Twitter Crisis – What we need to do

The Twitter crisis threatens people in many diverse ways. We could lose access to audiences, networks, and communities valuable for socialising, business,campaigning and support. We may lose touch with friends and colleagues. Twitter may itself inflict terrible damage on itself. Whatever emerges from Twitter, we should not be passive. There is an enormous popular movement to reclaim our digital rights from a purely commercial, ad-driven and extractive model.

None of this is to say that Twitter will die, or that Mastodon and federated social media will win, or that one is better than the other. We’ve been reading about the concerns being raised by some people from communities that are vulnerable, marginalised and minoritised to understand how different communities might be impacted by moving to Mastodon. We’d like to share our thoughts on how Mastodon could be better for communities and digital rights.

Plenty of people have explained the advantages and the potential gain of any transition to federated social media. Without recapping, the key point is that federated social media are not controlled by a single commercial developer, so can evolve as society and people wish it to. While commercial actors are inevitably going to work with federated social media if it grows, the fact of “federation” means that competition and choice can improve moderation, reduce hate, and give people greater control over what and how they interact with content.

The open source model also gives the potential to design social media that promote better behaviour. Different groups will have different ideas about this. So far, the community that has designed Mastodon is quite narrow, so wider communities may want different kinds of design. One of the most important things that needs to happen is widening the range of people involved and bringing new experiences and perspectives to designing federated social media products.

However, the commercial model has a very different and obvious set of drivers, aimed at profit. The disadvantages of Twitter and Facebook’s model should be completely clear: vendor lock-in, the danger to people’s investment in their networks, the lack of influence over how content is prioritised, corporate algorithms driving controversy and argument and what problems that can generate. We become the playthings of corporations at best, and at worst of individual billionaires.

Different products of course have different affordances. Mastodon is designed to be less ‘viral’, which may not suit everyone. It is also a smaller audience, which could, if used to exclusion, reinforce some social barriers. Lacking reach that Twitter has, it will take a lot to replicate its power. There are risks of creating new filter bubbles. Thus even if it complements, it is unlikely to be a full replacement for conventional social media in the short term. This makes it harder for some marginalised and minoritised groups to envisage federated products as a solution, and may discourage some communities from joining or using it. People from these communities have raised these concerns. In the longer term, this is a further argument for interoperability – the power of enclosure especially impacts marginalised groups. The lack of reach into Twitter an Facebook’s existing audiences is the result of the choices made by the walled gardens, not of federated networks.

What individuals can do

As an individual, what you do is up to you. If your community is joining Mastodon or similar, then perhaps try it out. Find out where your friends are.

Try to avoid joining services that seem under supported, or are extremely small or new if you don’t know the people running them. If you join one of the big servers, bear in mind they may hit performance issues if lots of people suddenly sign up.

If you use the service you have joined, then please do donate towards their costs if you can afford it. If you are already on Mastodon or another federated service, then you can help people out.

Among interesting Mastodon-based services springing up is Project Mushroom, which aims to focus on climate justice and to be a safe space for marginalised communities. They intend to help people with onboarding so that people less familiar with the software can move easily.

What organisations can to do

Like any social media service, it costs nothing to sign up and is reasonably unproblematic to do so.

Accounts can be moved from different services, so where you start does not matter so much, although using one of the common servers may seem sensible as a first step.

Most unpleasant content comes from badly-run servers. These tend to have small numbers of users, and are easily blocked and removed from the ‘mainsteam’ network.

Although Mastodon should be easier in terms of more pleasant interactions, you will need to think about any risks. In particular, do not use the direct message feature for anything sensitive, and discourage anyone who follows you from doing so.

Longer term, you may want to set up a server to publish your own content and staff, or your community. Both are possible and can have advantages. The legal issues are similar to running a private forum, with some extra work to deal with content received from outside.

The technical barriers to setting up your own Mastodon or Fediverse platform is as low as you need it to be, as you can use “Software as a Service” providers for your own custom domains, just as with WordPress websites. Remember, it may take a few weeks before the market catches up with the new levels of demand.

However you establish yourself on the Fediverse, you are of course also costing server administrators money and should contribute towards these, as a good netizen.

What politicians need to do

As a first step, government should try these services out. They should gain an understanding of what they offer and how they work. That is a good idea, as journalists, academics and campaigners are doing the same.

Hopefully it will be obvious that social media without the intense and distorting attention market and with empowered users and competition, can combat many of the rampant problems that the Online Safety Bill attempts to fix through content surveillance and fines.

Secondly, they should ask, therefore, if social media is this easy to fix, why hasn’t it been fixed already? The answer of course is vendor lock-in and network effects guaranteeing Twitter, Facebook and others that their audience will suffer an awful lot before leaving them.

Thirdly, then, politicians need to think about the abuse of market power that has taken place, threatening personal and organisational investments, as well as workers rights, and creating threats to political and social discourse.

An obvious answer, interoperability, and a working model in Mastodon and the Fediverse, exists today. While it is imperfect, and not yet ready ready for everyone, it shows how it can be done. We have after all many other interoperable networks that provide competitive markets, from mobile telephones through to email. Why should misbehaving social media monopolies be exempt?

What ORG wants to do

We primarily want to help people understand and feel the benefits of different information models for digital rights, such as socially designed social media. We want to see the break up of monopolised social media and promote a greater diversity of tools that offer solutions to the moderation of content. We want people to see that the Internet can be a force for good.

We also want to understand why some communities are more reluctant to move. Whether this is because of the culture on Mastodon, interactions that seem ignorant, or questions of loss of agency that comes with paying less time on twitter, these questions need to be understood. We should not assume that because Mastodon has been a safe space for European LGBT+, disabled and neurodiverse people, that this safety and welcome are experienced by all people from any kind of minority or with different cultural expectations.

The digital rights movement and human rights funders will need to pay particular attention to this, including for communities outside of the Global North.

We want people to see that social media concentration and monopoly can be broken. On the Fediverse, there are competing services, because it is built that way. Twitter could easily be another service on the Fediverse. Then, people could opt out of Musks’ plans, and the poor moderation, without sacrificing their audience and years of investment.

We will therefore work with individuals, organisations and politicians to these ends. If you want to work with us, please get in touch.