Mass extinction event
Earlier this week, I got caught up in the zeitgeist and thought that I’d better sign up for an account on Mastodon, a social media service being touted as an alternative to an Elon Musk–controlled Twitter. Because Mastodon is not a single, unified platform but a decentralized collection of federated servers, this was slightly more complicated than expected, confronting me immediately with choices I was not competent to make about what sort of experience I was hoping to have with “microblogging.” I had long been accustomed to not thinking about that, to accepting Twitter as given, as the way of the world, an experience beyond justification. It was like weather, something to cope with and complain about, but now it seemed I was being invited to try to control it, which is like being asked to contemplate a world without weather at all.
Without fully understanding the implications of what I was doing, I selected an “instance” of Mastodon for my new profile and logged on to find a completely blank site. There was nothing to populate my feed, no demonstration of an audience for any idea I might want to broadcast. I wanted this to feel liberating, as though I were getting a chance to start over and could do a Twitter-like thing for the right reasons again, but I couldn’t remember what they were exactly. As much as I still rely on Twitter for a sense of what is being discussed, the site had also trained me to think of the whole practice as cynical and corrupt, something that could only persist in a commercially incentivized form (it’s all hustling and self-promotion, all performing opinions) or as a bad habit with its own established momentum. I felt compelled to check Twitter because it felt like an easy way to be social without being social, but it came to feel embarrassing, as though eavesdropping were the only way to interact.
Nonetheless, the behavior that seemed rote on Twitter seemed even odder and more desperate in the void of my Mastodon environment, where there were no examples to follow and no pretense of the novel sort of collaborativity it felt like there was circa 2010 to sustain me. Why did it ever seem important to share links and add editorializing comments to them? What did I get out of pontificating to no one in particular, other than the occasional reward of equally abstract attention metrics? Did I really once make friends that way? Why would anyone “follow” me now, especially since I have no idea where I am going?
It’s probably still too soon to take anything Musk says as anything but an attempt to keep himself in the news, but apparently he is planning to monetize the inertia of established network effects, charging $8 a month for access to a moderated version of Twitter — and continued access to the cumulative labor that users have already put into their accounts, cultivating a persona, building a following, curating their feeds, training the algorithms, and so on — while counting on spammers and scammers and the like to make the non-moderated version entirely unusable (if firing lots of Twitter staff didn’t take care of that on its own).
To obfuscate the upshot of his subscription plan, Musk has conflated it with Twitter’s blue-checkmark verification system and invoked a snobs vs. slobs narrative to position charging users for access as a kind of democratization. As Edward Ongweso Jr. points out, this phony populism misidentifies who the elitists are, the people with wealth, not the people laboring for reputation.
Verification, for those who are required to have it, is primarily about preventing others from impersonating them; the checkmark indicates that they are vulnerable and perceived as targets. But some people want to (or pretend to) see it as an indicator of who is authorized to speak or who is worthy of being paid attention to — that it is just about relative celebrity. They sometimes pay lip service to the idea that such distinctions should not exist to push the idea that preferential access to attention should be available only to those willing and able to pay for it. Attention should not be earnable by anyone with any sort of agenda; it should serve as a proxy for existing power and the willingness to comply with it and reinforce it.
Corollary to this is the reactionary implication that no one really is verified for protection; that notion is just inflated vanity, not a precondition for the possibility of resisting power in a public forum. When blue checks claim they need verification for safety, they are just confessing their sense of entitlement to special self-serving rules. But those rules don’t simply serve the verified. Content moderation, as scholars like Tarleton Gillespie have noted, isn’t an optional service for a platform but its constitutive feature. Verification regimes are a component of that, helping establish a baseline of accountability and attribution for what people post, for better or worse. They aren’t primarily about status or generate the struggle for it; they are rather a by-product of the incentives that prevail in markets and necessary to managing those markets. But if you make a market of the market’s own ground rules — as selling verification would do — you don’t end up with a fair system but with universal corruption.
It’s unclear if current users would pay to subscribe to a Twitter where people had to pay to publish, making everything into sponcon. The dynamic that currently binds users to the site runs counter to that; the stakes are compelling because they are not so explicit. But one theory is that Musk has no choice but impose a subscription model. Matt Levine recently laid out the argument that Twitter, now with a huge debt to service and advertising revenue especially tenuous (at least according to this ad executive), has no choice but to impose a subscription model and hope enough users are too addicted to abstain.
In turn, one could romantically view Mastodon and similar protocols as the opposite of this: Whereas Twitter users are “masochists” (as Musk tweeted) who enjoy not only how the site exposes them to abuse but also how it emphatically imposes its rules, mores, and hierarchies on them, the “small web” or the “fediverse” allows addicted users to become genuine “people” again, capable of democratically debating the moderation standards of their communities in various citizens’ councils for all of perpetuity.
The “make addicts pay” model presupposes that Twitter’s addictive substance is at once deliberately calibrated and yet undilutable by the addition of fees and shakeups in the composition of audiences. When Levine half-seriously tries to consider the optimistic case for Twitter under Musk, he imagines that “it’s possible that he will make Twitter more pleasant to use, reducing spam and giving users more control over what they see and how they interact. It’s possible that the result will be a more customizable Twitter experience, where some people will choose a Twitter that is optimized for getting in fights and others will choose a Twitter that is optimized for keeping up with celebrity news or whatever.” That contradicts its masochistic appeal, which rests in enforcing the absence of choice. One doesn’t get to consciously optimize Twitter for the experience they want to have but is instead brought to bear witness to all sorts of encounters and trends they still want to be able to disavow. “The hell site made me commit discourse.”
Likewise, I’m skeptical when Alexis Madrigal suggests, in a thread about Twitter as the last gasp of text-based internet culture, that online writing “could be better than ever freed from Scale.” Tweeting isn’t just writing. On Twitter, the possibilities and implications of scale (as an aspiration, as a constraint on attention, as productive of unpredictable context collapse, as a limit on the efficacy of content moderation) shaped the kind of text produced (and Twitter is hardly all text but most often a hybrid of text, image, links, and vectoral metrics that all work rhetorically). I admit that I am a text-centric dinosaur and will never go to TikTok for ideas discourse, and pace Navneet Alang, it’s not only because I have a face made for Twitter. But I don’t think writing as a form is intrinsically “special” or morally resistant to what Twitter managed to make of it. Linking writing to scale made possible new and often dubious ways for it to be “better” and those specific pleasures can’t automatically be replicated elsewhere simply by working with the same words. Twitter, like the other more visually oriented platforms, is a mode of circulation as much as a means of expression, a kind of social game that people have learned to play in different ways, and they are attached to that mode of playing. They don’t want their chess to turn into checkers.
Musk buying Twitter seems to have reawakened that fantasy that something could happen that would subtract “social” from “media” and make them operate separately again (as if that ever were the case). The interpretation that Izabella Kaminska offers of Musk’s move to subscriptions has that flavor: She describes it as “reconfiguring Twitter’s funding model into one that isn’t dependent on you being the product.” She draws on a post she wrote in 2016, where she claimed that “the ‘fake news’ scandal has led us to question whether the news and information we have been consuming online for nothing was ever being generated in our interests.” She argues that seemingly free access to various forms of information online depended on investor subsidies and came with the cost of legitimizing “business models that profit from morally ambiguous situations.”
Where traditional media institutions feared to tread with advertising-funded models because of a belief in editorial responsibility, balance and context, social media platforms — free from any industry codes of conduct — moved right in. The lines between editorial, advertising, entertainment and political propaganda became entirely blurred in the quest for clicks.
Making Twitter users pay for access, in Kaminska’s view, would bring “pricing transparency” to the informational ecosystem and would be a step toward unblurring those lines — subtracting the social from media to protect regimes of “truth.” Only by making “previously free stuff extremely expensive” can we escape the “path where we knowingly give up on democracy and autonomy in favor of the protection of strong man systems that continue to give us free stuff providing we never disagree with them.” In this scenario, Musk is the anti-Zuckerberg, offering a transparent market for ideas instead of venture-funded surveillance capitalism. That seems hard to reconcile with Musk’s apparent political leanings, let alone his evident sociopathic tendencies.
Twitter, like other social media platforms, doesn’t just provide access to information but also to a sense of interpersonal connection; like the term social media suggests, it mediates sociality. That sounds dumb and obvious, but a decade ago, this was genuinely novel, to think of “being connected” as a viable form of conviviality beyond the requirement of physical co-presence, one that made possible new kinds of interaction at different degrees of scale, hybridizing feelings of isolation, participation, and submergence in a mass. Social media companies concretized and commodified these possibilities, subsuming them and circumscribing how we conceive of them and what pleasures we take in them. This affects everyone, regardless of whether they use social media personally, because the platforms inflect sociality in all its forms.
So even though the share prices of social media companies are tumbling, the idea of social media will be resilient. After Facebook’s stock dropped by as much as 25% after its earnings report, many commentators were eager to pronounce the company extinct, a MySpace in the making. To try to debunk that idea, Ben Thompson points out that the company’s sites are still adding daily active users, its TikTok clone is gaining some traction, and its advertising business is recovering from Apple’s monkey wrench. But mainly he insists that “the company’s core competency was in addressing a human desire that wasn’t going anywhere.”
As much as I wish that weren’t true, and that commercial social media were an aberration or a mass delusion or some kind of trick that we’ll all eventually see through, too much time and money have been spent on building that desire up, shaping it and promoting it and experiencing it in the accreting forms that platforms have supplied it with. Those forms are not just about happy sharing and friendship or some fundamental and universal principles of human social connection; they are particular to the platforms that nurtured them and can’t yet be easily separated from them. Part of that derives from the work people have invested in their profiles and want to believe can be salvaged. But platforms shape desire through the frustration that they deliver, the conflict and risk and misrecognition they generate, the commercial milieu that animates their stakes, the masochistic feelings of being dominated by them. Our attachments to platforms are not necessarily rational; what we get out of them isn’t all that connected to having or making unilateral choices, even as this is what the interfaces often foreground.
What alternative platforms like Mastodon may require to succeed is not just some critical mass of users or some broader fluency in how to navigate their interfaces. They may also need to facilitate some of the frustration and antagonism that their developers may have aspired precisely to forestall. They will need to seem more useful than they really are, to remind us of possibilities beyond usefulness. They will have to alienate us as much as ground us. They will have to seethe with the contradictions that define what it feels like to belong to a society.
Thanks for reading. Subscribe for free to receive new posts.