by Jon Lebkowsky
I wrote this for the annual “State of the World” conversation on the WELL, and decided to post it here as well. Context: Bruce Sterling had posted about the Bluesky platform as an alternative to X (the former Twitter)…
Speaking of Xitter and Bluesky, Helene von Bismarck had an op-ed in yesterday’s The Guardian about the former Twitter: “Twitter changed my life for good. But the platform I loved no longer exists”
A couple of choice quotes:
“What was a busy global public forum now resembles an aggressive wasteland filled with hate and rumour.”
“When everyone is more concerned with what they stand for, as opposed to with what they know, meaningful conversation becomes impossible. There is no more analysis, only judgment. Every heavy social-media user turns into a mini-embassy, and a binary worldview sets in, as can now be observed in the online reactions to the war between Israel and Hamas. This trend towards aggressive over-simplification and emotionalisation started long before Elon Musk took over Twitter, although things have become infinhaitely worse since then.”
We had relative stability of corporate social media platforms for a while, with Facebook and Twitter dominating. Both had significant network effects, switching costs were high, there wasn’t meaningful competition. Enshittification was indeed happening, but not quite enough to drive people away. This is still the case with Facebook, but Twitter’s another story. A story I probably don’t have to tell here, because it’s been so well covered: Elon Musk bought the platform and found ways to accelerate enshittification near the speed of light. People were leaving in droves – partly because alternatives had emerged. Bruce mentions Bluesky, a project that started within Twitter and is led by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The current platform is supposed to be part of a federated system, but other platforms for that network haven’t appeared. Bluesky has been growing organically as invite codes are doled out to current members, who invite new members.
There are a couple of other major contenders for Twitter expatriates, Mastodon and Threads. Mastodon is a truly decentralized federated system that runs over many servers, and has no corporate involvement – it’s built with free, open-source software and runs on independent nodes and are networked – they can share data, so a post on one node can quickly appear on other nodes. As Twitter became X, many of its users bailed on the system and moved to Mastodon, which had been around for several years. It’s part of a larger network, referred to as The Fediverse – where nodes of other apps and platforms are also federated and can share data.
Threads is connected to Instagram, a project of Meta, i.e. Facebook. Its strength is in existing network effect – it already had a user base from Instagram and Facebook, and many of those users became quickly active when the system was available – a path of least resistance to a Twitter replacement.
Bluesky and Threads are both likely to connect in some way to the Fediverse, and if they do, users of any of those platforms should be able to share with members of other platforms. I.e. we’d have interoperability, and the monopoly on users and data that evolved in the Facebook/Twitter era will fade away in favor of interoperable systems and shared data. This is the way it should’ve been in the first place, following the commitment to open standards and data sharing that was prominent in the early Internet, before greed and resulting enshittification. We can hope.
Meanwhile Twitter is still leaking users and losing money; its chance of survival diminishes every day. And all those Twitter users have spread to multiple systems, some settling on Mastodon, some on Bluesky, some on Threads. I personally use all three of those systems, but I’m crazy.
The Internet has been mainstreaming since the early 1990s, around three decades, which might seem like a long time – but its a drop in the bucket in the context of the history of media all the way back to the advent of movable type. Expect evolution. The day may come when we think of Twitter and Facebook the way we currently think of Friendster and Myspace – platforms we used for a while until something that made more sense came along.