Hey, have you heard about Mastodon, the Hot New Twitter Alternative that All The Kids Are Using™! Perhaps you’re interested in giving it a try, either because Twitter’s recent product changes have you feeling grumpy, or you’ve heard about Mastodon’s low-tolerance towards Nazis and other troublemakers, or maybe you just want to secure a username for your brand on a new social platform before someone else does.
Well, if you have heard people talking about Mastodon, ignore it, save for Sarah Jeong’s excellent piece. And certainly don’t register an account for your brand to avoid username pollution—it won’t work. Right now, many tech writers, chief among them Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff, are completely missing the point of Mastodon. Lance thinks it’s going to fail because you can’t monetize it, it’s decentralized, and William Shatner doesn’t like it, and had trouble deleting his account. Obviously, a lack of Shatner is the kiss of death for any social network.
Never mind that it’s way too soon to assume an open source project run by a handful of unpaid contributors and admins that hasn’t even existed for a year is going to be as fully-featured as Twitter. Or even has the same goals in mind. What Lance, and so many others aren’t getting about Mastodon is that it’s not meant to operate on the same scale as Twitter. Despite being named for a band that’s named after a large, extinct land mammal, being small is Mastodon’s strength.
Part of the problem with Twitter, and why so many people are frustrated with it, is that it’s too big. There’s too many people on a platform that was designed with too few barriers keeping them from each other. The fixes Twitter’s rolled out to ameliorate the problems are generally weak sauce as well. A giant network of unrestricted access to every user—unless they lock their account down to only approved followers—is not sustainable. Twitter’s twin failures of community management with its ongoing harassment problem, and inability to monetize are both symptoms of this.
That anyone can create an Mastodon instance keeps it from suffering the same issues of community management at scale that have turned Twitter into such a cesspool. Mastodon doesn’t need to be the new place for brands to connect with social influencers to be a success. If anything, Mastodon becoming a place for brands would mark it as a failure. Instead, Mastodon is about communities—a network of small, decentralized groups of real human beings (and fursonas) that communicate and share with each other.
I joined Mastodon.Social’s flagship instance back in January, when news came out that App.Net would be shutting down. I didn’t know what to expect, but I found the community on there to be welcoming, and entertaining. It leaned, and still leans, as far as I can see, heavily queer, furry, communist, and focused on open source— of which, only the first applies to me, but I stuck around all the same. While communities like this exist on Twitter, they’re both subsumed by the larger mass, and risk harassment as an effect of any sort of visibility. No wonder they’re the first to jump ship.
The influx of attention, despite temporarily crippling Mastodon’s flagship instance at mastodon.social, at least has the benefit of letting other disgruntled Twitter users know that there is an alternative. Plus, it’s put Mastodon on a more solid financial footing. Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s creator, is now pulling on over $2k a month in support on Patreon for developing the platform. This is great for a platform that’s not even six months old. New instances are popping up, and according to https://instances.mastodon.xyz/, the total users across all of them is about 100,000. That’s a long way from Twitter’s 302 million users, though it may be closer if you don’t count all the spammers and Russian Troll Bot accounts.
And yes, there’s growing pains to come, and growing pains happening now. Eugen and other Mastodon admins are figuring out how to manage these new communities, deal with federated harassment, and just get the software up to snuff. (Yes, Lance and Bill, account deletion is an open issue.) I have confidence these issues will be addressed, and that the network of Mastodon, and other federated social networks like micro.blog will help us rethink social networks as something that can be on the scale of a neighborhood instead of a planet.
Let a thousand Mastodon instances bloom! In fact, I might just spin up my own instance, if I can bring a few friends along for the ride. We’ll see how that goes. I do have a free Heroku account I’m not doing anything with… A world of decentralized, community-run instances of Mastodon may never replace Twitter or Facebook, but their mere existence proves that there’s another way. I want to be part of it.
You can learn more about Mastodon and how to set up an instance on the project’s GitHub.
I’ve been running an experiment with my last few longer-form pieces of crossposting them to Medium. I’ve done it on the occasional, ad-hoc basis when I write something that I feel needs to reach an audience outside of my circle. This includes the expanded, and revised version of “A View From Inside the Welfare System”, which went viral. I’ve also written at least one piece, explicitly for Medium, “Geek Culture and its Discontents”. So far, it’s not had much of an impact, but it might also be too early to tell.
But why Medium? I’ve been, and remain skeptical of Medium as a platform, and I’m not the only one. Ownership of my words is important, even if I’m making a sum total of six bucks a month from them. (If you want to change that, you can become a subscriber here.) I’d be happy making nothing, if I knew I was reaching people, but I’m sometimes not even sure of that. It’s a tough time to be putting words on the Internet.
So, instead of trying to branch out into other media—because that worked out so well last time—cross-posting seems to be the best of the options. No matter what happens to medium, my writing will remain at this URL until EMPs wipe out all technology. Yet, I also exist on the largest platform for long-form writing. My name, profile, photo, are all out there, hopefully to be discovered. Maybe they’ll follow the links back to the source and start clicking around. Plus, Medium makes it a lot easier to share things. I’m not willing to install tracking scripts for Facebook and Twitter just for the sake of a few clicks—though I am willing to set up a Facebook page for my writing.
The goal of crossposting to Medium is to, I suppose, re-capture the lightning in a bottle moment of the most successful independent writing I’ve ever done: the aforementioned “A View From Inside the Welfare System.” It was not only a Medium Editor’s Pick, but made it to the front page of MetaFilter, which made me super-happy. The only thing I didn’t like is that nothing long-term came of it. I had nothing else to say about my time working for the Welfare Office, and it was off my usual—for lack of a better word—beat, anyway.
I just wish Medium’s WordPress plugin was more effective. It seems that scheduled posts and anything published through the WordPress API doesn’t get sent to Medium. This sucks, as I like to line stuff up ahead of time for publishing. At least tagging posts works, though I’ve never used the post tagging feature in WordPress since I relaunched the current version of Sanspoint six years ago. Perhaps the Medium folks will see this and fix it. Or, perhaps I’ll give up on this experiment after a few more weeks, and then I stop worrying about it. In the meantime, like and share, I suppose.
In the wake of the election, I took some time to read a few pieces of conservative commentary, and came across an interesting essay by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative comparing modern America to Weimar Germany. I’m don’t agree with all of Dreher’s points, especially as a queer atheist Liberal socialist, but a part of it caught my attention, and it makes the essay worth your time. Namely, Dreher links to a piece in The New Yorker on a podcast called “Chapo Trap House” that describes a phenomenon the podcast hosts call “failsons.”
The Chapo Trap House hosts describe a failson as “twenty-six,” in Community College, and more interested “gaming and masturbating” than spending time with their family at Thanksgiving. Or, more compassionately as “nonessential human beings who do not fit into the market as consumers or producers or as laborers… Some of them turn into Nazis… Others become aware of the consequences of capitalism.” [Emphasis mine.]
Reading this frightened me, because it rings true. As an example, Dreher identifies Dylann Roof, who committed a mass shooting at a black church in Charleston in 2015, as a failson and notes that:
“Sooner or later, somebody is going to find a way to radicalize those failsons. Some of the middle class failsons will gravitate to the Weimar Brooklyn worldview of the Chapo Trap House. Many other middle class white failsons, I suspect, will gravitate to the intellectualized neo-Nazism of Richard Spencer, highly educated and articulate son of Dallas’s posh Park Cities. The point is: watch the failson.”
What Dreher misses is that the failsons are already being radicalized. What are the meme squads and troll armies of the alt-right but failsons turned into radicalized digital shock troops for a modern fascist regime?
If you haven’t closed this essay already, let me explain by linking to a great Twitter thread by Siyanda Mohutsiwa. She draws a direct link between the racist alt-right, and men’s self-help spaces online. Jules Evans at Philosophy for Life goes into more detail on the same links. In particular, Evans notes how alt-right figureheads Mike Cernovich, Jack Donovan, and Roosh V wrote self-help books and pick-up artist guides before moving towards promoting the racist and sexist ideology that underpins the alt-right. Anyone who came to these men looking for a way to improve their lot likely ended up suckered into their hateful message.
It’s not all failsons in the alt-right, of course. There’s people with STEM degrees, and jobs who wouldn’t fit the failson stereotype, but they’re not usually the ones spending their days harassing people on social media or running disinformation campaigns. They’re more likely to operate like Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, away from the digital front lines. It’s also worth noting here that of all groups more likely to join terrorist groups, engineers are the most likely to become extremists. You can’t blame radicalization on being stupid.
But when you have a mass of under-employed and unemployed, poorly educated, white men who can’t get laid, they’re going to be very susceptible to anything that makes them forget their position—anything that gives them a target for their anger. Women, minorities, the LGBTQ community, and the progressives who promote their issues are the easy and obvious targets. And so the demagogues mobilize the failsons, point them to the target, and stand back as the horror unfolds. Because they never gave a direct order, they can keep their hands clean, whether it’s Milo Yiannopoulos using his Twitter followers to harass Leslie Jones, or Donald Trump saying he “disavows” the white supremacists using his election victory as an excuse for public hate.
All you need to do to see this phenomenon first-hand is take a peek into some of the various 4chan boards where it happens. Boards like /adv/, /r9k/, and /soc/, have built a support structure for young men who describe themselves as “NEETs”—“Not in Education, Employment or Training”. These are the failsons the Chapo Trap House hosts refer to. So much of the process occurs in public, from the initial steps into seeking a community of support, advice on love and life, and the slow redirection into alt-right radicalism. And it works. ISIS recruitment propaganda follows the same basic process. The only difference is that the alt-right is radicalizing white men, not Muslims.
Of course, one can hardly be blamed for not wanting to stick their nose into the cesspool of the various chan boards. But if anything is going to disrupt the radicalization of the failsons is disrupting that process. There’s already research under way to disrupt ISIS recruitment practices, but who’s taking up this mantle against white supremacy? The best we’ve seen is Twitter adding “hate speech” to their reporting process and banning several alt-right accounts, but this is too little, too late. It’s a band-aid on a plague sore.
This is a personal concern, not just because the people I love are at risk from what the radicalized failsons can do, but because it wasn’t that long ago when I too could have become a failson. Not long after I graduated college in 2008, I was unemployed, and struggling with my personal life and self-worth. I was lucky in that I had both a positive support network of family and friends, both online and off, that saved me from potential radicalization. I was also lucky in that this was before the toxic spaces of the internet like 4chan had fully mutated into their current form. But I know quite well the misery I was in, and how I longed for easy answers.
So, yes, I am watching the failsons. You should be too, because they’re going to play a major role in the next four years. They’re not the only cause or symptom of the new political climate, but they are motivated, they are inspired, and they are dangerous. Whether you are a Liberal or a Conservative, a new fascist movement is a danger to all of us. Even if the footsoldiers are hiding behind keyboards and seven proxies, what happens on the internet can and does bleed over into “real life.” We’ve seen it happen, before and it’ll happen again. It’s too late to stop the damage, but with luck and work, perhaps we can keep it contained.
I have six messaging apps on my phone right now: the stock Apple Messages app, Telegram, Skype, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, and Slack. (Seven if you count Tweetbot.) Each gives me access to a subset of my friends, family, and coworkers. Each app’s subset overlaps some, and, well, it’s really annoying in a first-world problem kind of way. The proliferation of messaging apps over the past several years has me desperate for the days when I could reach the majority of people in my life with one simple application on my phone or computer, regardless of platform.
That’s right. Once upon a time, messaging services had open APIs, and there were clever applications that could tap into several of them at once. In one window, I could see all my friends on AOL Instant Messenger, my friends on ICQ, my friends on Google Talk, and eventually my friends on Facebook. When I was a Windows user, there was Trillian—an app whose name I appreciated, even if the app itself was ugly and clunky. Once I switched to the Mac, I had Adium, which I customized to hell and back, and kept its buddy list pinned to the corner of my desktop for the better part of eight years.
These apps still exist for the desktop, along with a handful of multi-platform iOS messaging apps, but they’re moribund, and typically ad-supported. Trillian was last updated a little over a year ago, while Adium’s last major update was in 2014. Many are tied to legacy APIs that don’t provide newer features. I ended up abandoning Adium after I found out I couldn’t join a Google Hangouts group chat with it. And there’s no incentive for the platform creators to allow that API access, since they can’t monetize a third-party app. The result is a bunch of competing services with no sane way to unify all your contacts in one place.
SMS is the closest thing left to a “universal” messaging platform, but its limitations are myriad. It’s limited to text and images, many phone plans still have limits on the number of SMS and MMS messages that can be sent, and it’s insecure. iMessage looks like it aspires to be the replacement for SMS, and another potential “universal” platform, but as long as it’s limited to iOS, that won’t do. My partner is on Android, and despite the pre-WWDC rumors, it’s not looking like Apple will release an Android iMessage app any time soon.
Our messaging needs have changed since the days when America On-Line opened up their instant messenger platform to the masses. We’re no longer sharing text, we’re sharing our lives—links, photos, video, and audio. More of us are concerned about our privacy, and we want encryption to make sure nobody is peeking in on our conversations. It’s possible that these are obstacles to a more interoperable messaging space. I suspect they’re secondary to a lack of interest on the part of the platform owners.
I’m asking to send a message to someone on Facebook from my Telegram account or with the Messages app. I’d just like to keep one app where I can reach everyone, regardless of what service they choose to use, like I could only five years ago. Moving forward with richer, more secure, and more robust messaging platforms shouldn’t mean convenience and freedom get left behind. Yet, that’s exactly the situation I find myself in. I can’t be alone.
It’s time we admit that the era of open-by-default social media is an experiment on the verge of failure. It’s not that people don’t want to have a public persona, but they want it to be a broadcast medium open to responses from selected friends. Nobody wants to be accessible to every jerk with an account and a grudge. Without a strong, active—and expensive—human moderation team, any digital space where people can directly contact anyone else is at risk of becoming an open sewer of abuse. And when the tools provided to end-users manage those communications are toothless, the situation can only get worse.
There are three major public and open-by-default social networks currently: Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. Of these three, Tumblr and Instagram two have some protections against abuse. Instagram is actively moderated, and has the advantage of being a visual medium, which makes abuse a bit harder to commit. Tumblr has had a handful of high-profile harassment and abuse cases, but is typically a safer, and more limited, space than Twitter. Twitter’s problems are numerous, and beyond the scope of this piece. For a sampling, just look at my last few essays and links. Or just read Randi Harper.
Considering that conflict, harassment, and abuse are par for the course on open-by-default networks, it’s not a surprise more people are moving towards closed networks. The geeks have their private Slack channels, the kids have Snapchat, and Facebook… is Facebook. Facebook is semi-public by default, but easy enough to lock your profile down so that your content can only be seen by friends. You won’t see anyone in your Facebook News Feed unless you friend them, or they’re a friend of a friend. This means you have significantly less risk of being attacked, spammed, or deal with any of the garbage that infests Twitter.
Open-by-default social networks operate under the assumption that all speech should be treated equally, and that equal access means a level playing field. All one needs to do is take a look at the people most likely to be the victims of abuse and harassment online to see that this is far from the case. Women, minorities, and LGBTQ people all face significantly more online harassment than the white men who make up the leadership and technical staff of most social networks. It’s been documented time and again that abuse leads to a chilling effect where victims of abuse lose their freedom of speech, because speech means they risk violence. When that’s the choice, who can blame someone for choosing a smaller, closed network of safe people.
The downside of closed-by-default networks is that they make positive network effects harder, if not impossible. In my personal experience, I have made some wonderful friends through Twitter that I doubt I would ever have made in a more private space. It’s a criticism that echoes the sentiment of a number of geeky types who live in private Slack channels. Still, unless the toxic elements of the open-by-default social network are brought under some semblance of control, many people are willing to give up the openness and connections for personal security. But doing so is expensive—financially, technologically, and emotionally.
Whatever way you want to look at it, it’s clear that the lack of controls and moderation of Twitter is proving to be a mistake. It seems obvious in retrospect, like so many other ideas. Perhaps in the brief days when Monthly Active Users were in the five-to-six digit range, it wasn’t a mistake, though Charlie Warzel’s reporting says otherwise. Perhaps we’re just not meant to have open, unfettered, unmoderated access to each other all the time. Twitter has been an interesting experiment in human nature, but like all experiments, its time has passed. The hypothesis has been proven false. Let’s take the lessons we’ve learned and build something better. Hopefully that better thing will come soon, before we all decamp back to App.Net.