With the news that the much-discussed and long-uncertain Musk Twitter buyout will actually close Friday, there’s plenty of rejoicing/gloating at the great re-platforming the new boss has promised, in particular the return of former President Trump and the many people who have modeled their online personas on his. And, of course, there’s plenty of anguish in the Twitterverse at that prospect, too.
Back when Trump was banned from the site, alternatives that were free of nanny state impositions like fact-checking, flagging and bans saw a rise in visibility. That didn’t translate into actual economic viability for the Parlers and Truth Socials of the world. Though, to be fair, it’s a tough business to be in, as Twitter itself can attest.
Now talk of “migration” has shifted to the other side of the political spectrum. One alternative that’s getting some buzz is Mastodon, a decentralized, open-source site that presents itself as a democratic alternative free of the distortions of the profit motive. “Your home feed should be filled with what matters to you most,” the site promises, “not what a corporation thinks you should see.”
Whether a site like Mastodon solves the problems of a site like Twitter depends on what you think those problems are. If the problem is the annoying Wendy’s ads in your feed, then yes. But if it’s the hostility and rage and oversimplification and bullying and question-begging and smugly self-congratulating tone of much of the content, it may not.
One of the best examinations of the social dynamics of Twitter is an early 2020 blogpost by Venkatesh Rao entitled “The Internet of Beefs.” In the deadpan tone of an anthropologist, Rao describes a sort of feudal society where all interactions are reduced to either displays of solidarity or fights. “Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they are doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect, and a provocation to conflict,” he says of Twitter’s unwritten social code (and, in his argument, that of pretty much the entire public internet).
The biggest stars on the platform—e.g., Musk himself—are those who have mastered the art of picking and indefinitely prolonging fights about, well, whatever. The beefing isn’t some unfortunate effect of online life, Rao argues. Increasingly, it’s the point.
Musk’s Twitter takeover, and the impending removal of the various policing measures the old management put in place, will likely let a thousand beefs bloom. That might be good for the site, as more users sign on for the spectacle. It might also be exhausting for some users, who want to steer clear of toxicity and misinformation. Those people may already be considering the switch to Mastadon. Bloomberg