Leaving Twitter

If you're reading this at the time of posting, you know exactly what I'm going to say and why. If you're reading from the future some context might be helpful. (Also, has Linux taken over yet? It's the year of the Linux desktop now right?)

Elon Musk took over Twitter and has put the company into a tailspin to put things charitably. In his short tenure there he has managed to:

  • Bring in external devs to do forced code reviews of the entire company to gauge performance.
  • Fire at least half the staff.
  • Cause several outages of varying severity.
  • Promote "free speech" by banning Twitter accounts which he personally disagrees with.
  • Make major policy decisions via Twitter poll.
  • Disband content moderation council and lie about it.
  • Break Twitter verified labels multiple times.
  • Publicly harass employees.
  • Reinstate numerous banned accounts, notably including Donald Trump.

The Technical Stuff

Elon seems to have absolutely no idea what kind of company he bought and what to do with it. I would laugh at all this if it weren't so depressing. There's a lot of stupid decisions he's made, but I think it all comes down to the fact that he doesn't understand what a social media company is. He looks at everything through the realm of an engineer trying to solve a technical problem (how do we serve tweets efficiently), not as a leader trying to solve a social problem (how do we incentivize people to have positive human interactions).

Twitter's source code and its infrastructure is the easy part. "Easy" should be read in gigantic air quotes of course. Scaling anything to support hundreds of millions of users is absolutely difficult, and Twitter is no exception. However as a social media company, the focus of its leader needs to be on making the platform accessible, supporting disadvantaged users, and defining moderation policies. When building a social platform, the "platform" is the straightforward part, it's the "social" where things get complicated.

Nilay Patel put it best in Welcome to hell, Elon (emphasis mine):

The essential truth of every social network is that the product is content moderation

Say what you will about Jack Dorsey's Twitter, at least he seemed to understand this key point. Twitter leadership historically focused a lot of attention on defining content policies, empowering moderators and building a moderation council, handling abuse, supporting disadvantaged users, etc. It was never perfect for sure and Twitter certainly made missteps along the way. However it always came across as at least trying to do the right thing. Twitter always recognized that content moderation is both important and nuanced, two things Elon still fails to grasp.

Elon loves to tout "free speech" as the motivator for everything that he does. Most of his reasoning sounds great on the surface to me, an affluent caucasian heterosexual male. But of course, my experience in social media and the privilege I have as someone who never once had to block someone yields a very different perspective than many other Twitter users. I at least understand that not everyone has my experience. I can see people who do have to block others and the harm which motivates them to do so. This is where policies like mass-unbanning or "anything that's legal is allowed" cause very real harm for users. Mike Masnick's content moderation speedrun article article does a much better job than I can of breaking down how complicated "free speech" really is and demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the topic Elon clearly lacks.

It's worth remembering that Twitter has had financial problems long before Elon took over. Twitter has never really been sustainable and was always dependent on investors. Jack Dorsey himself has publicly regretted that Twitter became a company in the first place, so it's quite possible it was doomed the moment it incorporated. Despite that, it is still absolutely fair to criticize Elon for buying the company seemingly as a joke without any coherent strategy for what to do with it. So far, Elon's solution seems to be to lay off half the staff, drive off most of his advertisers, and break verified branding so people pay $8 to fix it. Elon may not have created these problems, but they are the problems he adopted when he purchased the company. Yet he seems to have no idea what to do about them and is flying by the seat of his tweets.

Also, this might seem petty given that I don't work for Twitter, but Elon just seems like the world's worst boss. Mass layoffs with seemingly no compassion for affected employees, making major policy decisions by Twitter poll, bringing in Tesla employees to code review Twitter employees, changing his mind on an hourly basis, publicly arguing with employees about infrastructure, etc. I usually don't care too much about big tech executives. As a current Google employee, I can say that decisions Sundar Pichai makes are so far removed from what I deal with on a day-to-day basis as to be near meaningless. I feel similarly about most major executives and I don't typically judge a company or my desire to work there based on its C-level execs. But Elon is absolutely a CEO I would never want to work for (maybe Zuckerburg too). Rod Hilton put it best:

He talked about electric cars. I don't know anything about cars, so when people said he was a genius I figured he must be a genius.

Then he talked about rockets. I don't know anything about rockets, so when people said he was a genius I figured he must be a genius.

Now he talks about software. I happen to know a lot about software & Elon Musk is saying the stupidest shit I've ever heard anyone say, so when people say he's a genius I figure I should stay the hell away from his cars and rockets.

Even beyond these subjective philosophical concerns, Elon's takeover has led to very real and practical concerns about security and privacy. Can Twitter's users trust the company to secure their data and keep their information private given the massive amount of layoffs, churn, and general turmoil at the company? Does current Twitter feel like a safe and secure place for your information? Does Elon seem like the kind of guy who would encourage developers to take the time to properly security review the PR which breaks the verified checkmark?

The Political Stuff

I typically try to avoid talking too much about politics publicly, mainly for my own mental health. However I personally have a red line about sharing a platform with the... everything... that Donald Trump represents. In particular, as of today Trump has faced little to no personal accountability for his hundreds (?) of scandals and particularly for attempting to overthrow the government. As of today he is yet to be indicted for anything and while his political power has certainly weakened (largely because of his bans from social media IMHO), he is still a very real contender for the 2024 presidential race.

Being kicked off social media was arguably the biggest consequence he has faced up until now and Twitter arguably led that effort in the immediate aftermath of January 6th. Rolling that back and letting him back onto the platform feels like it is reverting the smallest shred of accountability he has faced up to this point.

As of today, Trump has not actually activated the account, claiming he would rather use his own platform "Truth Social". Personally I can't see that site ever getting the kind of reach he would demand and sooner or later he'll come back to the bird, but that's just my speculation. Whether he returns or not is irrelevant to the fact he has regained what little privilege was taken from him.

I could go on, but I really don't want to and this is why I try to avoid politics. The key point is that I personally refuse to share a platform with Donald Trump (whether he participates or not), and inviting him back to the platform was when I knew I no longer wanted to be a part of Elon's Twitter.

What's Next?

Well if it wasn't obvious from the rest of this post, I'm deactivating my Twitter account. This is a decision from a number of root causes stemming from Elon's takeover. It started with bringing Trump back onto the platform, to being a terrible boss in every way, to no longer trusting the company with my security.

I'm not really much of a social media person, and Twitter for me was always about the community I wanted to be a part of. I created my account shortly after joining the Angular team as I wanted to be more involved in open source software, particularly web developers. Twitter was always just a means to that end, and I'm more interested in following that community wherever it goes.

Over the past few months, I've seen a bunch of people in this community migrating to Mastodon, whether fully or partially, and I made the jump myself to @develwithoutacause@techhub.social. Ultimately moving communities between platforms is very messy. It's a slow process, different people are looking for different things, and communities are infinitely fractal. However I've seen enough of my follows moving to Mastodon and had enough positive experiences with the platform to see a healthy and thriving community there for anyone interested in joining.

While the user experience is very similar to Twitter, the culture is noticeably different. People tend to be more active and engaged, boost interesting content due to the lack of ranking algorithms, and be less focused on a "topic of the day about dunking on the stupid person doing a stupid thing." While the community is definitely smaller, I still get about the same amount of engagement on Mastodon as I do on Twitter, and generally higher quality in my opinion. Also, there's a solid number of people I previously followed on Twitter whom I'm pretty sure did not follow me back, but have decided to follow me on Mastodon. I'm not sure how much of this is just people becoming acquainted with the new platform and how much is a result of distinct cultural differences. We'll have to see how things shake out in the future.

So is Mastodon the future?

Ultimately I'm joining Mastodon in order to stay connected with the open source and web development communities. While Mastodon does meet my needs, I do have a number of concerns as to the long term health of the ecosystem.

First, I don't see a sustainable financial model for maintaining Mastodon servers right now. Twitter solved this problem mainly with advertisements, but Mastodon explicitly rejects ads and everything is largely self-funded or handled via donations. This can be good enough for hobbyist instances or small communities, but is far off from the hundreds of millions of users Twitter was successfully serving. This problem ultimately reduces to the more general problem of open source sustainability, which is still a major challenge in the industry with no clear answer.

Donations are great, but have yet to take off as a sustainable mainstream business model on the internet, and I don't see that changing in the immediate future. Maybe it's because I work for an advertising company, but personally I'd be totally fine if a server showed ads and that made enough revenue to keep the service free. The current state of ad-funded social networks serves as an existence proof that many users are comfortable with that as an idea. However, I expect that the OSS community behind Mastodon would likely have strong philosophical objections about such an approach. I can absolutely see the ad-based monetization model weaken as the the legal landscape around user privacy evolves, so maybe online culture will slowly shift and Mastodon is actually ahead of the curve. Hopefully the diversity of servers and people in this space will find the right sustainability model for them, but I've yet to see anything which really seems like a clear success. All that said, please toss a coin to your server admins.

Second, Mastodon seems to have a contradiction between "small tight-knit community" and "global social network". This is best exemplified by the way severs work. The server you pick is really important because it's the community you're associating with, the moderation policy you're agreeing to, the infrastructure you want to see sustainable, and the maintainers you're trusting with your security and privacy. But also the server is completely unimportant because you can change it at any time, see content from any other server, or even host your own server with your own rules.

There's a fundamental contradiction here about what the server represents to its community. From a practical perspective I personally feel like the server is mainly the infrastructure serving my traffic and also the domain attached to my Mastodon handle. I can't associate a name or face with my server admin because I see Mastodon as a "global social network", but there are absolutely others who do know their server admins and have direct conversations with them about moderation decisions and other topics of the day.

Compare this to Slack, Discord, or a subreddit where the community tends to be tightly focused on a particular topic and have certain expectations about the members of that community. I can go to the DragonBall FighterZ subreddit and post 5L5L2M5M JC 5L5M5L2H SD 5L5M5L2H JC 5LL236L 236MH and people actually know what I'm talking about. Meanwhile the same thing in programming subreddit looks like a language made up from scratch for code golfing.

Twitter is at the opposite end of the spectrum where communities are much more ambiguous and focused on individuals rather than well-defined communities. Users follow other users directly and hashtags only loosely link specific topics or ideas.

Exactly where Mastodon fits into this spectrum is still unclear to me. That's not necessarily fatal or even a bad thing. Maybe we can find the best of both worlds. Or maybe different users will have different expectations of each other and lead to unproductive conflict. I don't really know, it's just an aspect which has confused me and I don't think I have a good answer for it right now.

Thirdly, I don't really see clear user-facing benefits to decentralization in Mastodon. This is a bigger problem with the blockchain community, but that's a whole separate blog post. I have a pet peeve about "decentralization" as a selling point. Decentralization is not a feature. Decentralization is an architectural choice. Don't sell me on how decentralized your product is, sell me on the features which are enabled by your decentralized architecture that make you better than centralized alternatives. "You can pick a server with moderation policies you like" or "you can own your server and be protected from a power-hungry admin" are features enabled by decentralization, sell me on those, not the mythical "decentralization" bullet point.

Does decentralization allow Mastodon to provide more value for users than other social networks? If there was ever a reason to choose a decentralized social network, Twitter's implosion was it. "Leave a crazed power-hungry admin" is quite literally the exact reason I'm leaving Twitter. Even this blog was heavily inspired by Scott Hanselman's "own your words" mantra, something more relevant now than ever. However, I'm not the average user and the product designer in me still sees more complexity and downsides for the typical user in a decentralized system like Mastodon than a centralized one like Twitter. I'm just personally not convinced this is a significant improvement in Mastodon's favor.

I don't want to be too negative about all this, there's a lot to like about Mastodon. I love the culture of adding alt text to everything, I could see myself running a server for my own identity, and the community has been overall quite welcoming.

I could go on baselessly opining about Mastodon, but this post is already way longer than I expected and I'm still learning myself. So instead, let's wrap this up by baselessly opining about Twitter!

Is Twitter's Dead?

Despite Elon's best efforts to the contrary, I do think Twitter will stick around for quite a while. It's simply too big and too ingrained in the current internet culture to disappear overnight. The vast majority of brands, celebrities, public figures, and influencers will weather the storm and keep on tweeting without all that much change.

Even MySpace still exists today. But like MySpace, social media networks tend not to die spectacularly. They die a death of irrelevance. They die when the cultural conversation moves on and people stop thinking about it or only think about how dead it is. That may eventually happen to Twitter, and it will be interesting to look back at Elon's takeover with the benefit of hindsight. Was it the start of Twitter's death spiral? Did it save or delay Twitter's death? Was Twitter doomed from the beginning?

Will Mastodon take over? I highly doubt it. People find their communities organically and through their existing relationships. Twitter's spiral will probably have more impact for TikTok, Discord, and whatever the next big social network will be than Mastodon. That said, Mastodon doesn't need to be the biggest social network to be successful and provide the value people are looking for, and I do feel it will many meet users' needs there. The open source and web dev communities in particular seem to have found a home there.

Looking Forward

Ultimately the people, communities, and relationships we've built are all still here, just a bit jumbled up now. Life goes on and I'm eager to move on from all this.

I was actually planning to delete my Twitter account for a good month or so, but held off as I decided to make a public archive of all my tweets now available at tweets.dwac.dev. Shout out to Zach Leatherman and everyone involved in Tweetback for enabling this archive, as well as various tools for exporting, managing, and cleaning up raw Twitter data (no alt text by default, seriously?!).

Moving forward, you can mostly find me on Mastodon at @develwithoutacause@techhub.social. My new year's resolution is to post more consistent content on my blog here as well, so look forward to an end of year post about how I failed to do so. There's also a new social page here listing out everywhere you can find me. I just started a YouTube channel too and published my first video on HydroActive. I'm hoping to take advantage of that channel for more cool web dev content in the future.

I hope to see you around, in whatever community we happen to cross paths.