Oh, how history’s repeating

It’s been five years, which in Twitter terms is, like, three eternities, min!

A little over five years ago, I was fed up. With Twitter in particular, but also with the “Web 2.0” in general. It all felt off to me, the competition for the quippiest quip, the most outrageous statement in so many variations, the most interactions, impressions, counters going up. Both on the site and behind the scenes, everybody and everything was replaced with carelessness, it seemed. Product managers and engineers and designers build things they don’t really understand or care about, for users who don’t really care to use to “increase reach” or “activate audiences”.

There is another aspect, and that is control and data sovereignty. Without open APIs, without clear delineations of what data I own, what data someone else has, who controls what data and what is done with it, the power asymmetry of using centralized services has no chance of ever going away. Twitter had been limiting and shutting down their APIs over years, strangling the ecosystem in the process: alternative clients (which would not show ads, or not follow the product “strategy” Twitter supposedly had), bots (some of which were used for evil, as things go), analytics (with their implications for user privacy as well as making Twitter-the-company measurable), and more. It made me dislike Twitter and I did not want to use it anymore.

But of course I did. For five more years, in fact. Because even while it declined in so many ways, it was also reinvigorated, as well as plainly addictive. (Now that I know I have ADHD, many things are much clearer. Hindsight and all that.) Twitter was at once a tool for activism for social justice as well as a tool for disinformation campaigns at any and all scales, some of which were unprecedented (as far as we know). It was emotional, it was activist, it was outrageous, it was communal, it was solidarity. I met new people, made new friends, new enemies, suffered, rejoiced.

No more. All my criticism from the past still holds, and then some new ones. Twitter, as a platform, has become wholly too self-important. Maybe even too actually-important, it’s hard to say. A fitting analogy I saw (on Twitter, of course) was that of a spent fuel pool. The highly radioactive outrage is focused on Twitter, often a tempest in a teapot, and only after it has had its turn, has decayed sufficiently to be exposed to the world at large, does the topic du jour become part of the mainstream narrative – or, in many cases and just as well, it doesn’t. If everything is important, an outrage, a scandal, a shitstorm and a hashtag, might as well that nothing is.

That is evidently false. A great many things, among them social justice, fighting climate change, smashing capitalism and rebuilding a communal society, are indeed important. But if the interactions are limited, broken up into 280 characters, starting a fission reaction if “successful”, releasing a lot of energy and rapidly decaying? That doesn’t do it justice. Neither can the momentum be harvested – everything is in the walled garden, no, reaction chamber, shielded except for very clearly defined interfaces, the most rebellious of which is likely the screencap.

Now, what then? Federated and open networks like Mastodon solve some of the issues, but the social graph is yet strong even as Twitter is trying to damage it beyond repair, and the user experience of federated systems is still lagging. Maybe we just need to manage people’s expectations better? It’s not like any of the centralized platforms gives you access to the world’s population – there’s a lot of social justice to be done before that is even possible – but it sure feels that way for the selected few. Discovery at scale for distributed systems is hard; can we hide that complexity behind a different abstraction than centralized platforms with highly-paid engineers?

A lot of words to say that I have, again, left Twitter. That I don’t see myself coming back this time, but who knows. That I wish things had gone differently with personal websites and blogs and XFN and RDF and all that.

In the (potential) next installments, I’ll look back at the “blogosphere” and its protocols, and how we can try to excavate and reuse some parts of it.