Rockford Lhotka

VP, Open Source Creator, Author, Speaker

Thoughts on Social Media

06 Nov 2022

Given all that’s happening at Twitter I, like many people, started looking at alternatives like Mastodon.

Folks already part of the Mastodon world (fediverse they call it) seem to be a mix of excitement as their corner of reality is discovered by the larger world, and fear as their corner of reality is invaded by random folks from the larger world. Very understandable!

Like many people, this whole thing has me thinking about how I use social media, and what I want out of it.

I’ve spent decades building or being part of online communities, starting with my multi-user dungeon (MUD) community in university, various groups in UseNet around TTRPG games, Babylon 5, and software development, and of course decades of open-source around #cslanet.

In all cases there’s some element of “marketing” to make like-minded people aware of the community so they can find and join it. Maybe a little less with UseNet, given its hierarchical naming conventions that provided built-in discoverability. In all other cases though, it has taken real work to build awareness of the community.

I know from listening to many folks in Black Twitter that the same is true there: a lot of people have put a lot of effort over a long time to build up what is known as Black Twitter. Along with some frustration that Twitter “productizes” these virtual communities that exist within the broader Twitter environment.

With #cslanet, I’ve never focused on building a big community on Twitter, as I don’t think it is the right tool for the job. Nor is Mastodon from what I can tell. I’ve used a number of forum/discussion platforms over the decades, and currently use GitHub Discussions. Each time I’ve moved from one platform to another I’ve lost massive numbers of community members, and the community has slowly rebuilt itself over time.

Today, my use of social media is personal and professional, and the only place the two really overlap is on Twitter. Why? I “blame” Scott Hanselman, who has long advocated to bring your entire self to Twitter, and to some degree I’ve followed his advice.

On Facebook I have a personal page for family and friends, and separate professional pages/groups for things like #cslanet and my other professional interests. LinkedIn is purely professional, and I actively unfollow/mute anyone who discusses anything outside of their profession. I use Instagram to follow rock bands mostly, and rarely post at all. I use TikTok to consume entertainment and news.

Twitter is unique, in that it is the one platform where I consume culture, news, entertainment, rock band content, professional information, goofy social interactions, and more. It is the one place where I mix personal and professional interests.

So can Mastodon replace Twitter in that regard? I think technically yes, but only if a critical mass of culturally thoughtful people, rock bands, the software development community, my friends, and a lot of other folks move to Mastodon.

I have friends who’ve found Twitter to be toxic and they hate it. Somehow I’ve managed to curate who I follow such that (other than the leadup to the MAGA elections) my Twitter experience is almost entirely rich and enjoyable.

I expect the same is possible on Mastodon - again assuming that a critical mass of folks become active on that platform.

That “critical mass” is what rightly excites and scares pre-existing Mastodon users, because we’re talking about (just for me) many hundreds of people, each of whom will come with their many hundreds of people. So we’re talking about (probably) hundreds of thousands of users becoming active on Mastodon.

And that’ll be enough people to bring out the trolls, criminals, and other bad actors.

I’ve also read a thought piece suggesting that fleeing Twitter for anywhere will be a major disservice to minority communities, because groups like Black Twitter might take a very long time to reform anywhere else.

I have two thoughts on that. One is that it is true that any move from one platform to another harms a community, and it takes time for that community to rebuild. Two is that maybe something like Mastodon can provide a better long-term home because these communities aren’t a “product” like they are on Twitter, and so maybe it is ultimately healthier to move.

Pragmatically, I’ll say that in the end I’ll use whatever tool/platform provides me access to the people and content I desire. And if that ends up not being just one platform, so be it - though I’ll miss the intersectionality of my tech colleagues interacting with sci-fi authors who interact with musicians who interact with deep thinkers about culture and society.

I’m @rockylhotka on Twitter and on Mastodon.

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