With all the recent drama around Twitter and with Facebook circling closer and closer to the drain, my head has been swirling with thoughts about social networking and its effects on my life. It feels like the era of the original giants is coming to an end. The network effect will surely keep Twitter and Facebook around for years to come in one form or another, but in November 2022, the old monolithic platforms are fracturing.
My relationship with social media reflects my behavior in the real world. I'm definitely an introvert, and do not often share personal details or thoughts unprompted. It comes down to the nature of opinions: everyone has their personal view of the world, and sharing it with others seems a little pointless. I suppose people can bond over having similar views and interests, as a form of entertainment and camaraderie. Personally, I seek very little social interaction in the real world; the everyday family life is quite enough.
Back in the day when Facebook was getting started, it was quite a cool, new experience. Wow, dynamic HTML, how about that! I quite fondly remember using Facebook as a communication tool for Doomsday Engine development, and for playing silly browser games. It was an unexplored frontier in the computing world, and the potential of millions (eventually billions) of users in one place seemed thrilling. Twitter was likewise a revelation: a simple messaging service on the web where you can submit posts via SMS from your pre-iPhone dumb phone? 🤯 (Back then, accessing the web on your phone wasn't really a thing.)
Over the years, I've been through cycles of getting more invested in blogging and social media and then growing cold to it again. I suppose my introversion makes it challenging to maintain an active participation as I eventually burn out.
Facebook fell by the wayside first as it outlived its usefulness to me. The service had grown complex and heavy, with dozens of features to navigate and settings to manage. The magnitude of the privacy invasion had started to become clear. It no longer felt nimble and fun, and I no longer used it for communicating with my friends. Twitter hung on much longer thanks to its simplicity, and because I preferred third-party clients that did not have an algorithmic timeline. I'm a feed completionist: I'll try to read everything that the people or entities I follow post, as if it were an RSS news feed. The algorithmic timeline puts way too much control in the hands of the network operator, allowing it to shape your experience (with the ultimate goal of maximizing advertisement profits, I wager). No engagement maximization for me, thank you.
The core characteristic of a social network is its power structure: who pays the bills, who profits from what, who owns the data, and who controls what you see on the network. Giving all the control and data ownership to a single company seems wrong and unfair. Is giving away your time, attention, and witty remarks ("content") really worthwhile when it primarily serves to cushion the bank account of a U.S. or Chinese company? There is a choice we now get to make.
I've become increasingly self-reliant when it comes to computing services. Of course, I still have to pay for what I use, as there are no free lunches: self-hosting takes time, technical know-how, and at least some modest investments in hardware, and you get to foot the electricity and internet access bills. In exchange, you have full control and ownership of your digital life.
I've been using Mastodon for a number of years now. It seems I started in August 2016 by registering on mastodon.social (like a n00b). The skyjake.fi Mastodon server has been up since November 2019. Mastodon — or more accurately, the ActivityPub based fediverse — has slowly shifted to become my primary social network, in no small part thanks to being able to run my own server, and having the control and ownership thus afforded.
I sometimes think that it would be nice to post on Mastodon more often. Then I start pondering too much about the performer/audience relationship, what exactly am I trying to communicate, and why would anyone care about it. The overthinking is not compatible with how a social network fundamentally operates. However, one's audience is ultimately unknown, uncontrollable, and ever-shifting. Its fluctuations are based on serendipity. But that mostly doesn't even matter. Trying to adapt one's communications for an imagined, unknowable audience doesn't really benefit anyone. You shouldn't worry about how other people invest their attention. Instead, one should talk about the things that interest and excite oneself the most, in the form that one enjoys the most. This way the message is of the highest quality and the most genuine.
The scoring system of likes/faves and retweets/boosts is a key part of the engagement apparatus of a social network, giving people a reason to become invested, delivering the sweet, addictive dopamine hits as a reward for popularity. But it quickly becomes detrimental to one's mental wellbeing. On a centralized system like Twitter, comparing the numbers becomes a way to rank people by "clout", i.e., the more likes and retweets you have, the better a person you are. Fame equals fortune. Not a great mindset for an inexperienced and insecure youth, for instance. It's easy to forget that the fickle nature of the network and people's wandering attention make it all a big, unfair lottery. What's worse, the more people participate in the game, the bigger the jackpots are, and the smaller the chance of being rewarded.
Large networks should be avoided, then? Smaller ones certainly have a more pleasant vibe. Let's consider Geminispace, for example. The community around Gemini has built its own little social network of gemlog feeds, much like modern Gopher has its phlogosphere. Gemlog aggregation by its nature is a centralizing force, but there are multiple aggregators that reflect some subsets of Geminispace, and many gemlogs are on self-hosted, individual servers. In other words, Geminispace is quite decentralized (although it has its Flounders and Pubs, too). I find it fits quite well together with the fediverse as an autonomous, no-frills place to share longer-form structured content, free of corporate influence. While Mastodon provides a modern and bustling web-oriented social platform, for me this gemlog is a calm respite, perfect for deep thoughts and diligent correspondence.
The heterogeneous nature of the fediverse is interesting: a collective of loosely and tightly interconnected social networks of varying size, with some isolated bubbles here and there. Metrics are not that comparable across instances, so it's fitting that Mastodon de-emphasizes them. While virality and metrics-oriented audience-building can still happen, the permeable walls between instances act as a protective membrane. A community's internal group identity and collective voice take on a more central role. I think this nicely reflects the societies of the real world. After all, people of all walks of life, of all ages, with different backgrounds and life experiences, don't generally intermingle socially in real life. The world is filled with friend and hobby groups, families, sports teams, students, colleagues, and other such groupings built on some shared foundation. A global free-for-all network like Twitter is fundamentally a bad idea in my opinion: while it theoretically gives everyone a voice and access to a wide spectrum of diverse viewpoints and opinions, in practice this inevitably leads to conflict and misery as ideologies and motivations clash and people accidentally or willingly mistreat each other — and to make things worse, on the internet people are generally less accountable for toxic behavior. Humans have evolved to socialize in reasonably small communities, not in an echo chamber with a hundred million strangers.
The ability to communicate online should not be under the thrall of profit-seekers. Our voices should not be controlled by financial interests.
The original Gemtext version of this page can be accessed with a Gemini client: gemini://skyjake.fi/gemlog/2022-11_mastodo.gmi