Thoughts on Social Media (and Me), Mid-July 2023
Hey, remember when Twitter and Facebook and Instagram (and Tik Tok, if you were under 30) were the only games in town, after having basically destroyed the idea of the independent web? Well, no longer! Thanks to Elon Musk being forced to buy Twitter and then turning it into a resource-starved playground for dimwitted fascists, and to a lesser extent to Mark Zuckerberg throwing billions down a hole to convince the world that a lightly-updated version of Second Life was the future of the Internet, there are now roughly 17,000 new social media sites, all vying to become the new Twitter, never mind that Twitter was mostly not profitable, and only barely so even when it was.
And of course, I have accounts on all of them, because I am extremely online and have been for 30 years. I’ve poked around on them and used them and now I am happy to share my thoughts on the current state of social media online by talking about which ones I am using, which ones I am using less, and which ones I’m not using at all. Here we go:
1. Bluesky: Bluesky is (currently) an invite-only service with (currently) just under 300,000 users, but among its frequent users you have people like Guillermo Del Toro (who uses it to chronicle his model making), Neil Gaiman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, journalist Jake Tapper, film producer Gale Anne Hurd, and a non-trivial percentage of queer America. Part of the reason it is still invite-only is that it’s still in beta and lacks a lot of the features and functionality other sites have — it currently can’t even show moving gifs, although whether that’s a bug or a feature is left to the reader — and its small development team is trying to scale its back end without blowing it up. The invite system lets it onboard people without melting everything into slag.
It also has allowed it to create, in a small amount of time and with a smallish number of people, a very distinct vibe: People are comparing it to “when Twitter didn’t suck,” but it’s actually different than even that. It’s very queer, pretty weird, and as much as it can, it has an emphasis on positivity — not like “you can’t post about bad news or divisive politics here” but as in “If someone’s being a jerk, don’t engage, just block.” There’s comparatively little dunking, dogpiling or quoteposting for clout. This has been frustrating for the occasional troll or outrage farmer who comes to the site to pull their usual shenanigans and discovers that no one is playing that game; they’ve run back to Twitter complaining about how awful it is on Bluesky, which, well. For them, it is.
It’s also currently not great for “influencers” or celebrities whose social media stock-in-trade is asymmetric communication between them at the top and their adoring fans below. There aren’t enough people on the service for that sort of thing to be effective, and the general ethos of the site is “among, not above,” which is to say that the site is at its best if you’re having conversations with, not talking at, others there. It’s (currently) a very different vibe from any other site out there, and, for moment at least, on average, a lot more enjoyable experience than social media is most other places.
That said, it’s not what you would call perfect. Minority users, especially members of the black community, have had legit criticisms about how it’s run and how moderation works, and have complained of feeling excluded or minimized, which is not a great look. Bluesky also can feel cliquey and even a little snobby, especially in how it regards other social media sites, which is weird because, among other things, most users have accounts elsewhere. There’s a line between recognizing the unique things that make a community great and using that uniqueness as an exclusionary tactic, and I think Bluesky members should be thinking about it maybe more than they do.
For all that, it’s still the social media place I find myself spending the most time at these days — a place to play and chat and have fun without, for me, the expectation that I have to be selling myself constantly. It’s not the auditorium stage, it’s the backstage area, where everyone from the stars to the stagehands are mingling and talking to each other (and who the stars and stagehands are depends on your point of view).
Will this vibe last beyond the site’s beta stage? Who can say? For now, it’s great.
2. Twitter: I’m still on it! Because, bluntly, I have just under 200K followers there and I’m loath to abandon them all, although at this point just how many of those 200k followers are actually still around is an open question — aside from a relatively few people who actively deleted their accounts, most people who leave Twitter just… leave Twitter. I mean, I still have a MySpace account, and a LiveJournal account (I just got an email congratulating me for 19 years of membership there), but I’m not exactly spending time at either.
I’m still on Twitter but I’m spending less time there and am relatively less engaged, partly because it’s more fun to hang out on Bluesky at the moment, and partly because Twitter has become more unpleasant to be on. It’s not just Elon Musk turning the place into a fashy playhouse; after all this time and prior to Musk cutting off API usage, I’ve done a pretty good job of muting and blocking most of the usual suspects, so my own timeline is (relatively) fascist-free on average. I can’t ignore that Musk and his party pals are trash, but I can mostly avoid them.
So it’s not just that. It’s also that Musk — who has so thoroughly trashed his “tech genius” reputation that when he challenged Mark Zuckerberg to a literal dick measuring contest today no one was really surprised about it — has just plain made the service worse. He fired most of its staff, so now everything runs jankily; he trashed the verification system so now the biggest slice of his “verified” users are losers who pay $8 a month to be sure that people see their shitty replies at the top of the comment queue (a moment of pity for the people who have Twitter Blue for actual legitimate reasons; you’re painted with an icky, fashy brush, and I’m sorry for that); he brags about curbing bots but every post I have now includes a porn bot in the comments offering up a link to (no doubt) malware instead of boobs. Twitter is depressing to be on, not just because Musk is a fascist, but because he’s an incompetent.
I’m not mad that Elon Musk has been so completely exposed as a bumbling, insecure man-child that his reputation will never ever recover — isn’t it good to know that even being the richest man in the world doesn’t save you from being a pathetic wretch, desperate for the approval of people who will never ever love you? — but I am sad that it was Twitter that he wrecked his reputation upon, because he wrecked Twitter in the process. Couldn’t you have just fucked up Space X, Musk? You were never going to Mars anyway!
But here we are in 2023, and Twitter is dying, and I’m posting on it from habit, for the people who remain, and because I want to see when it is the lights finally get switched off. It may be sooner than later now, thanks to a new competitor I’ll get to in just a minute.
3. Facebook: Facebook is where I go to stay in contact with everyone I knew before 2005, with friends I’ve met since then in the mix as well. For keeping up with folks who are mostly uninterested in technology — which is most people! — it does fine. Because I have a rule that I don’t talk politics on Facebook (and generally delete posts off my timeline that do), and because I keep my personal account locked down (fuck you, friends of friends! You’re all terrible people!) it’s actually a pretty congenial place for me, that I enjoy hanging out on. Also at this point I’ve trained Facebook only to show me ads with musical software in them, which is pretty great, and I’ve even bought some of it, so there you go. Facebook will never be my primary social media outlet (knocks on wood), but, notwithstanding the various moral and technological sins of the company, when I am there, I have a perfectly good time.
I also have a public page that is all career updates all the time, and that is actually fairly effective as a promotional outlet, even with Facebook throttling it to convince me to spend money to extend my reach, which I will, by the way, never ever ever do.
4. Mastodon: This tech-forward, nerd-friendly site* is also the one that feels the most clique-y to me, because it had several years in more or less isolation to develop traditions and practices, and its long-time users can be prickly when newer folks come by and don’t know the rules of the road. It’s basically the vibe of the Eternal September, brought forward to the Web 3.0 era. In all fairness, it does suck when people just show up and tromp around heedlessly, so I don’t want to ding the veteran Mastodonians too much for it. It does mean there can be a bit of a frosty vibe for newcomers. There should be a way to thread that needle.
The asterisk up there, incidentally, is there because Mastodon isn’t actually a “site,” it’s a federation of various sites and servers, each with their own backend and rules and such — it’s not a single massive metropolis, it’s an archipelago of villages, connected by mail service, as it were. Mastodon isn’t the only service to do this, as Bluesky will also be federated when it gets itself out of beta, and Threads, at least theoretically, also embraces the concept of federation. But Mastodon is the one that is the furthest along in using the concept.
I really like the concept of federation in theory, and in practice I’m pretty sure most people have not the first clue as to what it means and what it does, and they just want to post pictures of their cats and/or rants about conspiracy theories. Mastodon caters to those with more than a minimal level of comfort with tech and a willingness to get under the hood with it, and because of that I’m not sure it will ever be more than a niche enthusiasm. I don’t imagine that outside of a few federation evangelists, this bothers most of the folks who have made Mastodon an online home.
I do like Mastodon, and I have spent enough time there now that I feel pretty confident posting and chatting there. If the rest of the tech world collapses, it’s entirely possible that Mastodon, due to its decentralized and federated nature, will be the Last Social Media Standing. In which case I am glad to already be there and not part of another wave of social media refugees.
5. Threads: Which did not publicly exist a week ago! And yet now has over 100 million users! Sending Elon Musk into a penis-shriveling panic! Which in itself would make me applaud the existence of Threads — Musk’s fragile masculinity deserves a kick or two square in the jewels — but the topper for that stat is that if Musk hadn’t’ve fucked up Twitter in the first place, Threads might’nt’ve happened, because Lord knows Mark Zuckerberg was busy enough making the Metaverse not happen. But Musk did fuck up Twitter, and Zuckerberg, et al saw an opportunity to eat his lunch, and now, with Threads a third the size of Twitter in just five days, lunch time it very much is.
“But Threads cheated!” is a refrain I’ve actually heard, because Threads is basically a text-forward offshoot of Instagram, and setting up a Threads account is basically pressing a button to transfer over one’s Instagram credentials to a new application. It’s how it worked for me; my Threads account and my Instagram account are one and the same, down to the verification (which I got, I hasten to add, before Meta followed in Twitter’s footsteps and allowed people to get it by paying a subscription for it). This is a curious objection: How, exactly, is it cheating to make sign-up simple and painless? How many hoops should people jump through?
My initial impression of Threads is that it is simple, easy-to-use, nowhere near fully-featured (it doesn’t even have “alt” text for pictures yet, which is a real access issue) and absolutely, completely 100% soulless. Like Instagram, its timeline is heavily focused on influencers, celebrities and commerce; it’s like someone made TMZ and the Shopping Channel have a hot night at the Mall of America, and this is what came out. It’s perfect if all you want to do is scroll endlessly; if you actually want to generate community, or even find your friends, it’s not so great.
I’m posting on Threads and apparently people are finding my posts, and I got nearly five thousand followers in three days, so it’s useful, and I’ll keep doing it. And I think Elon Musk is right to panic, because Threads absolutely is a threat to him and his shitty business plans. If I were an advertiser and I had to choose between Threads and Twitter right now, well, I’m pretty sure I’d go with Zuck’s service, since if nothing else Zuck has a track record of getting ads in front of eyeballs. But of all the things Threads is at the moment, for creative folks or people looking for their people, “fun” isn’t one of them. I don’t think “fun” is point.
6. Instagram: I post there! Sometimes! Some of my friends really are Insta-forward in their social media presences, so if I want to keep track of them, this is the place I go. And I do like posting photos. But of all the sites I regularly use, this is the one I use the least, the one I go, “Oh, right, I should post something there” about. It’s fine! I kinda like it and don’t actively dislike it or anything! But it’s also the site with the least amount of community feeling or back-and-forth to it: it really is best at uni-directional communication.
And that’s all right! For a lot of people, this way of doing social media is the most manageable and least intrusive for them. I’m glad it’s there for those folks. For me, it’s not my favorite way of doing it.
7 – 10: Post and Spoutible and T2 and Tribel: Newish Twitter replacements of varying sorts, all fairly nicely designed for the purpose of being ports in the storm once people leave Musk’s Folly, and all also after-rans, at least for me. They didn’t seem to develop either the critical mass of “cool” users that Bluesky did, or the massive crush of users that Threads did, and while there is nothing wrong about them — at all! — I wonder how many will be about in a year or two. There are other social media in this space as well: WT.Social and Nostr and Spill (which is just starting out and like Bluesky has an invite list), but aside from camping on my name, I don’t use any of them, although I’m looking forward to trying out Spill when/if I’m let in. Gab and Parler and Truth Social are sites I have, shall we say, let pass by and I don’t expect the ones of them still around to stay around long, especially now that Musk has turned Twitter into a Fash Central.
11. Everything else: I have LinkedIn mostly as an affectation. I use Flickr to store photos. I have Tumblr mostly to rebroadcast Whatever. Goodreads also rebroadcasts Whatever, and has book reviews to boot. Reddit I read but only rarely comment on; Metafilter I love and occasionally comment on; YouTube I have a channel on but it is random and sporadic. I’m not on TikTok or Snapchat or really any other video-forward site because I have a face for text, and not enough time at the moment for video editing, which is a skill one needs to learn, and I’d rather do music stuff.
And thus, my assessment of social media, as it applies to me, in July 2023.