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Twitter isn’t a Tool Any More. We’re the Tools for Using It.

Most of us, it’s safe to say, are familiar with the usual cliches around relationships: “It’s not you, it’s me,” or “I can change them,” or even “it’s complicated” – the latter being a common status on Facebook back when I used to be an active user on there.

When I left Facebook – as I documented here – I was alarmed at how many “friends” I had on there took it as a personal affront of some kind. That was around seven years ago. I’ve been on Twitter for twice as long as that, having argued in my aforementioned post that Facebook – literally formed as, essentially, a bullying website – not only had dubious origins and was designed to nurture toxic behaviours, but also abused both its workers and its users, in addition to spreading misinformation. In the years since, I’d repeatedly pointed out that Twitter was barely any better, in both form and content, and I regularly promoted the federated universe of websites (or “fediverse”) as an alternative that I’d joined pretty early on in its existence.

Utilising Twitter in more recent years, I’d begun to experience a familiar feeling – one I’d felt with Facebook: a difficulty being able to reconcile remaining on the site. Part of that was witnessing first-hand the vastly superior model of Mastodon over on the fediverse: open source, and with a collection of sites known as “instances” of Mastodon, each with their own areas of focus and codes of conduct, it felt like a much more ethical version of everything offered by Twitter, where, with over 3,000 followers, I was followed by three times the amount of accounts I chose to follow, yet saw my engagement and interaction actually decrease, perhaps in part due to Twitter’s algorithms that had begun to promote some accounts over others, especially if that account featured a blue verification mark bestowed upon them largely at Twitter’s own discretion.

In fairness, I had muted some accounts who I felt were a little overzealous in their “tweeting,” and had started to rely on “lists” to ensure I saw posts that my Twitter timeline had started to hide from me due to promoting what the site repeatedly deemed to be “top tweets.” I’d already resorted to using the Twidere app to strip away ads and return Facebook-esque “likes” to “favourites” (because it just sounds better, and makes more sense as a kind of cataloguing system). So, suffice to say, I can see how my own account would’ve become lost in the shuffle of Twitter’s timeline, too, especially for those not familiar with, or just not inclined to utilise, the “lists” feature.

But the thought occurred to me: Despite often being called a social media “platform,” what use is Twitter as a “platform” where you’re up there speaking, but hardly any single one of your crowd of 3,000 can see or hear you in any way? A quick list in my own mind – of reasons to remain on Twitter – all came from the worst parts of humanity; based on the appearance of popularity, or Fear Of Missing Out: basically, all the kinds of rhetoric I’d experienced when discussing with people my inclination to quit Facebook years before, where I’d pointed out that putting all our organising eggs in one basket wasn’t a good idea, and that the mass mobilisation of the historic march against the invasion of Iraq happened with the internet yet without a corporate social media site of this scale.

Then, this year, talk began of billionaire Elon Musk purchasing Twitter. By this time, I was settling on a specific Mastodon server (Kolektiva.social), and an app to access it (Tusky). I was ready for what would happen next.

This past week has been incredible. The admins of different servers on Mastodon all seemed to agree: they’d never seen anything like it. Masses of people switched from Twitter to Mastodon as the deal finally went through and Elon Musk became the official owner of Twitter, himself heralding the “bird” as being “free” while announcing his promised action on “free speech” as, in fact, “top tweets” on steroids – where paying customers would enjoy visibility over and above the rest of us peasants who didn’t pay up, in fact effectively silencing swathes of people; he threw out any commitment to ethics and basic human rights; he fired half his workforce, and demanded that the rest return to the office instead of working from home in the ongoing pandemic. Just as Facebook, under its Meta mask, has been unable to effectively rebrand itself, Twitter was in trouble – once unthinkable to many of us.

It was unthinkable because we did indeed accept its creeping into our lives; we took for granted popular culture being centered around celebrity tweets or relying on it as a breaking news source and to see what’s trending. But it was a corporation: It can be bought, it can be sold…it can be closed down.

And this was one of the arguments I’d always faced when talking about Linux as an alternative operating system to Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac: while users were quite content to be ripped off on price for it, or struggle to have it happily work with other devices and systems, or painstakingly updating each and every single programme one-by-one, or even worry themselves about viruses, when it came to simply using a free and open source alternative like Linux, complete with a simple software centre, there was either a misplaced trust in a corporate entity, or just a stubborn refusal to accept that change was needed, and they’d been essentially duped. That’s tough to concede.

So despite the week progressing in the Twitter story, from shock and awe at Musk’s monumental mishandling of the Twitter takeover, to high-profile names even defecting to Mastodon, there has still been a resistance the likes of which I witnessed from Facebook users when I was leaving that site. Sadly, there are signs of an abusive relationship here, and I don’t say that lightly, as someone who’s been a victim in abusive relationships myself.

One argument, especially earlier in the week, was to “stay and fight.” Aside from this tragically doomed call having already been debunked as an effective strategy by events in the Democratic Party in the U.S. and the Labour Party in the U.K. (where leftists have been veritably purged in the shift back to right-wing positions), it’s just a bad position to take on a company platforming fascists and decimating a workforce with whom we ought to show solidarity.

You don’t have to “stay and fight” when the better option already exists in Mastodon. And that brings me to the next argument: that it’s “complicated.” This is really amusing, as whoever is explaining Mastodon in a confusing way must be enjoying promoted tweets on (or even by) Twitter itself. The reason? If you’ve ever used an email account, then you can use Mastodon, it’s as simple as that. That’s because although Mastodon seems very similar to Twitter, it is a piece of software that enables anyone to create their own little Twitter, essentially (because the source code is open, it was taken and used by right-wing groups to set up their own little havens of hate, including previously Twitter-banned Donald Trump’s own ironically-named Truth Social, which did not state it took its source code from Mastodon in a way that was transparent, until a letter from Mastodon forced them to!) So just as many of us signed up for a Gmail account, or a Hotmail account, we were still able to send and receive email to and from, say, a Yahoo! email account, right? Of course. It sounds obvious, but this is a concept some are failing to apply to Mastodon.

Each instance of Mastodon can still interconnect with other instances (unless blocked – like when certain emails are assigned as “spam” in our email accounts). For example, I was keen to join an instance that would block other parts of Mastodon where there might be spam itself, or ads, or hate speech. But I can still interact with loads and loads of people on other instances, and we can even “follow” one another. Just like on Twitter. See? The similarities are still there. But the framework is different.

Mastodon>Twitter

On Mastodon, nobody is more important than anyone else. Nobody’s promoted over someone else. A few people who you might consider “high-profile” have already acknowledged and interacted with my posts on Mastodon this week – because they can actually see me. Nobody is penalised for financially contributing less to Mastodon than another (and it’s a good idea to donate to support the server you’re on, if you can).

“Tweets” are instead “toots.” “Re-tweets” are instead “boosts.” “Likes” are instead “favourites” (yay!) Descriptions of images are encouraged, as are content warnings. But so much is similar to Twitter; again, the debates around how we interact with each other on social media are better off happening on Mastodon than Twitter, anyway. We can discuss the best ways to determine how we define “sensitive” posts, and how the site can better serve marginalised communities. The important thing is to have those conversations on Mastodon rather than on Twitter, where hate speech is rife, hardly anything violates what may be left of their code of conduct, and harassment continues as people set up account after account on Twitter just to target people. The claim that Mastodon’s servers enable a user to have multiple accounts is just as valid for Twitter sign-ups anyway – but far worse, given who’s running that site, and its lack of protections. It’s time to grab your things and leave Twitter.

So if Mastodon is, after all, so simple, where do you start?

I’d recommend picking a server that suits you (but don’t worry, you can join a different server later on, even redirect your account to it, and still interact with a plethora of people on other servers anyway). The usual registration process applies – you know, coming up with a username and a password, and all that you’re familiar with from using the internet.

If you’re switching from Twitter, there are some really useful websites that help you find your friends from over there, like Debirdify, while I also enjoyed using Fedifinder to include those I don’t follow but do have on those Twitter “lists” I mentioned earlier.

You can access Mastodon on your web browser, or use a specific app for it, whether the official Mastodon offering or some other app (as I mentioned, I find Tusky hard to beat for Android, at time of writing).

Mastodon itself of course has a lot of support for answering frequent questions people have about the site.

I look forward to seeing you there – where, in social media terms, we can “build the new world in the shell of the old,” with a more decentralised, democratic way of sharing information and interacting with one another.

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