Melonskew, Twitter, and Public Fora

Last Updated: 2022-04-25 16:30:00 -0500

I’m not going to pretend to be quite as old as the internet. For one thing, I have friends who are as old as the internet. For another thing, we’d have to define what I mean by internet at that point, and that’d be tedious. I am, however, Old Enough To Know Better, and in the spirit of manually regressing to my childhood habits, I’m about to spew some OpinionsTM on today’s news of a takeover of twitter by Elon Musk.

What Is Twitter?

Twitter is a “free as in mattress” solution to the as-old-as-humanity question of “how can I satisfy my urge to be as visible as humanly possible”. The internet being what it is, I actually need to take a minute here to explain the platform on the off chance my tiny vanity website outlives a major web platform… sort of like how the Jargon File had to explain USENET which, at the time, looked like it was going to be sexy forever.

Twitter was a microblogging platform and direct competitor to Facebook in the overall genre of “social media”. The idea was a little bit like centralizing the idea of personal web pages but also about condensing whatever you had to say into the shortest possible message - originally 144 characters, but that standard lapsed over time. And it was - and still is, at the time of writing - Kind Of A Big Deal. POTUS has a profile. Major corporations have profile. The FSB has a few million profiles. Your racist Uncle Roy thinks that those profiles should be taken seriously and is simultaneously annoyed that his profile is confused for one of them.

Twitter and Facebook (and to a lesser extent, other public fora like Reddit) have effectively cornered the market on what they refer to as an attention economy. Twitter in particular acts as a sort of hybrid of a media feed, chatroom, and short-form blogging platform. News organizations post their headlines to twitter and link back to their sites. Independant and published artists post their works to twitter with links back to their sites. Absolute madmen like myself “market” “ideas” (read: run their mouths) on Twitter. I think the 45th POTUS even tried to legislate via twitter a couple of times. Crazy stuff.

So something with a few million global users, all of whom are dependant to one degree or another on it to run their businesses, market their services, engage with their fellow people and try to refine their ideas has to be some kind of massive public effort right? Nope! The whole thing is a private corporation, and the early-20th-century’s Third Most Annoying Human, Elon Musk, just bought the damn thing. There’s a better than even chance that the purchase is actually yet another in a long line of diversifications meant to let him offload stock in SpaceX or Tesla without causing a market panic, but that doesn’t change the fact that one of the largest (and certainly, the last tolerable) public fora is now under the control of a single individual. (Prior to this, no one person held a controlling interest in the organization). And, as you might expect, I have thoughts about such a development. Obviously, a lot of people are talking about leaving. There’s a reason I referred to him as the Third Most Annoying Human of our time.

Twitter Is Important. No, Really.

I am simultaneously one of the people who is quick to say “It’s just the internet” and perpetually frustrated when someone runs the old “internet versus Real Life” false dichotomy. “It’s just twitter” is a healthy attitude to keep in mind when someone is in your mentions calling you an asshole because you didn’t disclaimer your joke predicated on a reference to the Hannibal TV Show with a preface that the show’s depiction of autism spectrum disorders isn’t perfect - an argument I once actually had. But the whole internet, Twitter included, is as much a part of real life as cars and trains and being paid to flip burgers all are.

At the time of writing there’s this whole phenomenon known as the “gig economy” in the West, which is driven in part by the ability of workers (usually creative workers like writers, illustrators, animators and so on, but also other form of labourers like drivers and so on) to pick up short, time-limited jobs. This is not a new concept - the idea of commissioned artworks goes back to the Medieval period and before we had such modern luxuries as population-positive cities and labour law the majority of jobs were “you’re employed until the work is done”.

Considerable attention is paid when talking about the Attention Economy to the ability to get ads in front of faces. That’s where the revenue is for the companies (like Twitter) that facilitate public fora. But the draw for the users is different, and broadly sorts into two classes:

  1. Gig workers, as described above, who are using large public fora as a way to defer some of the attention in the attention economy onto their work, and thereby generate new revenue. For a contemporary joke on this topic, see “suspiciously wealthy furries”.
  2. Everyone else, who are mostly there to derive some sort of benefit (often a dopamine hit).

I broadly fall into the second camp. While I occasionally rattle my tip jar, I don’t really promote my work on twitter the same way I promote it here on my site. Instead, I’m mostly just there for the Five Minutes Hate every couple of hours, from which I somehow derive a dopamine hit.

For people in group one, though, the dissolution or collapse of twitter would be as damning for them as the loss of a shopping center would be for a merchant. I’m about to go on a long rant about alternatives, but I want to be clear: all current alternatives to twitter have the same shared drawback - they are not nearly as visible and open marketplaces-of-ideas as Twitter itself.

Replacing Twitter

The Obvious SolutionTM pushed by my fellow FOSS dorks to the problem of “but what if one person just owns all the communication infrastructure” is “Let’s decentralize the platform and make owning it irrelevant”. Decentralizing things is the Tech Industry’s favourite thing to do, and it’s something we’re singularly bad at.

The idea has merit. Suppose instead of one twitter, we hade 140 individual twitters all running in parallel. Some system of cross-federation means that they all share content and userbase, which means that even if Armchair Kim Jong Un took over a given instance, people could move onto the other instances and everything else would be safe.

This is the idea more or less proposed by certain projects. It’s hard to do on a technical level, and comes with two drawbacks even if you solve the technical problems:

  1. If overall usage is low, it is hard to get content creators to jump ship to a new platform, as there’s no ROI there.
  2. If there’s a paucity of new content to engage with on your public forum, it is difficult to entice new users to regularly visit the site.

This also ignores other problems. I can afford to run Arcana Labs and all of the various projects under that umbrella Free As In Beer (and often free-as-in-liberty) for two very important reasons, neither of which apply to the Hypothetical Twitter Replacer:

  1. I have a day job doing unrelated work that keeps me paid well enough that I can absorb the costs of doing this sort of work and call it a hobby, and;
  2. The usership of the Arcana Labs website and the volume of bug reports against our projects is low enough that the costs to me (in both temporal and material senses) is, effectively, negligable.

If Illuminated Arcana suddenly became THE hit CTF, Tapestry suddenly got adopted by a major organization, or PETI started selling like hotcakes and Bandai didn’t sue my pants off, I wouldn’t actually be able to use them anymore.

This means the Hypothetical Twitter Replacer is going to have the same problems that Current Twitter had even before it was owned by a single person - Fiduciary Responsibility Is the Holy Commandment of Capitalist Markets, and the shareholders must have their return.

Even if you decentralize onto a Foundation, that foundation is going to have to make some money, some how. This might not mean that all HTR instances are going to be ad-revenue supported or that advertisers are going to mandate a specific content algorithm is used in the base container image (or whatever), necessarily. What it does mean is that instances are only going to get hosted in one of two cases:

  1. The hosting of the instance is somehow profitable to the hosting organization or individual, or;
  2. The costs of hosting the instance are somehow so low that the “loss” can be trivially absorbed by the hosting entity.

This creates a conflict. The HTR needs to serve the same purposes for its userbase as well. For people who just want a “feed aggregator” for the thoughts of their friends, news of the world, and so on, small instances with low hosting costs will be underwhelming. Large instances might want to charge for access or use peculiar algorithms to demote traffic from other instances, or do whatever else they need to do to make their bank. For the people who are using the HTR to replace the business functions of Twitter, this problem is further compounded.

Do We Even Need To Leave Twitter?

I think a lot of today’s hysteria around leaving twitter is… hysteria. People don’t like Melonskew. Hell, I find him to be the Third Most Annoying Contemporary Human. But this leaves out a lot of nuance, which I’m going to bullet up really qucikly for you:

  • The structure of the X1 and X2 subsidiaries that Elon is using to purchase twitter might not have him as a controlling entity in an absolutist sense. They also might. I don’t know.
  • Elon has a fiduciary responsibility to himself for twitter to remain profitable, and might not actually change much, though I personally doubt it given some of the shady shit he’s done to his employees and “rivals” in the past. (Does anyone remember him calling that guy who rescued the Thai kids trapped in a cave a pedophile for having refused his help?)
  • Twitter has always been a Hellsite, and there’s only so much that one man can do to make it worse. Finally, and perhaps most importantly;
  • Twitter has always been run by a single for-profit entity and has always done shady shit to influence the shape of public dialogue in ways it finds profitable… but I repeat myself.

Now, that being said, I’m taking an increasing interest lately in data resilience and organizational governance. There’s an interesting project out there called Mastodon that seems to be interested in solving this problem through distribution. It’s been around for a while and has some advantages (and some disadvantages), but it’s a relatively mature technology and I may or may not stand up my own instance.

Either way, you can expect to see more posts of this type in the immediate future, as I continue to language in parts and inspiration hell. I have a few projects lined up that would be perfect excuses for this sort of rant.

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