Where Did We Go Wrong?

Ongoing experiments in social media

When I first heard about Twitter, I — along with a lot of other luddites — thought it sounded like the stupidest thing imaginable. But I decided to give it a shot, follow a bunch of people from different areas of interest, and started to get a real sense of community. Within a few months, I’d gotten to depend on it, not just as a social outlet and as my primary source of news, from global to hyper-local.

And then, after using it for a while longer, I realized that I’d been right the first time. There’s something rotten about Twitter, and it was there long before Musk bought it, and long before the “alt-right” discovered it as the perfect harassment platform.

When the tech media started discovering Mastodon, I heard a lot of people say that there’s no way it would become a Twitter replacement. I think it was meant to be a slam, but I’d say now that I agree, and that it’s a good thing.

I used to think that that was a case of “security through obscurity;” Mastodon wasn’t yet large enough to attract the elements that would inevitably make it awful. But now, I believe that Mastodon (and the Fediverse in general) has built-in counters to most of the things that made Twitter so gross and unusable.

Longer character count limits make it a little easier to actually make your point including the necessary nuance and everything, and without making multi-part threads that have readers wondering why you didn’t just write a blog post. The lack of an algorithm means you have more control over what you see, and it disincentivizes posts made just for the sake of “engagement.” There’s very little incentive to have a post that goes viral; in fact, it’s probably much more trouble than it’s worth.

Mastodon definitely has its issues; my own biggest annoyance is how much of the content is devoted to telling the rest of us how We’re Doing It Wrong. But I’ve been impressed by how well it’s been social engineered as a mostly-friendly outlet for whatever random thought pops into your head. In my opinion, there are two big issues with Mastodon that are unlikely to ever be “fixed:” 1) it’s not great at hyper-topical, hyper-local “news” that Twitter excelled at, e.g. “was that an earthquake?” or “why are there helicopters in the neighborhood?”. And 2) it doesn’t attract the kind of celebrity and casual user that will only ever be interested in centralized social media.

So I’ve checked out two of the platforms touted as Twitter alternatives: Threads and Bluesky. (Thanks to an Instagram friend for the Bluesky invitation).

Threads is, not to put too fine a point on it, hot garbage. It’s not just noisy but aggressively cacophonous. It takes the increasingly loud, desperate, ad-soaked betrayal of Adam Mosseri’s Instagram and somehow pushes it even further into TikTok territory. Wave after wave of corporate accounts and would-be influencers all debasing themselves in hope of clout and engagement. So, so many awful WHERE MY THREADS AT? posts, so many Barbie and Oppenheimer memes. It has the inescapable feel of Blade Runner 2049 — fake, miserable people desperate for your attention, begging you to tell them who you want them to be.

BlueSky, on the other hand, is even worse.

I’d bet that a majority of the people who’ve used both platforms would completely disagree with my take. But the key difference, in my opinion, is that nobody cares about Threads. I can’t imagine anyone being genuinely invested in Threads, even the people who are literally invested in Threads. It strikes me as being so without purpose or merit that it almost feels refreshingly guileless. Scrolling through Threads feels like a large language model in training just throwing random words in front of my face. And I don’t feel remotely threatened by any of it because I just don’t care about any of it; it feels about as realistic as the demons in DOOM.

I pledged that I’d just be a shit-poster on Threads, not caring about any of it and just posting whatever nonsense I thought was funny. I quickly found I couldn’t do it — nothing that I could think of was all that funny, and it was completely unnecessary stress to feel like I had to be “on.” Plus, I’ve been enjoying being earnest online for long enough that it feels weird not to.

BlueSky to me feels like they were careful to recreate all of the most long-term toxic aspects of Twitter. It’s all the stuff that people just ignored or shrugged off while complaining about the most blatant toxicity like white supremacy, misogyny, and anti-LGBT harassment. It’s got so many of the people who I genuinely missed from Twitter, but who would never sign up for Mastodon1I read one poster, after people suggested Mastodon because he seemed fed up with BlueSky’s moderation failures, sneer that Mastodon was “the Linux of social media.” Hey good one, man, you come up with that yourself?. And I know it sounds condescending, but they’re all eager to recreate Twitter, while I feel like I’ve moved on.

It’s probably just due to who I’m following on there, but it feels like everyone on BlueSky either needs to feel like one of the Cool Kids2Where, as far as I can tell, being cool means being the most disaffected shitposter, based on the reverence for “dril”, or needs to assert that their time on social media is social work. There’s a depressing cynicism that’s pervasive, where everyone needs to be on top of the latest trends, so that they can come up with the most concise and funny description of how the latest trends suck. It strikes me as the audience who regard that “On Smarm” essay from Gawker as the voice of a generation.

And there’s so much time spent alerting us to evils that either don’t matter at all, or that we have absolutely no control over. I lost count of how many times I saw people posting a link to a video from a completely irrelevant right-wing clown, who was clearly taking advantage of the obscene amount of marketing money that went into promoting Barbie, and trying to use it to further the idiotic GOP culture war. In a more sane world before Twitter, this nonsense would have been given the attention it deserves, which is none. But on BlueSky, I saw people lining up to dunk on it. Most of them mocked the video for just helping bring attention to the thing it ostensibly hates. I don’t know if they were aware of the irony, or if it would’ve even mattered if they were aware of the irony.

I’m looking forward to the day when the novelty wears off, and I stop feeling the need to have a presence on either Threads or BlueSky. I wouldn’t be particularly upset if either or both of them went the way of Google Buzz, Orkut, and Friendster.

Until then, I’m obviously Team Mastodon. I like that it feels so old-fashioned, and that using it reminds me of the glory years of RSS feeds and blogrolls. I like being earnest, without the pressure to be “on” all the time and come up with something funny or topical. I like being able to have a voice online without having to be defensive, expecting every single thing I say to be met with dismissive criticism, or bad-faith correction. I even like that the scolding and hectoring posts are a side effect of the vibe being so earnest overall.

It really does all feel a bit like people taking back the internet from the people who’ve spent the better part of the 21st century trying to run it into the ground.

  • 1
    I read one poster, after people suggested Mastodon because he seemed fed up with BlueSky’s moderation failures, sneer that Mastodon was “the Linux of social media.” Hey good one, man, you come up with that yourself?
  • 2
    Where, as far as I can tell, being cool means being the most disaffected shitposter, based on the reverence for “dril”