The Twitter That Was

Attention conservation notice: 6,000 words about the decline of a social-media platform, none of which are particularly original or well-informed.

Since Elon Musk took control of Twitter at the end of October, like many people I’ve had to ponder a number of questions: Why am I here? Am I still getting what I wanted out of this experience? Would I be better off just logging off? What alternative is there should Musk execute a Controlled Flight Into Terrain? These are hard questions to answer, and even waiting 24 hours to download my account archive hasn’t really made it any easier. I’m not a facile writer, and it’s taken me quite a bit of effort (and powering through a lot of distractions) to get even this much in one place, and it’s probably going to be pretty disjointed. (Generating words has never been a problem for me, it’s getting them in the right order that so often eludes me.)

According to my Twitter data download, I joined Twitter on March 24, 2012. I had entirely refused to be involved with any “social media” until that time; I thought it somewhere between harmful and pointless (perhaps both). But it was a time when I was losing a number of work colleagues I liked, and Twitter had made a few design choices that at least made me willing to consider it (unlike Facebook).

Structurally, Twitter’s model of “following” was much more to my taste than the faux “friend”ship of Facebook and its work-alikes (now largely forgotten). You could “follow” someone on Twitter and see what they had to say, with no expectation of reciprocity. A “favorite” in the original Twitter was more like a bookmark; it wasn’t a shadow-retweet like “likes” are today. And even things we take for granted on Twitter now weren’t part of the data model in 2012: it was all just plain text. Retweets were just posts that started with “RT” and a handle — they were often edited to add comments or just to fit into 140 characters.

That, in combination with an open API, made it possible for there to be multiple, even open-source, user interfaces to Twitter, something that wasn’t possible with Facebook. That allowed me to exclusively use a terminal-mode Twitter client for some time, keeping their tracking cookies out of my browser and avoiding the excessive use of addictive smartphone apps. This didn’t last long: within a few years, Twitter started making life difficult for third-party user interfaces and restricted full use of the API to only “official” clients. However, I still keep the terminal-mode client running 24×7 under script, so I have a running log (as rendered text, rather than JSON objects) of my entire timeline. (With the API restrictions, it can no longer show inbound notifications and frequently hits rate limits.)

Frustratingly, although the account archive does include all of my tweets and retweets, and all of my “likes” (even from back when they were still “favorites”), the following, follower, block, and mute lists are all uninformative: they contain no dates, are not sorted in any obvious order, and do not identify the user being referred to. I had hoped, when I requested the archive, to be able to look back at my follows in chronological order and that just isn’t data they seem to keep. (I find this particularly surprising given the amount of advertising-related data they do keep.) The archive does tell me that I have blocked 13,178 accounts (!), and muted 553, but doesn’t give me a count of either followers or following. (grep works, though: 1194 and 1008.) So the archive seems on the one hand excessive for normal uses and on the other annoyingly incomplete.

The first thing I ever tweeted was a link to a blog post by Mike Konczal (@rortybomb), just a month before he closed up shop at his old free-tier blog. While I was never particularly tuned in to the “blogosphere”, as the big (largely political) bloggers called their community, it’s clear that I was actually reading quite a lot of them, using Opera’s (RIP) built-in RSS reader. (I kept using Opera long past its sell-by date just to have that reader in my home browser.) Many of my first month’s tweets were links to, or inspired by, blogs I was reading at that time: Language Log, Three-Toed Sloth (Cosma Shalizi), Antick Musings (Andrew Wheeler, the former SFBC editor), SCOTUSblog, Jack Balkin’s “Balkinization“, and the new-deleted airline pilot blog Flight Level 390.

My parents were still living in Massachusetts at the time, so I also tweeted a bit about my father’s dog Mocha, and our Sunday dinners, which I really miss since they moved (five times since 2012). Mocha was a two-year-old rescue mutt when my father got him, and in 2012 he was hit by a car — thankfully my parents could afford the veterinary care to save him. He’s still alive today but quite old for a dog and spends most of his time sleeping, except when barking at the neighbors’ golf carts. That spring, my cousin the airline pilot got married, and I tweeted about my trip to San Francisco and the North Bay (her Scottish husband worked in tech and they lived in SF at the time). Around the same time, I was apparently reading Alon Levy, although I didn’t leave any trace of how or why, because it was another five years before I got involved with “Transit Twitter” (after a revelatory trip to Helsinki). That summer, I drove my parents up to Carol Noonan’s Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine, to see a Knots & Crosses reunion show, and tweeted about it. In the early time, I often went days without tweeting anything — of course there were no Threads back then.

As I mentioned, the impetus for signing up with Twitter in the first place was a number of my colleagues all leaving at the same time. Because of a bad decision I made in 2001, I am stuck living out in the suburbs and as a consequence have no social life; I had hoped to be able to keep up with what my former coworkers were doing through Twitter. That very quickly failed to work out: most of those colleagues used Twitter seldom if at all, and even by setting up the phone app to notify me whenever they tweeted something, genuine interaction was infrequent and overwhelmed by the “firehose” of news and politics that most regular users end up with. Journalists were the first large-scale adopters of Twitter as a medium — both to advertise their work and also to cultivate sources — and the new-user suggestions at the time were very heavily weighted towards high-volume news, “entertainment”, and tech-industry accounts.

I did make an effort to follow a number of my then-current colleagues, but very few of them were or are active even daily; like my ex-coworkers, they were largely not using Twitter for interaction. Many of them were students, and at least my corner of Comp Sci Twitter largely uses it as one vehicle among many to promote their research (and for faculty, their students). There’s nothing wrong with this, but I really appreciate those people who actually use Twitter for something other than professional advancement — whether it’s Rod Brooks flaming autonomous-vehicle boosters, Mark Handley and Dave Andersen posting COVID stats for places I don’t live, or Hari Balakrishnan flaming about The Cricket. Other people I wish would tweet more, if for no other reason than to reassure me that things are still going OK for them.

Coming into Twitter in 2012, I already had a substantial variety of interests, as you can deduce from some of the blogs I mentioned above: I was nearing the end of my particular interest in broadcasting facilities, but SF, language, science, and international sports had been abiding interests of mine since the 1980s, and I gravitated towards many of those communities on Twitter. I ended up following far more economists than I would ever have expected, as well as more wildlife biologists and even more fantasy authors. (With I think one exception, the authors I follow are not the ones I read much if at all: I have a thing about knowing too much about authors.)

I created a WordPress blog in 2013, and immediately started using my own Twitter account, which probably had a hundred followers, to promote it. It wasn’t my first blog, but I had given up on trying to maintain blog software locally — there were too many diseconomies of scale compared to simply paying $100 a year to deal with PHP security holes and spam. (In fact, my very first blog post was about that precise decision.) Many of the things I posted in the early years on the blog would today probably be Twitter threads, but that was before Twitter actually implemented threads in their data model, let alone the mobile clients, which made a much clearer distinction between “where researched, long-form writing goes” and “where offhand, slice-of-life observations go”.

One of the first things I started blogging was recipe walk-throughs, originally as photo essays, and in conjunction with this I started following a bunch of cookbook authors, so that I’d see when they had something interesting coming out (and also to make it easier to tag them when I wanted to ask questions about one of their recipes). I followed a bunch of musicians early on, too, especially the ones whose new projects I probably wouldn’t find out about through traditional radio. I quickly realized that most of these accounts were run by publicists and not actually connected to the artists, which makes them read quite oddly — but there were once some substantial exceptions. I think Rosanne Cash may be the only one left; most of the others have simply left the platform. (In 2013 I was still regularly commenting on what my music player was playing when the mood struck, something I almost never do now.)

Looking back at my very earliest follows: of course the first people I followed were my few friends and those colleagues. I followed the official accounts of a bunch of radio shows I listened to, some defunct like Studio 360, and others still on the air like the incredible Ideas from CBC Radio. The first authors I followed were Diane Duane and Tom Limoncelli, and the first non-trade-publication journalist was Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s Canadian-born chief international correspondent (and a fellow descendant of Acadiens). Since I was still in the radio hobby, I followed a bunch of people who either were radio engineers or who wrote about it. The first musical artist I followed was Catie Curtis, followed very soon after by others from the folk scene like Patty Larkin, David Wilcox, Jonatha Brooke, and Lucy Kaplansky. I continued to add many other people in linguistics, economics, radio, and science; at one point I tried to follow all of the BBC announcers presenting on the World Service (many of whom have since left).

At some point, I made an effort to find and follow as many faculty and grad students (or former students) from our lab as I could — and I very quickly found that the Pareto principle applied to my academic colleagues as well as my co-workers: the vast majority of them said almost nothing, and certainly not nearly enough to break through the chatter in a busy timeline. Somehow, I think probably through #MarchMammalMadness, I ended up latching on to the wonderful world of “bio twitter”.

Then came November 8, 2016.

Like many people around the world, I recoiled in horror when the revolting Donald Trump won the presidency. I found many like-minded people on Twitter, but more importantly, it gave me a way to follow the day’s news without having to actually listen to the news — which had become intolerable as every A-block for three straight years started with a Trump sound bite or “hey look what racist garbage Trump tweeted today”. Thanks to blocks and the setting to disable auto image loading on mobile, I was able to avoid actually seeing much of Trump’s vomit actually on the platform itself, while still keeping abreast on what harm the administration was doing day to day. I didn’t bother following the big-name political reporters: I could be sure that the other reporters I followed would retweet if they said anything notable.

The Trump election also made for a meaner and less pleasant Twitter experience for a lot of people, and looking at accounts I followed before that election, I see that a fair number of them simply dropped off — either became entirely lurkers, or just stopped using the site — around 2017-19. But for me, 2017 was a year when I significantly broadened my interests.

This actually goes back to February of 2016, when I was driving to work one morning and saw a billboard advertising the World Figure Skating Championships. I had been a big fan of the sport as a kid (solely in a spectating role; I never learned to skate) but had dropped off after I moved to Boston and couldn’t watch Canadian television any more. I started paying attention to the Winter Olympics again in 2010, but it wasn’t until the Worlds came to Boston that I actually thought that I could actually go see a major international competition in person. I was able to buy tickets for some events at the 2016 Worlds, and I bought the program book — which included an advertisement for the 2017 Worlds in Helsinki.

I’m not going to recapitulate my history as an exchange student in Finland, but suffice it to say that I thought enough time had passed (28 years) that I would be comfortable traveling there again and not have to feel embarrassed at my lack of facility with the language. Having not visited any European country in this millennium, I was bowled over, especially by the transportation infrastructure, and made a series of blog posts about it after I got back — in addition to taking thousands of pictures of the skating and running out of space on my laptop’s tiny SSD. My experience made me feel comfortable enough going back to Finland that August for the fabled World Science Fiction Convention: something that I had heard about, but assumed was only for really hard-core fans and not for someone as ill-read as me. (It was not a coincidence that both events were in Helsinki that year: it was the centenary of Finnish independence and substantial grants were available to bring events of international importance to the country.)

My blogging about both trips to Finland got me into Transit Twitter, which has a pretty big overlap with Urban Planning Twitter and Housing Twitter. I also started to get into Information Security Twitter, although I’m not sure what the impetus was — it may well have been something that a FreeBSD developer retweeted. I started following a lot of athletes, I think in the lead-up to the 2018 Olympics, although it’s hard to be sure. (I followed a bunch of SF-related accounts around the same time, so Worldcon 75 seems likely.)

I started getting more politically engaged in 2018 thanks to Maciej Ceglowski (@Pinboard), who ran independent fundraising campaigns in both 2018 and 2020 to try to get Democrats elected in “winnable” seats that the national apparatchiki had deemed not worth pursuing — but the only real success was Jared Golden in ME-02.

Ah, yes, 2020. The year of the pandemic, when every journalist (and economist) was doing double duty as an epidemiologist. I found a very small number of people who actually were virus experts, like Trevor Bedford and Emma Hodcroft, but mostly I was relieved to be able to watch the news while I was stuck at home, alone, because the virus had pushed Trump out of the A-block. I started watching BBC World News over lunch, since I couldn’t go into the office even if I had a need or desire to do so, and probably blocked more dishonest bloviators than any year before or since. I finally gave up on The Atlantic, which had succumbed to terminal Washington brain after its unfortunate relocation from Boston some years previously. (Sorry, Ed Yong!) Of course, the pandemic canceled all of my 2020 travel plans and much of 2021’s as well, starting with the World Figure Skating Championships that were supposed to start in Montreal the week the travel restrictions started. (The 2020 Worlds were rescheduled to 2024.) Similarly, the 2021 Bobsled & Skeleton World Championships were to have been in Lake Placid (at a newly renovated facility!) and were also postponed. The practical upshot of all this was that I had a lot of time stuck at home, alone, unable to travel and with nothing much else to do for leisure except constantly scroll Twitter.

It was at this point that I realized I was in real danger of an overuse injury if I didn’t start to limit my “phone time”. I used the “Digital well-being and parental controls” feature on my phone to limit my use of the Twitter app to just two hours a day. I later tried to crank this down to one hour, but found myself constantly bypassing the restriction because I wanted to tweet something before I forgot what it was. I also started using Web Twitter much more — I had previously only used it to do things that are difficult on the app, like posting long threads summarizing MBTA board meetings back when those were in-person. Since Web Twitter can be scrolled with a mouse or the keyboard, it’s less stressful for the forearms than holding a phone up in front of my face and tapping on the touchscreen.

There aren’t that many pleasant surprises in my experience on Twitter. The communities I found myself connected with were the biggest, of course, and the willingness of some Big Names (but not New York Times reporters) to actually engage with their readers. Beyond that would be the wide variety of friendly and helpful bots — thanks to some really really bad reporting in 2016, “bot” somehow got attached to the idea of an underpaid Moldovan kid posting election disinformation under a thousand different identities, but there are actually a lot of honest bots that automatically post legitimately interesting content. Among the best was @_everybird_, which has now sadly retired, but still going (for now) are Joe Sondow’s @EmojiTetra; @pomological, which posts early-20th-century fruit pictures; the various “every lot”, “every tract”, and “every USPS” bots; @sansculottides, which tweets the current date in the French Republican calendar; @tinycarebot, which reminds you to take care of yourself; and especially @hourlykitten, which at the top of every hour posts a freely-licensed photo of a kitten from Flickr.

On the negative side, there were a few surprises. I’ve already touched on how much time I ended up spending on the app, which came to be rather concerning, and has certainly taken away from the time I could be spending doing anything productive (from cycling to reading to writing). It’s definitely made it much more difficult to get out of bed in the morning: way easier to just grab the phone and scroll for an hour than to actually brush my teeth, let alone getting my bike kit on and going for a chilly morning ride. I think it’s also made my vision worse, although it’s hard to prove that it’s anything other than natural presbyopia setting in as I approach 50, combined with a really crappy fit on my most recent pair of glasses.

Another surprise was the number of “bad bots” that exist solely to steal other people’s content — often scraped from Reddit, complete with erroneous captions, but with the original creator’s identity filed off. There’s a whole ecosystem of these, such that accounts have popped up to warn people about them, provide accurate descriptions of the scraped artwork, and maintain records of how frequently these accounts get banned and then recreated under a slightly different name. (@PicPedant is one re-identify-er that I follow; there is also @HoaxEye.)

A different genre of “bot” is structured as a “honey trap”: an account with a random female-coded name tweets out three stolen pictures of an attractive woman then follows a thousand or more randomly selected users in the hope they will follow back. The account then goes silent for months before launching a spam campaign (which eventually gets them banned). Similarly annoying are the “Kibo” bots — these search constantly for any mention of keywords they are programmed to trigger on, and then interact with those tweets in some unhelpful way, like retweeting to an unexpected audience or causing another account to reply with spam or abuse. (I have named these after James “Kibo” Perry, who in the days of yore would search the Usenet feed on for any mention of his name, and join the conversation. He was less annoying.)

This sort of behavior is something that Twitter really ought to have had the capacity to detect and block, but never seemed to manage. Some of it seems to have accelerated since Musk’s takeover, as if the bad actors are testing the limits of the (now greatly diminished) trust & safety team.

A surprise that’s hard to characterize as either good or bad is the level of data about advertising that’s included in a Twitter account archive. There’s a file, ad-impressions.js, that lists every ad Twitter has ever presented to your account, along with the exact targeting information specified by the advertiser — even including the advertiser’s names for the prospect lists they uploaded for the campaign.

[It was at this point, a week ago, that I had to stop writing, and when I picked it back up I was not sure what direction I wanted to take.]

As I said, it was my original hope when I signed up for a Twitter account that I would be able to use it to keep up with former colleagues and coworkers who had moved on to other jobs and institutions. That largely didn’t happen; while there are a few of these people who are (or were) regularly active on Twitter, their use of the platform has been quite different from mine: with maybe one or two exceptions I can think of, largely lurker-ish and to a much greater degree, “professional”. There are a few people I’ve enabled mobile notifications for, so I actually see every time they tweet (even when they immediately delete the tweet afterward), and I think it’s fair to conclude that they’re much quieter and share far, far less of their personal lives than I do — and I don’t have much of a personal life to share. I’d feel better if I saw more of these people complaining about the MBTA, or bad business travel experiences, or even posting cute cat pictures, but they don’t.

As you might conclude from that, Twitter certainly hasn’t done anything for the loneliness, either. I have met a grand total of one person thanks to Twitter, which is far fewer even than Usenet; everyone else I follow who I have met is someone I had some prior connection with. Twitter isn’t substitute for companionship, however much I might like it to be, and I’m still stuck off here in my own isolated corner of the world. (It certainly does not help at all that the only people I ever do meet these days are in their mid-20s. That may not have been so much of a problem when I moved out to the suburbs at the age of 28, totally oblivious to the social isolation, but it is a very big issue now.)

Some of the communities that have given me value from Twitter have been moving to Mastodon. There are some real issues with this platform that lead me to think it’s not going to be an effective long-term solution to the collapse of Twitter under the overbearing weight of its new billionaire owner. I’m going to use “Mastodon” has a shorthand, because it’s by far the most popular, but technically Mastodon is a specific implementation (software package) of an open protocol called “ActivityPub”, and the whole intercommunicating network of servers using this protocol is referred to as “the Fediverse” (because it’s “federated”, or decentralized and operated by many cooperating but independent server owners).

Twitter itself has never been more than barely profitable. The company has been able to raise capital to keep going in the hope that something will come along that makes it more profitable, but at least that has come largely in the form of equity rather than the huge debt that Musk’s leveraged buyout has saddled the company with (and which is likely to be its, and Musk’s, downfall). Mastodon, however, has an enormous missing money problem: without any meaningful way to sell contextual advertising, Mastodon server operators have few options to raise revenue — donations, subscription fees, or just volunteerism are three common options today. Some very large servers may be able to sell sufficient advertising to support their operations, but as Twitter demonstrates, even with a very large audience, the costs grow faster than the revenue does. Many people have laughed at Musk’s insinuation that he can fund Twitter through subscription fees after scaring away all the blue-chip advertisers, and with good reason.

You might ask why this matters: if people are willing to volunteer their time or their money to run a Mastodon server, who’s to say that there’s any money “missing”? I think there are a number of reasons why relying on decentralized, volunteer labor and donated resources is a problem for large-scale adoption of Mastodon.

The first and most significant is that moderation is a difficult, time-consuming task. There are communities where volunteer moderation works, but they have a few features in common: the number of participants is small, the participants share a common purpose, and there is usually a formal body or person that is empowered to make the final decisions if the moderators get it wrong. Any community even a tenth the size of Twitter, if it is to be effectively moderated, is going to require a significant amount of full-time community management, and someone has to pay for that somehow.

Mastodon’s design makes this much harder, because moderation decisions have to be made by every server operator with respect not only to their own users but with respect to every other server, from the smallest single-user server (which can be spun up by anyone at any time) to big servers with thousands of users. Because moderation decisions are made by individual server operators, policies are guaranteed to be inconsistent. Because federation decisions are also made at the server level, users who find a server with a satisfactory moderation policy may find their ability to communicate with users on other servers substantially limited — indeed, users on any server may find themselves “islanded” based on something they have no control over (the behavior of other users), or may be unable to find a server that federates with all of the servers for the users they want to communicate with.

Black astrophysicist and bestselling author Chanda Prescod-Weinstein posted a thread on why this is a problem, especially for minoritized communities. The kicker.

At the level of an individual server, Mastodon’s design is not scalable. That’s probably not inherent to the ActivityPub protocol, but actually available implementations require significant investment (either engineering effort to rework the design, or simply throwing compute resources at the existing code until it works or completely breaks). Mastodon has been around, under the radar, for several years without attracting a significant user base; the Twitter exodus (exoMusk?) has highlighted the difference in a design for a few thousand users with low fan-out and the design required to serve a few million users with high fan-out. In a reply to Dave Guarino, Dan Hon writes about how the low-cost tiers of his hosted Mastodon server were inadequate, requiring him to upgrade to $19 a month — for one user with a few thousand followers. That does not bode well for a government or a news organization that needs to host hundreds of official accounts broadcasting information to potentially millions of followers on thousands of federated servers.

Twitter is able to handle this sort of load (now, unlike ten years ago) because it has both made significant capital investments (building distributed data centers, completely rewriting its core code base including both the user interface and the message routing system underneath it) and has (or had, until Musk fired them all) a significant operations staff who were knowledgeable about the implementation and could respond to issues before they caused major outages. (When I signed up in 2012, the “fail whale” was still a thing, although on its way out — that was Twitter’s custom version of the “500 Server Error” response that every Ruby on Rails app generates if the application code raises an unhandled exception or fails to start in a reasonable time.)

Twitter has been able to make significant architectural changes — like making tweets longer, threadable, and deletable — because of its centralized but globally distributed infrastructure. Mastodon and the Fediverse could conceivably evolve in similar ways, making the software more scalable, but it’s a substantial lift without multiple large engineering teams. The likely best case for this involves most Twitter refugees landing on one or a small number of Mastodon servers, which gets us back to the issue of the missing money. If a million ex-Twitter users land on (or pick your favorite other instance), are they going to bring in sufficient revenue (either direct payments or advertising) to even be able to pay for server operations, let alone engineering effort to scale their server to that level? Many Mastodon servers and hosting providers being closed to new users/customers at the moment suggests that they’re having trouble doing that now, with only the cognoscenti trying to make the jump away from Twitter.

It is part of the nature of the Fediverse that there is no central list of servers or directory of users: servers can and do come and go at arbitrary times, and the only notification to anyone is that a user on that server starts subscribing to the feed of a user on a different server. As a result, there is no way to directly search for anything or anyone globally: you can search the users on the server you’re using, and their contacts on other servers, but that’s it unless you know the correct remote server to search. There’s no global identity; at best, we could end up with Big Name users on an instance that their employer, or talent agency, or publicist runs. The first of those options at least works the same as email, and would allow employers to enforce a stronger separation of “work” and “play” than they currently are able to do with centralized identity on Twitter. (Sometimes the first public notice of a journalist’s new employer has come when their Twitter handle suddenly changed!)

This creates a Sybil problem, however: not only can anyone create an account impersonating a famous person or brand (what Twitter’s @verified program was created to handle, in response to a lawsuit and subsequent consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission), but for almost no money (the cost of a domain registration and hosting) anyone can create a whole Mastodon instance to impersonate a brand — and every other individual Mastodon server operator will have to decide whether to federate with it or not. Different server operators will have different policies and will undoubtedly be subject to different legal regimes regarding parody, defamation, and trademark laws. (Almost all of The Discourse about the collapse of Twitter had completely ignored the millions of users in other countries where monetization is difficult — these are effectively subsidized by Twitter revenue in the US but in a federated system may be left out in the cold.) Supposing Merck & Co., the giant pharmaceutical company, wants to start its own instance; will Mastodon instances in Europe be required to refuse federation with it on the grounds that Merck KGaA is “the real Merck” in Europe?

Nicholas Weaver points out the underlying issue with identity. Twitter got along perfectly well with lots of pseudonymous users; indeed, many Twitter users follow a good number of them. “James Medlock” is a real person but that’s not their actual name; they’re not impersonating anyone so there’s no reason that it should matter what the government calls them. But for public officials, institutions, media outlets, firms, and brands, it matters greatly that the public is not confused about who speaks for them. For any entity trying to do customer support over social media (which if they’re smart, they stopped doing last week), it is absolutely essential that customers be able to tell legitimate support accounts from scammers. Scams have real-world effects: Someone spent $8 this past week to create a fake “verified” Twitter account claiming to be Eli Lilly (using Musk’s new “pay for Twitter Blue and get this free hat blue badge” policy) for a hoax post about insulin prices that tanked the company’s stock. (As someone who has received more than his share of pharma ads on Twitter, this must have sent shock waves through the industry; it’s not just Musk setting his own money on fire here.)

So it’s clear that under Musk, Twitter doesn’t necessarily have any better answer to the impersonation problem than the Fediverse does — but because most Twitter users have a reliable pre-Musk history of accounts they follow and are followed by, new hoaxes are at least plausibly discernible. (Historically, the way this sort of hoax was run was to compromise an existing verified user’s account and change the display name, because in the old system, verification was tied to the account’s @-handle and not to its “name”, allowing once-verified users to change their names without losing the badge.) That account history also means that the discovery problem is temporarily papered over by the continued existence of Twitter itself: people leaving Twitter are using Twitter-based apps to find the Mastodon handles of their (presumed reliable) Twitter contacts, and so they’re not currently falling victim to the Sybils — but it will be a much larger problem if Twitter completely collapses and there’s no other widely agreed source of online identity.

People can put their Fediverse identities on their web sites, for sure, but the @foobar@baz.quux format is not very friendly for many of the other channels through which people distribute contact information — spoken on the radio, written on a sign or a note card, in six-inch type on a transit bus — advertising really needs a flat, easy to type “AOL Keyword”, not a structured hierarchical naming system. (And yes, that’s something of a surprise coming from me of all people; my thinking has evolved on that subject, as I’ve learned to consider social and user-interface concerns and not just the “purely technical” aspects of a design. I don’t think Musk has.)

OK, so you’re 6,000 words into this essay and probably wondering when I’m going to get around to what I, personally, am going to do about this.

Attention is a finite resource. Even in my ADHD-addled brain, attention is limited (and I guess I have ADHD Twitter to thank for the understanding that I display classic symptoms of adult ADHD, because no medical professional ever has). I already spend too much time scrolling Twitter; I do not use any other social network (most of which are even more evil than Twitter — that’s how I made that choice) and cannot have additional apps demanding even more of my time and attention. Nor do I particularly desire to bridge between two networks — although before Twitter closed their API you could have built an application that seamlessly integrated Twitter and ActivityPub and RSS and Jabber and Slack and all manner of other text-oriented publish/subscribe mechanisms.

For the moment, that means sticking with the devil I know, Twitter. There may come a time — probably long after it’s clear to the rest of my network — that the social center of the word people has decisively moved to another platform, and assuming it’s not run by Facebook Meta I’ll probably switch over completely to that, whatever it may turn out to be. But my follow network extends in a lot of different directions, and it seems possible that not everyone will end up in the same place, and then I’ll have to choose who to abandon and which connections to maintain. I don’t relish the prospect. Quoting @inthefade:

today’s timeline feels like we’re all standing around a hospital bed waiting for grandma to die. unfortunately, grandma held the family together and when she finally dies, we scatter like leaves in the wind

(link) (hat tip: Doug Newman)

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