The big storm in a small world this week was that Twitter was suddenly a hostile environment after it was taken over by Elon Musk. Prior to this unexpected event, the site was an anarchist co-operative in which workers councils fairly distributed the profits obtained by running their software on naturally-occurring server farms growing in Greenland and elsewhere, powered by zero-point energy with no climate impact and entirely eluding all categories of “capital” and “capitalism” previously theorised.
My impression is that Twitter has already passed its peak and had become a chore for everybody involved. What killed what little joy existed was the invasion of Ukraine. That’s when the world got a bit too real and serious for western eyes; those news journalists aghast at witnessing missiles and bombs hitting districts populated by white Europeans were just saying the quiet bit out loud. Since the wars in Yugoslavia were reported just as graphically 30 years earlier, perhaps a positive interpretation would be that in the interim the “Eastern Europeans” had been promoted to counting as Full European, out of their residual “Eastern Bloc” Cold War status. But it was still a shock to realise that conflict had been largely erased from collective memory. And the function of “social media” as it has emerged since then has been to represent a notional collective consciousness.
In practice, such a collective consciousness never includes every body, and not everyone who takes part cares about the Very Important Stories. When daily newspapers were selling in tens of millions plenty of the readers started on the Sports pages and never bothered about the arguments on appeasement or free trade or whatever. A 1930s copy of the Daily Mirror is practically a “quality newspaper” by the standards of 70 years later, but not all readers were expected to read the difficult bits. What always matters is what the smart people, and the people who think they’re part of the smart people in society, want to know and hear about, and how they do it. It used to be smart magazines and newspapers. Now they get a lot of it from the internet and they need clues and digests to point them to the important things they need to know about. They also need a place to advertise themselves and transmit their status. Something will have to fill this role even if it doesn’t have the form we’ve seen up till now.
The promise of digital culture is it makes it possible for aspiring musicians, writers, comedians to get their potential across to a wider audience without having to first convince a gatekeeper to invest in the production costs of pressing a record, printing a novel, or hiring a theatre. The problem with digital culture is that the ensuing glut of variable quality works, unmentored and unpolished and probably not worth the trouble of improvement, was too great for any casual consumer to sift through. Getting around the gatekeepers showed why we still need them, and that’s why there will still be more money in books from established publishers than self-publishers. The talents operating in these worlds need to signal to each other. That’s another source of input in to the digital marketplace. It sits alongside the gossipy shop-talk of the old media: the Parliament-watchers, the trade correspondents, the market analysts. Wherever they go, will be the living heart of social media.
Parallel to this was the story of how the non-creative consumer classes got brought in to the game: Facebook. Personal blogs and sites like MySpace existed for years until the big explosion of 2007, when everyone could get involved in having their own page and find their old school friends and new people, not all of whom wanted the contact. All the things you could already do on several different platforms, but now a simple single package that would work on one of the new phones. The period 2007-2008 was the anarchic time when everyone could see and link to anyone; everything calmed down with the new privacy options after everyone had got tired of all that. From then on it became more and more a collection of gated communities, and the younger generation that were excited by it got older because that’s how time works. It was already a stale institution over its peak when the outrage about data analytics killed its image. But that’s where Twitter was, when the Musk takeover precipitated a shift that would have happened sooner or later.
I think the trouble with Mastodon is it just doesn’t look all that different from Twitter. The real next new thing won’t have the anarchic universal connectivity as an option, it will be gated and invite-only in its important suburbs right from the start. The plebs don’t need to know they’re not really taking part; they don’t need to take part at all. If too many get involved they just undermine the people who make a career claiming to understand and represent them.