It started with dribs and drabs – like many diasporas. A few weeks ago, a few concerned souls – their feet still in Twitter – began exploring other options: Counter Social… Tribel… Mastodon. When Elon fired half of Twitter’s employees – Elon’s version of Kristallnacht – that caused the first real “gush” of Twitter refugees. When Elon issued his Tuesday Edict that, by Thursday, everyone had to commit to being hardcore or quit, that’s when the flood began. That’s when it became clear that Elon had “other plans” for Twitter. Continuing as “Twitter” wasn’t one of them. The great digital diaspora began.
The smartest of the smart started worrying this would happen the instant Elon Musk began toying with buying Twitter. Then, clearly, Elon’s ego was at the helm. While Jack Dorsey and his board of directors weren’t the ideal stewards of this public square – that’s what Twitter was – they still had to answer to Twitter’s shareholders. Again, hardly ideal where accountability is concerned, but at least there is some accountability. A single individual owning an app like Twitter – the world’s information crossroads – has disaster written all over it because it comes with zero accountability. Elon can always take his ball and go home.
Funny thing, in essence, that’s what Elon’s doing!
Except, it’s not actually Elon’s ball. Elon may have signed the $44 billion check, but the $44 billion wasn’t his exactly. Sure, sure, Elon leveraged lots of his Tesla stock to do this, but he had lots of financial help here. And none of it comes free of charge. Elon will owe a whack of interest shortly. He’ll have to pay it even as his bauble’s value diminishes by the moment – because of Elon!
If we think of Elon buying Twitter as just that – a rich man buying a toy he shouldn’t have bought – we get a picture of hubris. Elon started life a rich man. He’s not an inventor. He’s put his money into a couple of worthwhile ventures and seen those ventures succeed. Hello, capitalism! But, what that really means is that the majority of the money in Elon’s pocket really doesn’t belong to him. In truth (and fairness), it should belong to the people who actually created the technologies, imagined the systems needed to build these products, manned the assembly lines (as much as they were “manned”) and even mined the resources that ended up in Elon’s cars and rockets.
In America, we are especially guilty of thinking rich people deserve their riches and that being rich makes them smarter. That’s stupidity on steroids. It’s why we keep rewarding greed then wondering why things keep turning to shit. Greed never makes anyone smarter. And it never produces good outcomes for anyone other than the greedy.
But then, that’s the whole point!
I suspect that the reason Elon Musk “acquired” Twitter and what he did with it in the end are not the same. Elon tried like hell to get out of this deal. Understandable. Elon overpaid a bomb for a bauble.
But, something changed. When it became clear to Elon that Twitter’s board wasn’t letting him out of the deal, he altered his course.
From the outside, we all expected Elon to do everything in his power to try and make his bauble profitable. If the only thing he’d done was reinstate Donald Trump’s account, that might could have appeared like an attempt at profitability. Plenty of Twitterers would have left Twitter but not for long. There was no viable alternative to Twitter out there. There were social media platforms like Twitter. Mastodon has been around since 2016. But Twitter, really, was unlike any other social media platform.
Why Twitter Flew So High
With Facebook, you have to be invited in to the relationship. The person being followed leads the dance. In Twitter’s environment, it’s the opposite. Twitter is a virtual version Speakers Corner in London’s Hyde Park. We all enter the Twitter Town Square with a soap box under our arms. Walking around the square, we find lots of people already up on their soap boxes. Some speak the news. Other speak politics or art or cats or whatever. If we like what we hear, we stop for a while and listen.
If what we’ve heard sparks a reaction in us, we can raise our hand and heckle or second – in real time – just as if we were really at Speakers Corner. Or any public square. If we have things to sell? We can sell them here. Even if they’re just the ideas in our heads. We’ll put down our soap box, step up onto it and hope we, too, can attract an audience.
It’s simple. A crossroads of information perfect for buyers and sellers of information. Or goods and services.
This is why every news organization went to Twitter. When newsmakers want to break their news? They take it to Twitter. They know the whole world will hear them there. Well, used to hear them there.
What’s Elon Up To?
Elon is deliberately flushing $44 billion down the toilet. Why is he doing that? And why is he doing it with such insouciance?
Journalist Kara Swisher has interviewed Elon maybe more than anyone. The other night, on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show, she said that Elon today is not the Elon she interviewed. “He’s changed” is how she put it.
Yeah. It seems Elon has changed. We need to know why. I bet Elon’s pal Vlad Putin could shed some light on Elon’s sudden shift.
The Diaspora Begins
Last week was remarkable for a lot of reasons. Twitter going into a death spiral – that’s one of them. Also remarkable though was the way so many people fled the Twitterverse for one particular alternative: Mastodon – and the Fediverse.
On Friday, Twitter was busy as ever. Mastodon was peaceful. A few folks from my Twitter feed had migrated but they weren’t posting much if at all on Mastodon. By Sunday morning (today), my Twitter feed had become a ghost town while my Mastodon feed was vibrantly alive. Kicking, too! In all the best ways.
One can’t blame people for wishful thinking. Lots of us dreamed of a “white knight” to deus ex machina a way out of this. The DoJ might very well investigate Elon for doing this. By the time that gets done though, Twitter will be long gone.
By the end of the week, we were all saying good-byes to Twitter and to each other. As if “we’d never meet again this side of Heaven”. We weren’t really saying goodbye to each other. We were saying good-bye to an information-rich public square we understood and wished would continue.
The instant Elon reinstated Trump’s account, he’d eliminated all doubt as to his ultimate intention. Elon’s not relying on Trump returning to Twitter. Trump really can’t. That’d be the end of Truth Social. Elon’s relying on Trumpanistas to re-flood the Twitter zone. To make Twitter everything Truth Social never could be.
The fly in Elon’s ointment is this: Twitter succeeded because the world’s content providers saw it as a perfect environment for their content and their aspirations. Kill the environment and the content will stop coming. Remember how it is in “Field Of Dreams” – “If you build it, they will come”? In social media like Twitter, if you tear it down, they will go away.
From a content-provider’s POV, Mastodon is 90% like Twitter. The public square dynamic is exactly the same – albeit kinder and gentler. The true advantage lies in this public square’s architecture. Whereas Twitter had one main server – a gateway through which everyone on Twitter must pass – Mastodon (because it’s a Fediverse – a federation of servers) doesn’t. There can be any number of servers in the Fediverse. Each individual can be a server unto themselves if they choose. This means simply that access to the whole network requires different entry points for everyone.
Also – whereas everyone working at Twitter was an employee, Mastodon is truly more democratic. The people manning Mastodon’s countless servers are all volunteers. They enjoy their work but they also enjoy being tipped (on a regular basis especially). No Elons. No Bezoses. Billionaires have no more power here than anyone else.
No billionaire can turn off the lights (or lock the doors) and be the public square’s arbiter. Wow. What an innovation!
To be honest, as I head deeper into the digital diaspora created by Twitter’s pillaging, I think less and less of Twitter. It sucks having to start from scratch (again – I’ve lost two Twitter accounts to suspension). But it’s doable. In fact, having a relatively nascent public square before us presents lots of great opportunity!
Mastodon really is a Brave New World – but in a good way. And, it turns out, being in the digital diaspora? It’s actually preferable to where we were.
Well played, Elon. You putz.