Muscle Memory of Our Online Lives

In the wake of the news that the sale of Twitter was “more or less a done deal” (not my words, but seemingly everyone’s sentiment) I saw many folks in my timeline openly opine about where they’d be moving their primary online presence once the ink was dry on the sales contract. Some others — equally rational and thoughtfully progressive people — refused to abandon the platform, or at best stated that they were taking a “wait and see” approach.

I and a few others opted to revisit Mastodon, the decentralized “federated” social platform that is probably the only platform deserving of the sobriquet “network”. I’ll point you to our resident Mastodon scholar Belghast for his “Fediverse for Noobs” primer if you want to learn more about it. “Mastodon” (the generic term I’m using for this entire platform) originally came to attention back when Twitter refused to clamp down on harassment and threats against LGBTQ+ users; many of them fled Twitter for Mastodon in enough numbers that some tech sites referred to it at the time as a “Twitter alternative”. After a while, the hype faded and many of us who had poked our head into the Fediverse to see what it was about ended up leaving or at least stopped checking to see how its adolescence was progressing. With Twitter once again applying pressure in all the wrong ways, Mastodon once again came to the fore. At first blush (and with the “advanced” layout turned on), Mastodon can look very much like my beloved Tweetdeck, with multiple columns of organized users, but there are a lot of technical differences between the two, not to mention a very real feeling of “culture shock” between the openly public Twitter and the more cloistered and curated Mastodon.

It’s been for these reasons that I have to admit that I haven’t been giving the Fediverse the attention that I had intended, and I don’t know, now, if I intend to going forward. I can abide by rules, but there are factors in the way the Fediverse — or more specifically the instances I have joined, as each one can be customized to their community’s liking — feels cold and eerily quiet, even when the Local and Federated feeds are wizzing by at a decent clip. Adaptation is possible, sure, but this morning I kind of realized that the reason there’s any concern at all is because the Fediverse does not operate like Twitter does.

I’ve already posted about how we become dependent upon a particular social platform, but in re-reading that post I realize I didn’t actually do the title justice. Like our homes, our jobs, and our neighborhoods, we as humans might accept some period of transience, knowing that deep down we’re looking for the place to settle. We might not ever find a 100% perfect fit for ourselves and family, but we hopefully find a place that we can accept and make our own. If we’re lucky enough to find a place like that, it is monumentally difficult to leave it behind unless physically (or mentally) ousted by external circumstance. The places where we socialize online become so “full” of our shared experiences that once a community lays down roots on a server, there’s practically no way to get them to move to another solution. Putting forth a suggestion to move elsewhere For Reasons Real or Imagined becomes a tug-of-war of intent: why would we move? What’s the benefit? What about the stuff we’re leaving behind? What if we don’t want to move? Why do we need another X?

In many ways, Twitter has become the “forever home” of many of us. We do not want to leave in part because there is no viable alternative, or because our social graph cannot decide on a collective new home. I also think that we don’t want to leave because Twitter has specifically become part of how we operate and how we think. Remember back when the idea of “microblogging” was laughable, in the days when long-form blogs ruled the Internet? Twitter was derided as a platform for navel-gazing, where users posted pictures of their food, and might be the platform most responsible for the early rise of “the selfie”. Somewhere along the way, it became a way for information to disseminate quickly, especially during times and in places of crisis; no other platform had the speed that Twitter boasted, and because its content could be viewed even without an account, it became a Respectable hub of information. Companies added engagement and community managers to their roster to work through Twitter, and sometimes it’s faster to ping a company rep through the platform than it is to file a ticket through more traditional channels. We can get near real-time updates on game server status, sales, and the always present hype centered around our preferred interests. Twitter has become far more than just a platform for narcissists (I submit that Instagram fully embraced that claim to fame), and because of that some/many/most/all of us can’t simply let it go even as we prepare to receive the Internet equivalent of the Mongol Hordes thundering across the distant plains, intent on pillaging our villages “for the lulz”.


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1 Comment

  • Nimgimli

    May 4, 2022 - 12:15 PM

    I’m enjoying Mastodon somewhat, but as a ‘2nd place’ rather than as a Twitter replacement. When a social network is new(ish) it just feels like there’re more possibilities for meeting new people. You throw out a net and haul in a bunch of people and wind up following randoms from all over the world doing all kinds of jobs. For some reason I rarely add anyone new on Twitter these days and if I do, it’s via a network of friends.

    I also confess I like having more than 280 characters to work with. [Insert obligatory “I miss Google+” reminiscence.]

    But Twitter is almost a utility. When a severe thunderstorm is incoming the local news lets me know (via twitter). As you mentioned, services updates, (for me both for games and for things I used for work) get pushed to us faster than we’d hear about them from monitoring a status page or something. New season of a favorite TV show about to air? Twitter tells me. Plus convenience features like a “Share to Twitter” on the Xbox/Playstation.

    So if I had to choose, I’d stick with Twitter since in the end it is actually useful to me. Mastodon is just kind of fun to mess around with.

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