When September ends

The death of twitter and the migration to Mastodon is a good thing — as long as we don’t make it Mastodon’s Eternal September.

There was a time in the early internet when it was available only inside large organisations — universities especially. Users of Usenet — the original (or ancestor, if you prefer) social networking platform — came to expect their discussion groups would get disrupted each September by another influx of student freshers. Immature and new to the conventions of online discussion, at best they barged in like Mr Blobby, oblivious to the chaos they were causing. At worst, giddy with the excitement of discovering a new world of attention seeking, bullying and anonymous trolling. 

The freshers would quickly learn that this behaviour gets boring fast. They’d either absorb the social norms of the net, or discover better hobbies. September would end and the discussions could carry on as before. That is, until 1993. In 1993, domestic dial-up really took off and the AOL generation flooded in. It was the September that never ended, and the culture never quite recovered.

The Mastodon Fediverse has been incredibly welcoming of the current influx of twitter escapees, but established community members must be looking with a little trepidation at the stress it is putting on the culture of the network.

Twitter 2010

A recurring comment from so many people settling in on Mastodon is “this is like how Twitter was a decade ago”. And a recurring comment from established users is that Mastodon is not a twitter clone — it doesn’t have the same functionality as Twitter, and functionality that looks superficially analogous is subtly different.

These comments are both correct, because the core user experience Twitter had a decade ago looks more like Mastodon’s current core user experience than it does today’s Twitter.

On Mastodon, the feed is a straightforward timeline, displaying posts from people you follow in chronological order. On Mastodon you “favourite” a post by hitting the star icon; it does nothing except tell the author of the post that you appreciated them posting it. On Mastodon you cannot “quote” a post and add your own thoughts to it, for your followers to see; if you want to contribute something to what was said, you reply to the original post. On Mastodon, if you want to browse topics outside of the people you’re following — or if you want to want to make your posts discoverable to non-followers — you need to actively use hashtags; the algorithm won’t simply guess what you want to see and serve it up to you without asking.

We’re constantly reminded: this doesn’t work like Twitter.

The star-shaped “favourite” button is not Twitter’s heart “like” button — it does not boost the content in an opaque algorithm, or help the post “do the numbers”. There is no “quote” function to allow you to post some superficial dunk inviting a pile-on of your followers, while amplifying some bad opinion that we’d all have been better off not seeing. There is no endless feed of viral content to scroll, you have to actively think about what you want to follow and what you’re even using social media for.

But it does work like Twitter! It works exactly like the Twitter that so many of us signed up to, and which was so useful to us — right down to the shape and label of that favourite button.

Some of us have been attempting, with ever diminishing success, to cling on to that Twitter. My perspective on what Twitter became is warped by the fact that for a decade I’ve been using it largely through Tweetdeck, to maintain the chronological timeline of people I choose to follow, and avoid the algorithm. I’ve tried to filter the noise by curating lists, and with liberal use of muted terms, blocklists and selective retweet silencing. As the culture of the site shifted to one that encourages shouting at strangers above all else, I switched notifications to hide @mentions from randoms who were neither follower nor followee.

But it was impossible to escape the fact that, even following chronological timelines and curated lists, the content was increasingly shaped by the new functionality and the behaviour it encouraged. We signed up to chat with friends, to organise, to learn and to discover interesting things. And slowly the machine swallowed up all the friends and all the interesting people until all the content was the same and no amount of curating your experience of the site could escape it.

The #bbcqt generation

The argument against this being Mastodon’s Eternal September, then, is that the functionality just isn’t there for the Fediverse to turn into what Twitter became. It has consciously rejected the features that enabled Twitter to become the hell site.

But lots of things happened along the journey from the Twitter of 2010, and it’s hard to disentangle which of them drove the demise of the old Twitter, and which simply reflected it.

I half-jokingly blamed the demise of the site’s usefulness, and the decay of its culture, on BBC Question Time — one of the Oxbridge-dominated media’s many projects to ensure British politics resembles a university debate club, where people perform opinions they often don’t believe in order to win a game. Some people on Twitter were tweeting along to programmes like Question Time, which was fine, I guess. Until the programme makers picked up on this and started encouraging people to tweet along. Here’s a website where you can join in with what we’re doing here, they said. Sign up and start shouting at strangers who are watching the same show as you.

I think that really was the start of Twitter’s Eternal September. Maybe not #bbcqt exactly, but the wider trend it was part of. The moment when people stopped signing up for the things that the old Twitter offered, and instead were coming for what the site is today. The changes to Twitter functionality may have encouraged and rewarded the behaviour that turned it into what it is today, but the functionality it already had was more than enough to set it on that path once it had built up the user base for it. Retweets, old fashioned manual quote tweets, mentions and hashtags were plenty enough to drive conflict-fuelled viral content once there was the audience for it.

Leaving Twitter behind

Though I joined Mastodon 5 years ago, I’d not really been very active or built a large network there until this past week, so I won’t try to speak for the established community on what the culture and norms of behaviour there should be. Instead, I’ll recommend that émigrés from Twitter use this as an opportunity to pause and reflect on what they were getting from social media, versus what they had hoped to get when they signed up. This is an opportunity not just to leave twitter dot com, but to leave behind what it became — and what it made people do.

I’ve already seen people treating the site like a clone, continuing the behaviour they’ve learned from the other place. Twitter rewarded you for rage tweeting about every little stupid thing said by a five-follower troll or a pundit-for-hire who has stupid opinions to a deadline every day — and it rewarded the people producing those stupid opinions in the process, propagating their fame and influence.

In the active travel campaigning corner of twitter, it rewarded you for QTing blokes with two dormant followers, a bunch of numbers in their names and a footballer in their header, who said something about cyclists being in their way. It rewarded you for amplifying astroturf think tanks with an agenda you hate, and for shouting “look at the latest stupid thing this idiot talk radio jock has tweeted”.

I don’t want to tell people they must stop doing that sort of thing, if that’s what they really enjoy doing with their social media. But is it?

I’m not saying don’t fight bad ideas, and with appropriate levels of righteous anger, sarcasm and mockery. I called one of my blogs At War With The Motorist — I’m never going to tell you not to take the piss out of bad takes or be angry at bad actors. It’s just, I already know that some people have shitty ideas about road tax, I don’t need you to keep sharing with me every single one that you encounter. We created Cycling Fallacies so you could deal with them in one click and we could all spend our time doing something more fun or useful than fighting with them.

Look, I’m not telling anyone how to toot. I’m just saying, it’s nice here. Let’s try not to make this Mastodon’s Eternal September.

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