Elon Musk exposes the truth

Nobody is happy with the private public square

Nobody is happy at Musk’s takeover of Twitter. At one extreme, Commercial realities will quickly kill the expectations of extremists that hate speech and conspiracy theories should be allowed back to thrive. The rest of us, meanwhile, have been exposed to the ugly truth that while a commercial platform does not have the moral right to determine what is said in the “Town Square”, it certainly has the power to do so.

Of course, in the UK and EU politicians hope that legislation such as the Online Safety Bill and the EU Digital Services Act will rein in any failures by a Musk-run Twitter. This seems to us a rather folorn hope, as both measures are really aimed at the most extreme content and situations. Much of what makes people do not like or do not wish to encounter online falls well below those bars.

The basic problem, as we have spelt out many times, is that:

  1. Moderation of content at scale is extremely difficult; and
  2. The attention business model pushes provocative content as it engages users

What users need is pretty clear. They need greater control over what content they receive, how it is prioritised and how it is presented. The way this is done, in a digital world, is to create more “open” systems that allow third parties to repurpose, filter and represent content in ways that users want. This can and should include better ways to moderate content.

A few years ago, a number of people who were very unhappy with what they perceive as the toxic environment on Twitter decided to create Mastodon, a platform which prides itself on ensuring a much more welcoming environment. It provides features like user “content warnings”.

However, the really clever thing about Mastodon is that it is not is single website, with a single moderator. Rather, it is many services that talk to each other. The result is that moderation on Mastodon services is much better. Small numbers of people police other people. So far it has managed to scale to around 5 million users. Given the low toleration given to abuse and negligent servers, this seems to work pretty well.

There is a lot to explain and think about with the concept of ‘federated social media’, but to make it simpler, think about email – which is not owned by a single company, but works across many and any; or even your mobile telephone, which can call any other telephone, regardless of the network.

Federated social media is not owned by a single company and cannot be bought or sold, even if individual services can. This places users in a much better relationship with their providers, because it is possible to move provider without losing your networks and contacts.

In principle, there is no reason why Mastodon could not federate with Twitter. It is Twitter’s choice to prevent this. Of course, it suits Twitter to keep its users within a walled garden. To do otherwise would create new competition and allow some users to move away.

For the rest of us, now is a good time to experiment and try the alternative services, because lots of other people are doing so too. They are attempting to vote with their feet.

ORG has a Mastodon account, and some of our staff have been on federated social media for some time. Of course, for most people, the main issue is going to be the value of the content. Mastodon and other federated social media is unlikely to feature the same level of attention and investment by third parties.

Nevertheless, those third parties – especially campaign organisations – frequently dislike the way that Twitter and Facebook prioritise content and police access to their users. Perhaps it is worth building audiences where those conditions do not apply.

Why not join us there and see what you think? Here is our main account and some of our staff on Mastodon:

And from our Advisory Council