This is a translation of the article I wrote for Kulturpunkt.hr about the demise of Twitter, my personal history and feelings about what’s going on after Elon’s takeover, and my hopes for building better online communities in a post-Twitter world. It’s a direct translation from Croatian, so there are some references to “domestic” Twitter etc., which refer to Croatian and post-Yugoslav online communities. The article was published on November 15th 2022. As I noted at the end, it was immediately out of date as this developing story has already had a number of new disruptive and stupid moments, including the wave of resignations following Elon’s ultimatum to staff, and reinstatement of Trump’s account on November 19th.
As I write this (in mid-November), it’s hard to believe that it’s only been 3 weeks since the surreally stupid moment when Elon Musk triumphantly walked into the Twitter offices carrying a sink (I guess with the intention of making thousands of 12-year-olds laugh with by performing the “let that sink in” meme in real life). In those three weeks, the currently richest man in the world fired the board of directors, most of the executive team, over five thousand Twitter employees (50% of the workforce) and an unknown amount of subcontractors who performed extremely important work of moderating the social network. After walking into Twitter offices, Elon has made a bunch of seemingly frantic decisions on a daily basis, from demanding that programmers print out all the code they’ve written in the past months (so that, I guess, the loyal engineers he brought in from Tesla and Space X can evaluate it based on length), to the spectacularly chaotic introduction of paid verification, which led to multimillion-dollar losses for companies that suddenly found themselves in a situation where anyone with eight dollars could open a Twitter profile that looks as official as theirs.
But all this is the culmination of a months-long struggle for Elon to get out of buying the world’s most influential social network. It’s unclear exactly why he decided to pay $44 billion for Twitter last spring (and it’s $44 billion he didn’t have), but shortly after his original announcement, he began looking for reasons to cancel the sale. On the other hand, Twitter’s supervisory board relatively quickly accepted Musk’s offer Musk to completely take over the company, which until then publicly traded. This is not surprising, given that Twitter is known for losing money – in 2019 it ended the year with a profit for the first time ever, so from the perspective of the board, this offer is probably the only one that could bring a return to investors. Musk then changed his mind, and spent months trying to get out of the sale, including his attempt to convince a court that he had been duped and that Twitter had not given him accurate information about the presence of “bots” on the platform. That lawsuit failed, and that’s how we got to him entering the Twitter building in San Francisco at the end of October. Musk eventually raised the money with the help of a loan backed by Tesla shares, as well as a number of partners, including Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and the Qatari sovereign wealth fund.
After mass layoffs and a completely chaotic first couple of weeks, it’s still completely unclear what Elon’s goal is. He announced that he wanted to turn Twitter into an “oasis of free speech”, and the first results of his moves show that this freedom is reserved only for his followers, who now mainly consist of cryptocurrency traders (which is another one of Elon’s “hobbies”) and right-wing trolls (like the user @catturd2 with whom Elon corresponds and discusses the moves he plans to make in his new company). But although the removal of verified users who ridiculed him shows that Elon’s understanding of free speech is more similar to that of the Gulf dictatorships that helped finance his purchase of Twitter than, for example, to the definition found in the US Constitution, it is not entirely clear whether Elon has any constructive intentions for Twitter or whether he is straight up trying to destroy a social network that has had an unprecedented global influence over its fifteen years of operations. Regardless of whether Twitter ceases to function by the end of the year, which is absolutely possible at the moment, or lives on as an oasis for conspiracy theorists and Tesla fanboys for years to come, the damage Elon has already done is probably beyond repair. Hundreds of thousands of users, if not millions, have already left the network, in an exodus the likes of which we haven’t seen on the Internet in years. It is completely impossible to speculate what economic, social, geopolitical and other consequences this process will have, especially in the context of actual freedom of speech, the reporting on war crimes and human rights violations. For years, Twitter has been the main channel for reporting from conflict zones, from the Arab Spring to the war in Ukraine.
But this text is not about that, and it is not about Elon Musk either. Books and documentaries will probably be written about the background and results of this moment (personally, I hope someone makes a documentary along the lines of the one about the Fyre Festival). Instead, this text is very personal, I am writing it because behind all the current news stories, behind everything bad and traumatic, and we know that bad things on Twitter did not start with Elon Musk, there are countless stories of us who have been on that social network for years – we’ve socialized, met up and built our communities. We are not unique in this respect – online communities have been growing, living and falling apart since the first BBSs (Bulletin Board System) from the early eighties. But before we look back to learn something from those earlier attempts, I’ll tell you briefly what Twitter has meant to me, and how it’s connected me to new and interesting people over the years.
In 2006, when Twitter was launched, I was in high school. I have been active in various internet communities for several years, first in local forums about science fiction (whoever has been there will know which ones), then on blogs which exploded in Croatia at the time. When I originally created a Twitter account, in September 2007, no one really know what kind of social network it would be or how to communicate on it. They called it a “microblogging” platform, so we all imitated our blogs from that time, in 140 characters (the original limit of one tweet, based on the length of a single SMS message). But even then you could see what, from my perspective, remains the key element for Twitter’s success – unlike forums and blogs, on Twitter we were all talking to everyone else. Not literally, of course, but the network expanded organically through the follow system so that through the people we follow, we meet new people, regardless of particular interests or smaller groups. When I was on forums I talked to Star Trek fans. On blogs, I hung out with photographers because I maintained a photo blog. When I got on Twitter, suddenly I was hanging out with everyone! In the beginning it was easy because there were very few of us, especially on Croatian Twitter. We connected spontaneously, hung out at tweet-up meetings, and I still keep in touch with many of them, even though they left Twitter a long time ago.
In 2010, I moved to America. For the first few years, I didn’t use Twitter that actively anymore, but it was my connection with people in the Balkans, an opportunity to communicate regularly in my own language, but also to follow what was happening in the country I left. After moving to New York in 2014, Twitter was crucial in getting involved in cycling and urban activism in that city, but even though my profile became bilingual, like my “real” life, to this day, my “native” Twitter community remains the most important one to me. Of course, there is not just one “domestic” Twitter – even in the small area of the former Yugoslavia there are at least one hundred thousand active users, probably more. But the opportunity to continuously meet new people, spontaneously, writing in my own language, was extremely important to me. One element of emigration, which in my experience is not talked about much, is the stagnation of new friendships after a long absence from the country you left. Of course, if you come home relatively regularly (in my case it’s once or twice a year for a couple of weeks), you will meet some new people, but the opportunities to develop new relationships are limited. Twitter changed that dynamic for me – many of the people I met in recent years in Croatia were initially “mutuals” (people who follow each other on Twitter). I’m not mentioning it as some kind of unique experience – in 2022, people will meet each other via the Internet through all possible networks and apps, but I’m pointing out that for a specific group of people, Twitter was a place that, despite its toxicity, continuously encouraged positive relationships that developed into friendships .
Some of us started preparing for the move back in April, when Elon first announced the purchase. We had no way of knowing exactly what was going to happen, but based on his reputation, we assumed he wasn’t planning anything good for our network. Many opened profiles on Mastodon, a decentralized platform similar in functionality to Twitter, but ideologically and infrastructurally completely different from it, more similar to decentralized communities from the earlier stages of online communications. For some it was the first time they were going through a collapse of a network, others have been through multiple such events, from MySpace, Tumblr (which is potentially experiencing a second renaissance through the collapse of Twitter), MSN, to countless forums, Usenet groups and BBSs. There wasn’t, and still isn’t, a consensus on whether to move elsewhere, and that’s exactly the reason why I don’t believe that the communities created on Twitter will survive in the form they functioned until October 2022. Some people will stay on Twitter until the end. Some will go to Mastodon, some to Tumblr, some younger and more creative ones to Tiktok, some to private Signal and Telegram groups, some to Discord. Some simply won’t go anywhere, maybe they will devote themselves to friends in real life. Some will leave and then come back. As with any disintegration we are going through, to use a problematic but seemingly appropriate term, balkanization. In an academic context, balkanization is used to describe the fragmentation of territory into smaller parts. And after everyone goes their separate ways, it will take a long time to build relationships again.
Unlike many geopolitical meltdowns, this one may have some positive consequences. In the mid-2000s, the Internet was going through its Web 2.0 phase. The emphasis was on platforms that allowed users to actively create and share their own content – YouTube, Flickr (once the main photo-sharing platform), blogs, Facebook, Twitter, all were created during the crucial period when the Internet we know today was born. At the beginning, the emphasis was on the openness of the platforms, but also the openness of technology, through open APIs (interfaces for communication between platforms) and technologies such as RSS (with which we followed blogs) However, later on this gave way to closed centralized platforms that later on grew into companies worth tens of billions of dollars. When talk of decentralization began again in the 2010s, cryptocurrencies and blockchain took over. Instead of decentralization in a social and political sense, the ideology that developed in crypto communities saw social relations exclusively in the form of monetary transactions. Coincidentally (or not?), along with the collapse of Twitter, we are currently also witnessing the implosion of FTX, one of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges. Given the far-reaching consequences of this and other crashes in the cryptocurrency markets, we see that their promises of decentralization were false – the crypto movement centralized financial power in companies controlled by a small group of people, just like the financial system it was meant to replace.
But maybe something is changing. Among a bunch of options, I decided to find and build my community again on Mastodon. Although we have already described it as a decentralized Twitter, Mastodon is relatively difficult to explain without getting into technical details and jargon that many people do not understand. Therefore, I will try to explain it in social and economic terms. Mastodon is only one part of the fediverse environment based on open standards. It’s a network that, in terms of infrastructure and society, rests on the will and effort of users to manage it, as opposed to networks run by large companies which give us a “free” service in exchange for our data and its manipulation through secret algorithms. In practical terms, this means that Mastodon is similar to the early internet and pre-internet, when online communities like BBSs were created through the work of a few people who wanted to communicate with each other. Some of them would maintain the technical infrastructure, servers and phone connections, while others would moderate the communication to keep the community healthy and functional. The problems that Twitter is dealing with today, or rather, that it was dealing with until Elon fired the moderators – harassment, homophobia and transphobia, racism and an increasing number of Nazis – have been present since the first online communities. But the operators of those communities learned even then that unconditional freedom of speech does not exist – if toxic and hateful members of the community are tolerated, they will destroy the community and drive out the rest. In the period of dominance of centralized social networks that has lasted for almost twenty years now, companies like Facebook and Twitter have tried to deal with this problem through a combination of algorithmic and manual moderation, by constant ideological balancing to (unsuccessfully) avoid accusations of bias. The results are disappointing: we’ve known for years that algorithms tolerate racism and regularly discriminate against people who fight against it, and social networks have been implicated in key global scandals of our time, like as the documented Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
Mastodon and fediverse promise us something completely opposite. Launched in 2018, Mastodon has grown slowly. In the world of technology and economy dominated by the ideology of the Silicon Valley where the options are either to grow or to disappear, such an approach is completely anachronistic. Instead of having acres of centralized data centers in the desert like Facebook and Twitter, Mastodon is more like the networks of the 80s and 90s where communities maintain and moderate their own servers. But what makes it modern and ready to replace Twitter is the protocol that allows all these communities to communicate with each other. It’s built on the principle of subsidiarity – the responsibility for community building – in the technological-infrastructural and social sense – is transferred from the level of a global corporation to user groups. Well-managed communities then cooperate with each other to keep the entire network healthy and functional. If a group of Nazis appear on one server, a good moderator will kick them out. If that moderator fails and allows their community to turn into a community of Nazis, the other server’s admins will block them. At least that’s how things should work. Whether Mastodon is ready for a major surge of users after the Twitter implosion remains to be seen. There are several challenges, technological and social, but also practical – Mastodon is still relatively complicated for new users. The server concept is abstract to folks after 20 years of centralized services, and many users will find the techno-utopian atmosphere off putting at first. Fortunately, there are already many people at Mastodon who understand these challenges and are actively trying to welcome new arrivals. Although the majority of “domestic” users are scattered across various servers, there are several regional ones – toot.si, mastodon.hr and balkan.fedive.rs. Those of us who recently arrived from Twitter welcome new users via the hashtag #bivšitviteraši (former Twitter users) and offer help to people who are trying to adapt to the new platform. In general, there is a very optimistic and empathetic atmosphere on Mastodon right now, so unusual in today’s internet. A good example is the attention paid to accessibility, for example by adding textual descriptions of images for people with low vision.
No one knows what’s next for Twitter. Every day there are new crazy news – it is possible that by the time this text is published, the analysis from the beginning will be completely out of date. We live in an extremely dynamic and unpredictable period. The pandemic is still going on, there is a war in Ukraine, climate change is getting worse, and it seems that a big economic crisis is coming. It’s hard to predict how Twitter’s changes will affect all these political crises, but I believe that Musk’s purchase of Twitter will become a significant historical moment. But maybe along with the story about major global events, we can start writing a smaller one, about our online communities that we started to rebuild together and independent from the crazed billionaire who carries a sink. As for me, I’ve been @mejs on Twitter for the past 15 years. Now I’m @firstname.lastname@example.org on Mastodon. See you on the internet!