By Deepak Gopalakrishnan Nov. 09, 2019
Many are calling Mastodon a better version of Twitter — sans the hate and trolls. Alas, reality is going to be a lot harsher. Those who think it’s going to be a panacea for “Twitter’s evils” are likely to be very disappointed.
“Hey, what’s the deal with Mastodon?” asked a friend on a WhatsApp group a couple of days ago.
“Well, they’re a pretty good heavy metal band, tough of late, they’ve taken more progressive leanings. Their last album, Emperor of Sand, was one of 2017’s best releases and they’re working on…”
“No, you idiot,” rebuked said friend. “The new social media platform people are flocking to.”
So, like me, if you’ve been living under a rock (or, heh, metal), here’s a quick catch-up. Some Indian Twitterati have been migrating to a new social media platform called Mastodon. The site’s been around since 2016, and uses a combination of moderation, smaller groups, and tools to make what many commentators call a better version of Twitter — sans the hate and trolls.
All of this makes for great headlines. Alas, reality is going to be a lot harsher.
This is not to take a dump on the site and its young founder’s utopian vision of what social media could be, which is very admirable in itself. But those who think it’s going to be a panacea for “Twitter’s evils” are likely to be very disappointed.
Firstly, the network effect means the hegemony of the big platforms is unlikely to change. Heck, even Google failed to make a social network of any impact. This is not necessarily a bad thing — despite all the negative press and all our jokes about how evil Zuck is, people stick around on these platforms because there are more people who find value in them than those who think they’re detrimental. If a new platform has to rise, it needs to offer something substantially different — Tik-tok is a good example (I believe that if Twitter didn’t kill off Vine, that could have been the short-video king today). Mastodon’s core offering seems too close to what Twitter is for me to think en masse migration is going to happen, and not enough people are pissed off with Twitter to make that move.
Then, for this imagined utopia, comes the problem of scale. Let’s understand one thing: Twitter is not toxic because the platform is inherently evil. People make it toxic. Those same people, transposed to any other medium, will continue doing their dirty work there. The forums 4chan and 8chan are good examples. They started off as free-speech paradises, and devolved into an online haven for the violent, extremist fringe. The best example might be from Mastodon itself. In 2017, the online haven for the far-right, Gab (which still calls itself “A social network that champions free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online”) created a presence for itself on Mastodon. This led to much debate and controversy. To kick Gab off would mean civil discourse, but would dissuade well-meaning minority groups from airing their voice. To keep Gab present on the site would be a slippery slope ending in 8chan-land.
If you joined Mastodon because you thought Twitter sucked, it will only take the same problems arising there, before you move to something else… And so on.
To me, Mastodon is best compared not with Twitter but with Reddit. The subreddit structure and the self-moderation are true more of the latter, which also faces the “free speech vs abuse” conundrum.
Another approach could be Mastodon (or its community) deciding that scale might not be the answer. (Many of us early Twitter users still fondly remember a pre-troll era on the platform.) Sticking to a small niche community has its own problems — validation-hungry people will eventually want an audience beyond their social circle. Furthermore, this is the recipe for an echo chamber, something which we don’t need more of at the moment. Much of Mastodon’s spike from India has come as a reaction to Twitter’s perceived right-wing bias, which risks building a liberal bubble, something that is as dangerous. In any case, people with a different point of view will eventually catch up — classier trolls for Mastodon is not a far-fetched idea.
Fundamentally, I have an issue when a relationship is based on mutual hatred of something rather than an inherent attraction. You joined LinkedIn because it offered certain advantages. If you joined Mastodon because you thought Twitter sucked, it will only take the same problems arising there, before you move to something else… And so on.
“Ah, but Mastodon is different — it has moderation”, you might say. And that’s my next worry; this is easier said than executed. Especially at scale. It’s not like other platforms haven’t tried this. Facebook for one, has thrown billions at the problem and has not succeeded yet (one of its fact-checking partners, Cognizant, recently decided to sever the relationship). The thing with moderation is that at some point, it’s about opinion. Who’s to hardcode what’s right or wrong? One person’s free speech could be another person’s violence. And this is why it’s so difficult to use nascent AI technology for something even humans haven’t figured out. I don’t have an answer to this. Neither does Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. It would be naive to think a bunch of unpaid do-gooders do. Challenges will come when controversial topics are breached, and we live in a time where there are no shortages of that. Even something as irrefutable as climate change or vaccination has its deniers, who believe their opinions should not be silenced.
It’s not unfathomable to see this conversation starting on Mastodon as well. It might start off with “educated civil people using English properly”, but we all know where that’ll end up. And a platform without these, will be superficial. Will people just talk about cheerful things all day? Lacking spice, people will stay away or stay within their current bubbles, which are a combination of what Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp afford us anyway.
Lastly, is the question of monetisation. I hate to smear this beautiful Atlantis of free speech with the evil blob of capitalism, but as a platform moves from cute dorm project to business, this is a question that needs to be answered. Server space and moderators won’t run off goodwill forever, especially when scale is reached. Realistically, money can come in either from users (who, let’s face it, are unlikely to pay), or through advertisers (who are unlikely to move on from other platforms that still offer better reach and targeting, and regardless, Mastodon has said it’s ad-free). Other sources of money are unlikely too — venture capitalists won’t see much of a return, especially against Facebook and Twitter, and philanthropsists won’t want to touch something as tainted as social media, no matter how noble the preamble. It’s like a friend said on that same WhatsApp group: “When people say better privacy, security, no ads, I don’t understand why no one asks what’s the revenue model?” A good example here will be Allo, the much-hyped alternative to Facebook, which died off earlier this year, once it decided a nice “About” page doesn’t pay the bills. Alas.
At the end, I feel the likeliest source for a utopian version of Twitter will come from Twitter itself. Just like it’s Facebook that’s best placed to build a better version of itself. This is not something outlandish. As much as we might enjoy taking a dump on Big Tech for doing everything from making us zombies to destroying democracy, it’s important to understand that the factors causing the current Twitter exodus could happen to any platform, Mastodon included. What if tomorrow Mastodon’s moderators are forced to suspend an account, like how they were grappling with what to do with Gab?
All Big Tech platforms have taken big (and expensive) steps towards tackling their native problems: from hiring journalists, to institutionalising an independent “content Supreme Court”, to implementing AI/ML to combat hate speech, all of which are more likely to be more effective than a manifesto and well-meaning but unpaid moderators. Indeed, trying to fix a dysfunctional social network at scale will be more useful for humanity in the long run, than creating a cluster of echo chambers.
All this is not to disparage the efforts and vision of Mastodon and its founder. But those thinking a few thousand people migrating to another platform will be the death knell of Twitter, online abuse, and right-wing propaganda are mistaken and delusional. Once Mastodon achieves enough popularity, the trolls will follow and introduce the same old “Twitter problems” there. Is there a solution to this problem? Not immediately — that would necessitate we, as a collective, become better people. That way, any social platform would be civil and constructive. Even Orkut.
“I’d fallen into a pit of lies
I try to dig around the other side
And much to my surprise
I was to blame for all the rain”
– Mastodon (the band), “Word to the Wise”, Emperor of Sand (2017)
Deepak 'Chuck' Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising until his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.