Are Mastodon and Gab here to help or hurt?
Regulars here know all about my ongoing struggle with Twitter, the social media equivalent of the South Station bathroom, where nothing good can happen, but where sometimes, you’ve no choice but to go.
At least my own icky feelings toward Twitter aren’t also lonely ones.
Recently Twitter has seemed to soak up its status as every decent person’s least favorite platform after CEO Jack Dorsey’s decision to allow conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to remain stinking up the service with hot garbage (after major platforms like YouTube and Facebook finally cracked down and booted him), followed by the half-reversal of that decision (they temporarily suspended Jones), and Dorsey’s subsequent press junket, which only served to muddy the waters of his swamp.
Some point to Dorsey as a lousy proverbial parent, allowing abuses to go unchecked, and ultimately define what goes on under his roof. Others point to the users, who in the true spirit of the times, aren’t here to make friends. And others point to the nature and structure of Twitter itself, which forces thoughts into outbursts, turns any idea into something more like a projectile, and ushers discussion past you at untenable speeds. (Even the most reasonable tweetstorm still comes off as hyperventilation.)
Twitter’s well-intended recent deletion of millions of fake accounts was meant to assuage fears that the service had been taken over by trolls and Russian bots, but it just ended up rattling investors who saw a dip in the numbers. Meanwhile, those numbers of actual-human Twitter users have plateaued over the last two years. And users all across the ideological spectrum — from those who just want “free speech” to those who just want freedom from those who want “free speech” — are starting to wonder what’s keeping them there.
Cue the rise of the alt-Twitters.
A viral tweet this past week launched a Twitter-esque social media site called Mastodon into the spotlight. In it, founder and lead developer Eugen Rochko offered a simple response to a user’s question about Mastodon removal of alt-right groups: “Nazis are bad and I don’t want to given them a platform for recruiting.”
It was the kind of response that many tweeters were awaiting from Dorsey to no avail; and suddenly, Mastodon’s membership jumped by some 80,000 members according to a report in Esquire.
The site itself feels like a more complicated Twitter — in that there are several timelines or “instances” split up across topics and userbases — but after a little time, it starts to make sense, and the reasoning becomes clear. An emphasis on discussion feels implicit in the architecture; there’s less of a mob rule, and arguing would feel strange to do in its relative quiet. In its ethos are shades of Ello — destination of the last great (doomed) social media exodus. Whether more than its million-and-a-half current users will decamp from tweeting and start faithfully “tooting” (yikes) remains to be seen.
On the opposite, arguably swampier end of the swamp, is Gab. An “alternative” to Twitter in the sense that the “alt-right” is an “alternative” to something (as opposed to just a reaction). Subbing out Twitter’s bird for a Pepe-inspired frog, and the former’s blue for a Kermit green, the site makes establishing its difference and freedom (I guess?) from Twitter the top priority. In fact, most of what I read on Gab seemed to be there just to prove that it could stay there.
Fresh from the protective confines of my liberal bubble, I didn’t have much luck finding friends (or even long-forgotten contacts) on Gab. But the menu of features and the sparsely populated available public timeline of random Gabbers together gave me a good sense of the particular swamp upon which the platform is built.
A Video portal opens onto an assembled grid of user-posted clips like “Charlottesville Mom is the same actor as Sandy Hook Mom,” “The Fake News is the Enemy of the People,” and (as if on cue), “Infowars LIVE.” A Groups page gathers Gabbers by the dozens into forums like “The New Awakening” (its logo a swastika), “Hot Women,” “Leftist Tears,” “Build the Wall,” “Smoked Meats,” and “American Patriot Reality Check.”
Over my several months on Gab, the one non-pornbot that followed me out of the blue (or green, as it were) is a grinning blonde-haired blue-eyed woman with a bio quote about tyranny and a string of posts linking to articles like, “A Once Beautiful #German Town Is ‘Unrecognisable’ After it Accepted 1,200 Feral Beasts” and “#Diversity...Young Man Dies While trying To Protect His Girlfriend From Three Feral Beasts in #Greece.”
And while the user posts I can access as a friendless Gabber remain few and far (i.e. several hours) between, it’s near impossible to find among them a single post that isn’t aggressively political or ideological. Every meme, joke, user, and post on Gab seems to be doing the same work.
Like Mastodon (and like mastodons), Gab’s viability seems highly iffy, and underpopulation is just one endangering factor. Microsoft, which provides cloud services to Gab, threatened to pull those services if the service didn’t remove a user’s post threatening “ritual death by torture” against Jewish people. (Gab acquiesced and removed the post, saying they had “no choice.”)
In some ways, it’s a relief for both of these populations to quit savaging each other and find their own space. A sense of stable consensus can make comfort feel less fleeting.
But at the same time, this isolation means our platforms (for better or worse) offer a far less faithful reflection of the public who signs on. Staying on Twitter means suffering its fools; but does leaving it mean picking sides?