Twitter is suffering from mad bro disease. Open thinking can build it back better

We must immunize the Mastodon

Opinion There is a euphemism in rocketry often heard at SpaceX – Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly. A catastrophic explosion, in other words. Until now, it was not a phrase that applies to social media.

But within weeks of his shotgun wedding to Twitter, Musk has alienated advertisers by yelling at them, blown up verification, shilled NFTs on the platform, sacked thousands, seemingly at random if you judge by reports they were asked back, and banned people he doesn't like in the name of free speech.

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That was just for starters. Last Thursday, we learned that his chief compliance and regulatory officer quit, as Musk has indicated he intends to ignore the law however he wishes to make money out of his users, with internal lawyers recommending staff to self-certify as compliant with regulators and register as whistleblowers.

Whether Twitter exists, and what it might look like, by next Thursday is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t really matter. By taking on many billions in debt to fund the purchase, Musk has guaranteed that the company will fold, with any conceivable revenues being swallowed up by repayments and interest. The future is written in stone and ends in dust.

This unparalleled act of destruction of value and brand of both Twitter and Musk himself is both horror show and high farce. It would be so were Twitter a music service or an infrastructure provider. It is, however, so much more. The social media platform has become intrinsic to politics and media in many countries, and an indispensable tool to many professions, creative communities, and minorities. There isn’t one Twitter, there are thousands, with users finding their own mix of professional, personal and political circles. As a space for discovering, filtering and acting on news, and communicating between and within hierarchies, it is unparalleled. Now, it is doomed.

As a result of Twitter’s civic importance and vulnerability to toxic capitalism, the question of lifeboats and where to steer them is paramount. In Germany, the data regulator has already advised state and public bodies to move their social media activities to open platforms, with many already starting up their own Mastodon instances. Many communities and individuals have made the same move. Can it work? If Twitter never really made money despite its huge resources and focus, do open platforms have any chance?

Making a FOSS of social media

The parallels with FOSS are many and obvious: open standards, community agreement and donation of skills and resources to build value for all. Yet at first sight, the economics of open platforms and open source seem entirely different, in a way that makes life very hard for the platforms.

A FOSS project needs an upfront investment in designing, making and testing software, but then only intermittent attention and expense. An open social media platform needs to be running 24/7, actively supporting many millions of users and burning fat wads of dollars in constant operational expense. It’s possible to run a library through volunteers and donations – but try operating a 24-hour national news TV station on that basis.

Yet the actual difference between open platforms and software isn’t one of intrinsic form. Both involve creating, curating and distributing human focused data. The difference is latency. A FOSS package still needs to be distributed widely via servers and networks that cost money, and it needs ongoing attention for security and updating throughout its life: the economics of these are viable because almost none of it has to happen instantly, and storage, connectivity and human attention are much, much cheaper when very high latency is acceptable.

The low latency of social media platforms needs fast storage, compute and connectivity, and paid staff on call at all times. Crucially, the first three need to be rapidly scalable – the most expensive combination in infrastructure you can find.

Mastodon is the flagship of federated social media, the smartest compromise so far between the needs of open platforms and their viability. The "fediverse" expects instances, small local pools of low latency, where communities who talk to each other a lot can live, with slower, sparser links between instances on a per-user follower, search or timeline basis. Scaling happens when users start their own instances.

It sounds like, and is, a classic hierarchy of expensive fast local to cheap slow distant resources. It is elegant. It's also a terrible fit for real humans, used to multiple overlapping communities and unsure why they have to pick one above all. “It doesn’t matter, they’re federated” is the reply - so if it doesn’t matter, why make it compulsory?

The federation also breaks when lots of new users pick the same instance, and centralized security, policy, and moderation is hard to agree on, let alone implement... Instances can vanish by fate or whim. All these erode the user experience and thus trust, the sine qua non of social media. As Musk is currently and oh so expensively demonstrating.

There is a halfway house between capitalism and communitarianism, and it’s called the state. The allocation of resources to the public good in a regulated but liberal environment has made FOSS work, but the same ideas have produced such things as the BBC, which has survived a hundred years of attacks from all sides and its own incompetence, by inculcating trust.

The German state is paying for Mastodon instances as a social good, and there’s no reason that has to be limited to state entities. We pay for small theatre companies, artists and galleries; why not for social media people and places?

If social media can become so thoroughly intertwined with the workings of civil society as Twitter has, and be the most efficient way to communicate amongst people and organisations, then it has earned its right to exist as part of the fabric of society, and not as a billionaire’s chew toy or an arm of autocratic propaganda.

Federated, open platform social media works. With the right technical, social and practical resources, it can be designed to be that bit more human, and be as scalable as any properly planned infrastructure. Latency just low enough to work well needs proper planning, but that can be part of the support. It can have the judicious mix of regulation and freedoms that create and promote trust. It can move social media back into society, where it belongs. ®

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