Can We Return to an Innocence Before Social Media?

C. W. Peale, Exhuming the First American Mastodon, 1806. Courtesy Peale Museum

Mastodon has emerged as a possible new home for online community, but can it really change anything?

A few weeks ago, Elon Musk completed his Twitter takeover and began an overhaul so haphazard and incoherent that many wondered if he meant to bankrupt the company on purpose. After firing critical employees, reinstating bigoted users, alienating advertisers, kneecapping content moderation, and jeopardizing the app’s Apple Store status, it wasn’t clear if Twitter would survive. On 17 November, a wave of contagious overreaction swept over the platform – an altogether characteristic phenomenon, as users collectively convinced each other that the end was nigh, that it was time to empty your drafts of its stifled genius, DM all your crushes, air your most outrageous opinions before it was too late. Given some of the more delirious takes, it could even seem as if everyone had spontaneously ‘abandoned their age-long faith in the permanence of the system that oppressed them’, as Lenin wrote of the early workers’ strikes in nineteenth-century Russia. 

But to which other system might we prostrate ourselves instead? Mass exodus seemed imminent, and many people (yes, myself included) tweeted out their handles for other sites in case Twitter failed forever. Typically this included one for Mastodon, which had emerged as a possible new home. Originally developed in 2016, Mastodon mimics much of Twitter’s functionality but has an open-source setup meant to circumvent the ‘risks of a single company monopolizing your communication’. It seemed fortuitously designed for the exact problem presented by Musk, an ideologically-motivated investor intent on shaping the character of discourse in the global ‘town square’. Since Mastodon is a network of independent domains that connect (or not) through a common protocol, each can establish its own governance rules. So while journalists can conveniently congregate on one particular ‘instance’ of Mastodon, others, as this Columbia Journalist Review post notes, can likewise conveniently block them en masse. 

When I signed up for Mastodon, I found it pleasantly nostalgic to piece together a new feed, scrolling through the sparse posts and waiting out the frequent lags to look for familiar names to add. I wondered if it would herald a return of ‘Follow Friday’ hashtags and other good-natured relics of networking exercises. It seemed like a small miracle that all these people were managing to do Twitter-like things in this new place, like seeing footage of astronauts completing everyday tasks in outer space. 

But I also found it difficult to engage with Mastodon on its own terms, to shop for a server that best aligns with my expectations and politics, or to consider seriously how it could remain financially sustainable as it grows. It felt as marginal and antiquated as seeking out newsgroups to subscribe to on an Usenet client. While decentralization theoretically makes it possible to have a Twitter-like experience with only the sort of people you would like to share your public sphere, in practice, it guarantees that Mastodon will be nothing like an actual public sphere, which must necessarily reflect the irreducible dissensus of a society riven by hierarchy, economic competition and established forms of social exclusion. The stakes of Twitter, for better or worse, are in its centripetal force that pulls in disparate people and institutions with different levels of prestige and power to a space in which they can confront one another (while algorithms helpfully convene the battles). Mastodon’s structure allows groups to try to pre-empt conflict in favour of some other kind of connection. This threatens to devolve into an empty abstraction, as if there were a point to ‘connecting’ for its own sake. 

When Twitter first emerged from its initial pointlessness, it was precisely as a mechanism of centralization, restoring order to the unruly discursive space of blogs and independent websites, which established media treated as chaotic and potentially threatening. With its promise of speed, scale and virality, Twitter consolidated the legion of disparate voices, leveled whatever networks they managed to build on the strength of their own reputation, and curtailed their commentary to posts of a few hundred characters, interspersed with the rest of the babble. Independent accounts were brought into direct competition with institutional ones, which could reassert their advantages in the standardized field that the platform represented. 

Though it undermined independent commentary, Twitter’s centralization also then gave apparent meaning to complaints and protests staged on the site; it seemed to offer certifiable reach, including to people who didn’t already agree. Though users frequently disavowed the idea that the attention they doled out was an endorsement, this very ambivalence made that attention seem worth giving or worth tracking in the first place. The affinities that formed on the platform felt immediately practical and part of the continual struggle over the various narratives that form a society’s self-understanding – narratives that Twitter now appeared to monopolize at critical stages. 

At the same time, Twitter’s central authority provided a concrete focus for protest against those narratives – someone to complain to in lieu of being able to argue with the structure of society itself. Twitter’s administration has become a site of politics in its own right and Musk’s installation of himself as director/dictator is not a betrayal of or deviation from Twitter’s potential, but its apotheosis. It epitomizes the fantasy that politics can at once be contained on a media platform and also adjudicated by fiat and essentially abolished. 

Above all, Twitter allowed users to believe that its arena of largely passive spectatorship amounted to the most enthralling kind of political engagement. Mastodon does not afford even that illusion. It evokes a return to the time before social media, when it first became possible for anyone to self-publish their opinions, with no clear picture of whether anyone knew or cared. Occasionally I can convince myself that this was a pure and innocent time; we all have lost that innocence now. To pretend that going back to decentralized forms of insignificance is some kind of beneficial opportunity seems delusional. We have all already been infected by virality.

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