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Moving day

twitter-lettuce-FgnQBzFVIAEox-K-370.jpeg""On the Internet, your home always leaves you," someone observed on Twitter some months back.

Probably everyone who's been online for any length of time has had this experience. That site you visit every day, that's full of memories and familiar people suddenly is no more. Usually, the problem is a new owner, who buys it and closes it down (Television Without Pity, Geocities), or alters it beyond recognition (CompuServe). Or its paradigm falls out of fashion and users leach away until the juice is gone, the fate of many of the early text-based systems.

As the world and all have been reporting - because so many journalists make their online homes there - Twitter is in trouble. A new owner with poor impulse control and a new idea every day - Twitter will be a financial service! (like WeChat?) Twitter will be the world's leading source of accurate information! (like Wikipedia?) Twitter can do multimedia! (like TikTok?), who is driving out what staff he hasn't fired.

The result, Chris Stokel-Walker predicts, will be escalating degradation of the infrastructure - and possibly, Mike Masnick writes, violations of the company's 2011 20-year consent decree with the US Federal Trade Commission, which could ultimately cost the company billions, in addition to the $13 billion in debt Musk added to the company's existing debt load in order to purchase it.

All of that - and the unfolding sequelae Maria Farrell details - will no doubt be a widely used case study at business schools someday.

For me, Twitter has been a fantastic resource. In the 15 years since I created my account, Twitter is where I've followed breaking news, connected with friends, found expert communities. Tight clusters are, Peter Coy finds at the New York Times, why Twitter has been unexpectedly resilient despite its lack of profitability.

But my use of Twitter has nothing in common with its use by those with millions of followers. At that level, it's a broadcast medium. My own experience of chatting with friends or responding randomly to strangers' queries is largely closed to them. Like traveling on the subway, they *can* do it, but not the way the rest of us can. For someone in that position, Twitter is a large audience that fortuitously includes journalists, politicians, and entertainers. The writer Stephen King had the right reaction to the suggestion that verified accounts should pay $20 a month (since reduced to $8) for the privilege: screw *that*. Though even average Twitter users will resist paying to be sold to the advertisers who ultimately fund it the service.

Unusually, a number of alternative platforms are ready and waiting for disaffected Twitter users to experiment with. Chief among them is Mastodon, which looks enough like Twitter to suggest an easy learning curve. There are, however, profound differences, most of them good. Mastodon is a protocol, not a site; like the web, email, or Usenet, anyone can set up a server ("instance") using open source software and connect to other instances. You can form a community on a local instance - or you can use your account as merely a convenient address from which to access postings by users at dozens of other instances. One consequence of this is that hashtags are very much more important in helping people find each other and the postings they're interested in.

Over the last week, I've seen a lot of people trying to be considerate of the natives and their culture, most particularly that they are much more sensitive about content warnings. The reality remains, though, that Mastodon's user base has doubled in a week, and that level of influx will inevitably bring change - if they stay and post, and particularly if many of them adopt a bit of software that allows automated cross-posting between the two services.

All of this has happened without a commercial interest: no one owns Mastodon, it has no ads, and no one is recruiting Twitter users. But that right there may be the biggest problem: the huge influx of new users doesn't bring revenue or staff to help manage it. This will be a big, unplanned test of the system's resilience.

Many are now predicting Twitter's total demise, not least because new owner Elon Musk himself has told employees that the company may become bankrupt due to its burn rate (some of which is his own fault, as previously noted). Barring the system going offline, though, habit is a strong motivator, and it's more likely that many people will treat the new accounts they've set up as "in case of need".

But some will move, because unlike other such situations, whole communities can move together to Mastodon, aided by its ability to ingest lists. I'm seeing people compile lists of accounts in various academic fields, of journalists, of scientists. There are even tools that scans the bios of your Twitter contacts for Mastodon addresses and compiles them into a personal list, which, again, can be easily imported.

If Mastodon works for Twitter's hundreds of millions, there is a big upside: communities don't have to depend for their existence on the grace and favor of a commercial owner. Ultimately, the reason Musk now owns Twitter is he offered shareholders a lucrative exit. They didn't have to care about *us*. And they didn't.

Illustrations: Twitter versus lettuce (via Sheon Han on Twitter).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter or Mastodon


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