’ve never spoken with anywhere else, and for whom I don’t have other contact details. Multiply that by millions of people: that’s a lot of friendly/supportive social connections which currently rely on it. These connections can be especially important to people who, for whatever reason, can’t easily make friends in their local area.
Twitter connections have also been immensely useful in emergencies such as floods, enabling people “on the ground” to share what’s happening and what help is needed.
I can see both sides of the leave/stay arguments. On the one hand, I don’t like to think that my presence on Twitter is an asset (however minor) to Musk and his plans. On the other hand, I have a strong sense of all those connections across the world, and the power of that, and the loss if they were all to vanish.
Software system stability
The clincher which pushed me to check out alternatives is pragmatic: it would not surprise me if at some point in the next few months, Twitter’s software simply “fell over”. Maybe one morning, we’ll wake up, and instead of a busy network of communication, we’ll find an error message.
Why might that happen? It’s because of the destruction which Musk has wrought on Twitter’s organisation & technical stability.
A giant site like Twitter doesn’t just “keep running” indefinitely: there will be software & hardware maintenance tasks which people were doing to keep it stable. A lot of techie people can tell you a story about an occasional error that they hadn’t tracked down yet, which in the meantime had a manual work-around – or just a little routine task their team had to do every now and again to keep things running smoothly.
When Musk fired so many of the staff in such haste, a colossal amount of institutional knowledge walked out the door. Next time there’s a glitch, will the people be there who know how to fix it?
Not only that, but I’d seen discussion of how very large sites may never have tested how to re-start the system if it stops. A big system can sometimes grow from small to big while running, without ever having to practise switching off & on again. While I was in the process of writing this, I discovered that a Twitter whistleblower, Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, had warned back in August that in fact they haven’t built reliably for re-starting after a crash, i.e. that if Twitter fell over, it might not be re-startable. The snippet from Mudge quoted here says that Twitter “lacked plans and processes to ‘cold boot’“.
I hope Twitter doesn’t fall over forever. As I’ve explained, it would be an enormous loss in terms of communication networks. And for me personally, it would also mean that a lot of cool things I’ve bookmarked over the years would become dead links and be lost.
But as that might happen, I think it isn’t a stupid idea to get my alternative up & running in the meantime.
Here’s my Fediverse address: @firstname.lastname@example.org
If you want to check it out, but don’t want to make a Fediverse account, you can view my page as a stand-alone thing here: https://scicomm.xyz/@unchartedworlds
Bonus section: Instance recommendations
If you were thinking of jumping over there yourself, the first step is to choose an instance as your “home base”. This is where you actually sign up, and where your account is hosted. (You can still follow people on other instances. You’ll need the two parts of their address: their chosen-name, like @unchartedworlds, and their instance-name, like @scicomm.xyz.)
Here are a few more places, which so far seem to me reputable:
- If you’re techie: hachyderm.io
- If you’re more of an arts & humanities person: zirk.us
- If you’re a writer: wandering.shop or writing.exchange
- If you’re queer: tech.lgbt or queer.party
- If you lean anarchist/anti-colonial: kolektiva.social
(There are loads more, and it’s not that I necessarily have anything against the ones I haven’t listed – these are just some where I’ve already seen people land happily.)
Or if you want one which is unlinked to any theme, there are plenty. Maybe I’ll write more about the pros and cons of that another time.
You can also look at the instance lists at instances.social or To the Fediverse, and trawl through the many possibilities there.
I wouldn’t advise picking mastodon.social or mastodon.online as your “home” instance; a lot of people have gone there “by default” recently, they’re a bit on the overly-big side, and they possibly don’t have enough moderators to cope with their size.
Also, if reading on your phone, don’t rely on the Mastodon apps, as there are third-party ones which are said to be better. For Android, try Tusky; for iOS, try Metatext or Toot.
Maybe more later on my experiences & recommendations from my first weeks in the Fediverse!