Learning out Loud in Milwaukee, WI

On Twitter and social media stuff

I was an early adopter of Twitter, I suppose. It was founded in 2006 and I think I created my account in 2007 or 2008. There were only a handful of people I knew with an account and it was a pretty exciting time to be a user. Back then, you could use the website, an app, SMS, Jabber … and probably other ways I forgot about. The purpose of it has changed a lot since then, as have how we use our phones and how companies like Twitter allow us to use them to interact with their service.

What we’re allowed to do is the bit I keep coming back to. Twitter has steadily constricted the ways its users are allowed to engage with each other while making minimal improvements to how the remaining avenues work.

They’re not all bad, per se. “Retweeting” has been a part of Twitter since the beginning but it used to be clunky and lossy. The retweet button and quote tweet feature was a big improvement on that, as was using a first party service for adding images and link shortening. Those make the thing better but it’s incremental improvements to match existing behavior.

A lot of those improvements were aimed at measuring the reach of a given post. Once retweets were formalized, they could also be counted. At some point Twitter made a decision that they were a platform for promotion of speech rather than microblogging, a phenomenon they didn’t invent but certainly helped popularize. It’s interesting to read the original Kottke.org piece about microblogging (“tumblelogs” as they were known in 2005) as a reaction to what blogging had become but 2005 because there are real parallels to where Twitter is today.

blog entries turned into short magazine articles, and posts belonged to a conversation distributed throughout the entire blogosphere.

Kottke.org, October 2005

The thing that made Twitter unique in the past was the freedom to publish from a variety of sources with constraints. You had about a text message’s worth of characters you could tweet, which made it really hard to say a lot of stuff. There was no edit button (there still isn’t, fwiw) so saying things precisely or elegantly was difficult and there was a lot of leniency for people who got things wrong.

These days, you can “thread“ tweets of 280 characters together into what are basically blog posts. Each tweet is a concise paragraph, or part of one, and if you string enough of them together you can say quite a lot without a ton of effort. I suppose we should thank Twitter for encouraging pithy paragraphs, but I’m not sure we should give them that much credit. You can just string together as many of them as you want and now you’re just as long winded as I am on this blog.

Again, though, people were already doing it and rather than continue to make it hard to read and write, Twitter, to their credit, made it a little better. All of these little improvements added up to turning twitter into a closed platform, with high stakes, and low barrier to entry. Now, every tweet needs to be thought out, drafted in advance, and threaded with appropriate context if you want anybody to see it (unless you’re already ludicrously powerful on Twitter) and that basically makes it a platform for punditry.

So what do we do now that well intentioned shareholder-driven leadership has given way to … arbitrary chaos? A lot of people are jumping on Mastodon, which feels, to me, like what Twitter could have been if users had driven development instead of shareholder value. But it’s far from perfect. For one, the character count is absurdly high, in my opinion. Another is that while the “benevolent dictator for life” of Mastodon seems to have better intentions than the current leader of Twitter, Eugen Rochko still describes himself as a dictator and acts like one particularly, by stonewalling popular and useful improvements.

Still there’s a lot to like in a federated and open source microblogging platform and that’s why I’m excited less by Mastodon and more by the possibilities of Activity Pub, the underlying technology. Seeing other incumbents in the microblogging space like Tumblr jump into the decentralized content creation and aggregation game.

Another thing we can all do is start blogging again. I for one have annual ambitions to start blogging more but always seem to eke out only about three or four posts. I fall back on Twitter and not feeling like I have a lot to say on my blog. But I’m joining Bring Back Blogging to commit to blogging at least three times in January.

I’m excited to get back into things that aren’t centralized, and blogging is about the least centralized avenue available to us right now. And that’s maybe the best thing Elon Musk is doing to the web by turning Twitter into an anti-Semitic, fascist-sympathizing cesspool. We’ve all collectively been on autopilot on Twitter: a single, proprietary, platform, and we’re seeing the consequences of being so dependent on that regime. Fortunately, there’s no reason we can’t find the tools to replace Twitter’s realtime news distribution platform with a more decentralized suite of tools that work for the different groups of people who need to use it.

Content management systems can integrate with Activity Pub or allow individual authors to maintain independent websites or official news feeds so readers can follow local journalists and stay on top of ongoing events just like they do on Twitter. In doing so we can lower the bar for what’s worth posting on our own websites. We can own the content and socialize it out at the same time. For the first time in a while, it’s an exciting time to be online.