The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Mastodon, Twitter, and Elon Musk | Hendrik Erz

Abstract: It's been about three weeks since the Twitter-deal went over the counter. While everything is still in flux, what could be happening to Twitter? And, is the go-to alternative Mastodon the alternative academics need? While I do not have any answers, I have a few thoughts on this.


It took me a long time to write this article. And the reason is not that it’s not hard to find something to criticize about Elon Musk or the trajectory Twitter has taken over the past weeks. He has fired half of Twitter’s staff, and continues to fire employees live on Twitter. He has completely crashed Twitter’s verification system, advertisers are pulling out and Twitter has within the span of just days been transformed into basically another version of Facebook, which has become extremely unappealing out of similar reasons as whatever it is that Musk is doing. I myself noticed that the Twitter home timeline has become borderline usable for me, and the amount of spam direct messages I receive has increased by a large margin.

The first few drafts of this article contained a lot of bad language and it took me quite some time to get over it and start letting go. Yes, I have grown accustomed to Twitter. For the last decade, it was a pretty decent company. Yes, it was still a corporation, yes it still needed to sell my data to advertisers to generate money. But what made Twitter stand out from the rest of social networks is the fact that the app was extremely useful. Of course, Twitter is no saint, and the platform had its own problems. Frequent Nazi-trolling, Russian interference, toxicity, and many other problems certainly speak for themselves. However, I think that Twitter had better ways to get those problems under control than many other networks, which sometimes didn’t even start to bother.

No, Twitter was not in any way perfect. But it was good enough. In a world where federated social media always had difficulties to attract people so that network effects could make them actually useful (looking at you, diaspora), Twitter was the best of the worst.

And then came the E. What started as one of his usual public trolling suddenly turned out very dangerous for Musk: A judge forced him to decide to either buy Twitter as he has bragged about months earlier, or go to court. And now we’re here. I don’t want to write down what I have been thinking the past weeks, because there are others who are much more adept at doing so without the usage of words one needs to censor.

What is more important is the big Mastodon migration that happened afterwards. Many of my colleagues decided to just leave the party before the ship is sinking at terminal velocity. And they all went to the same other place. For what I think was the first time ever, a federated, open source social network actually became useful due to network effects. For the first time in our lives, we could witness that Mastodon became the new place to be, simply because so many of our peers also went there.

But, migrating to another service had a few implications. First and foremost, it simply was a different service, so it made use of different concepts and some slightly other definitions of things. Having grown accustomed to the corporate nature of the internet, I didn’t think about reading the documentation at first, which made my own migration possibly harder than it had to be. This was complicated by the fact that Mastodon had, in fact, been modeled after Twitter – removing features the developers of Mastodon thought to be detrimental and adding some that would turn out actually very useful.

Second, precisely because of this fact that it looks and feels almost, but not quite like Twitter it was hard to get rid of habits one acquires when using Twitter. On the one hand, because the service has been designed to actually find useful stuff later on, and because its algorithms are designed specifically to discourage mass-tweeting. I had to learn this the hard way, as I was initially basically trying out how much one should be tweeting, until an admin of my server harrumphed and asked me to tune it down a little.

This is the third implication: Moderation is done much more thorough. There are no hordes of underpaid contractors who filter out obscenities and trolls quietly and under the radar. The moderators of Mastodon servers are close to the people and moderation is visible. This is good, because trolls and fascists have a much harder time wreaking havoc, but this also means that networking is harder. Admins can restrict access to other instances which makes it harder to find people on these servers. The admins of my server run a zero-tolerance policy towards bad actors which amass mostly on the bigger servers so that one has to actively opt-in to view content from these servers. You see: network effects run both ways. More people help you build a network faster, but it also makes moderation harder and thus makes it easier for trolls to continue to annoy people.

But there is a solution to it. A colleague of mine, David Adler, soon after started a list of sociologists who are present on Mastodon so that people could find each other and (re-)build their networks on the new service. And that list gained traction. Many more lists have sprung up for various academic fields and at one point I decided to collect all of these lists of people centrally so that it’s easier to find your peers on the various servers out there. And it worked: By now, David’s list template is the go-to solution for new academic fields to build a list of people, and somehow the list I created has really become the central hub for academics to (re-)build a network on Mastodon.

And I think all of that has actually made it much easier to migrate away from Twitter: You’ll not be alone here, and that is great. It is easy to quickly find people to follow, and share actually meaningful content such as new publications or new data. And the activity over on Mastodon speaks for itself: Every minute academics of all colors are sharing new research, publications, and public lectures.

I would still say that falling into the trap of building yourself an accidental echo chamber is much higher on Mastodon, but as a purely academic network, Mastodon works great. And, to be fair, as far as I can judge it, there’s not much more than academics over on Mastodon. But that, as I mentioned, can also just be an echo chamber effect, so take this with a grain of salt. One thing I did notice by now is that the various feeds one can look into, the different “timelines” in Twitter-speak, are indeed of a much higher quality than the one on Twitter – they are, maybe because of this echo-chamber effect, much more relevant to my day-to-day work.

To conclude, I am really curious to see how Mastodon evolves. Great progress has been made in the past weeks, and I hope that Mastodon continues to become the replacement Twitter really needs.

Suggested Citation

Erz, Hendrik (2022). “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Mastodon, Twitter, and Elon Musk”. hendrik-erz.de, 17 Nov 2022, https://www.hendrik-erz.de/post/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-mastodon-twitter-and-elon-musk.

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