Once again, we’re talking about moving from one major social media platform to other alternatives. This time, it’s because Elon Musk, one of the main villains of the comic book we live in, bought Twitter and everyone is pretty much sure that things will only get worse from here on. I agree with this observation and guessing I’ll add another dead social media platform on my belt soon (RIP Friendfeed). But I have problems with the discussion people are having about leaving Twitter.
Techno-Solutionism is Back, Again
Both Elon Musk and his fanbase, and a good majority of the people who talks about leaving Twitter instantly falls back to techno-solutionism as the silver bullet that’ll fix all of the problems they see around them. We already know Musk’s mindset, he thinks that the solution to every problem in the world is a technology he can make profit from it. That’s why he thought asking Twitter developers to print their code to inspect was a brilliant idea.
But the other side also falls into the same trap and thinks that a platform developed better or has better tools and technologies inside would solve all of the problems with Twitter and social media. Yes, it might seem that we have all of these problems because of Twitter’s technology but that’s only because we’re primed to see things like that. This is basically the premise of techno-solutionism, every problem can be solvable with technology one way or another. When you start looking at every problem with this mindset, you’ll start thinking that throwing more developers will solve everything. But in real life, throwing developers to the problems will only cause them pain, especially if you’re doing it literally.
You Can’t Be Social Without People
Real problem when it comes to social media platforms, and to be honest most of the communication and information technologies, is they are not mainly about technology but about people. Most of the time, people choose certain tools and platforms only because that’s where the people are, not because it’s a better tool.
That’s because these are social tools, and we’re social creatures. Take messaging apps as an example. I can say that I’m only using Signal and deleting everything else from my phone if I want. But when I take that action, I’ll lose my connection with hundreds of people who are my friends, family, and people I work with. There is no way I can move all my connections and archives from WhatsApp, Twitter DMs or other apps into Signal. And there is no way I can message a WhatsApp user from Signal. It doesn’t matter how Signal is technologically much better than all of the others, if I don’t have all of the people I want to stay in touch.
This is what is called switching cost. Cory Doctorow explains this beautifully in this article.
When we talk about social media monopolies, we focus too much on network effects, and not enough on switching costs. Yes, it’s true that all your friends are already stuck in a Big Tech silo that doesn’t talk to any of the other Big Tech silos. It needn’t be that way: interoperable platforms have existed since the first two Arpanet nodes came online. You can phone anyone with a phone number and email anyone with an email address.
But this is not the case anymore. Almost all of the tools and platforms we’re using keep taking further steps to make sure this switching cost is as high as possible. In the early days, you could use any XMPP messaging account to message someone with a Facebook account or build a perfect crossposting between Facebook and Twitter etc. But when these platforms started to feel like they have gathered enough users to create a network effect, they closed it all down to raise the switching costs.
This is why telling people just use another platform or move to Mastodon doesn’t really makes too much sense if the switching cost is too high for them. When that platform have your friends, and people you have valuable conversations with or it’s an important information source for you, you don’t really care about whether the other one has better options or it’s owner is not a comic book villain. When Facebook bought and shut down Friendfeed, no matter how much people tried, most of the community I was part of lost touch and never got back together.
Moving Online is Not Simple
People usually think that when they start campaigning for this kind of social media migration, everyone will just come to the new place and they’ll continue where they were left off. I wish this was the reality.
One of the most important issue is that moving from one to another usually means that you’ll lose some or all communication with the old platform and people still using it. Since there isn’t a full interoperability between them, you’re left with two choices: either completely abandon the old one or try to manage both at the same time. Since we generally have an archive, list of connections and habits build up at the old one, people don’t want to abandon the old place. This story usually ends up people returning to old one at some point in the future.
We should also not forget the dynamics playing in the background which we don’t usually pay attention. People assume that they only need their friends to move with them and they don’t need anything else. But the way these platforms work and how we’re actually benefitting from them actually plays a more important role when we decide where to use.
For example, one of the major differences between Mastodon and Twitter is their understanding of the word social. In the case of Mastodon, even though you can use tags or the local and federated timelines, social usually means that your own community and circle. It can definitely work for certain people and communities but there are many cases it will just bring an unwanted friction.
That’s because another important part of being social online is serendipity. Just like Jay Owens said in the tweet below, thinking in public and being able to connect with complete strangers is an important factor for many people, including myself.
This dynamic of connecting with people from completely different backgrounds, who has different experiences and knowledge actually what makes certain platforms more useful for me. Meeting with people like that, learning from them even just by lurking, and having conversations about many things is an important thing to have.
Of course I can totally see when people need closed communities, and how it’s a necessity at certain situations. I wrote about that too. And I know that being open to serendipity means that you’ll also have to deal with toxic people time to time and it’s not something anyone wants. Yet, even though I know that whenever I tweet especially in Turkish, there’ll be some people who’ll reply and try to dunk on me just to make themselves feel a little better about their miserable lives, I also know that I’ll have a lot of good conversations with the people I met on this platform and learn a lot from them as well.
What I’m trying to say is that when you decide to move from one place to another online, there are certain costs to pay and certain decisions to make. Of course another option is to compartmentalize between different platforms and use them based on how you feel like they can benefit you the best.
What The Future Holds
When it comes to people, looking for perfect solutions is not a smart idea. You’ll always have edge cases, different communities with different needs, and trying to come up with a perfect solution for everyone online doesn’t make sense.
We first need to change our approach to the problem and stop thinking like this is a technology problem waiting for yet another tool to come up and solve it. That’s never going to be the answer. This is one reason my interest in the Bluesky project died down a little, because they just went ahead and decided to publish yet another protocol like none of them ever heard of this XKCD comic.
Unless we actually see a major shift of preference from the people, I’m not expecting any major changes in the near future. But in the case of Facebook and Twitter, there’s a potential that both Zuckerberg and Musk may bankrupt these companies and force people to find another place as well. Especially Musk has a dangerous potential to make everything much worse in the near to mid-term.
One term I keep returning in my head is “adversarial interoperability”. Simply making these platforms interoperable with the alternatives so that switching cost would be minimal. Of course none of these platforms would want that right now, this is why people building the alternatives should think about how to make it happen in a most useful way.
There’s also this video from Cory Doctorow, which is part design fiction part science fiction prototype about how an interoperable Facebook would work. This is a nice goal to have if we don’t want to deal with these problems in the future.
But right now, we’re stuck with what we have and everyone will calculate their switching costs, check their options and make a decision. Some will keep that, some will change their mind later on. Until we either have a people-centric solution or the platforms we’re stuck are gone. The best thing we can do is to think about what really matters for us on the internet and pursue that in our own ways.
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