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Gosh, Twitter fell off a cliff. What a blessing. It’s been a few months now since my usage largely came to a halt. It’s made me rethink a lot of what I’m doing online. The demise of Xitter is only part of it.

Hardly a month ago, I’d posted about how RSS was becoming more central to my information gathering. I’m not sure Xitter had ever been a real information source for me, although it often had news items first. It was mostly, for me, just one more information trap set to highlight keyword matches.

Not very social.

I was thinking about the whole “social media” idea the other day as I was walking to work. There was a time when I’d talk to lawyers and have to explain that the common medium of blogging now had a new subset, microblogging. And there were apps, Twitter among them, that were part of this trend.

“It’s all gone wrong, hasn’t it?” Sergeant Dominic Stone, V for Vendetta

But over time, the idea of microblogging was subsumed by Twitter. Things became “like Twitter” rather than being “like microblogging.” We talked about a handful of platforms and no longer about a handful of technologies. Looking backwards, it’s like seeing choice diminished although I’m not sure it felt that way at the time. We were social networking but, once we’d found our network on LinkedIn or wherever, we came to a stop on that platform. The network and the platform merged.

My first blog post pre-dated Twitter and I expect my last one will post-date … whatever it is by then. I follow a couple of dozen people on Xitter now but few post any longer. It was never a place I went for interactions as much as information. Now, I mostly check in once a day to comb a couple of keywords related to my brother’s case in Russia and then I move on.

It has been freeing. I feel better about my online interactions than I have in many years. Healthier. Perhaps a little less dread, and a little less worried about having to manage the inevitable range of reactions to the constant churn of rage.

Rage Against the Machine

At first, it was merely that I stopped using Xitter and started using Mastodon more often. I am not suggesting Mastodon is for everyone. In fact, I know it’s not for everyone. I think that’s part of what’s really interesting right now. Perhaps we have started to return to the idea of microblogging rather than “going on platform Q”. I feel very sorry for the communities that have been dislodged, dispersed, and divided by the megalomania.

And I don’t think it’s one individual. It’s what makes me leery of BlueSky or Threads or other platforms that are run by “my-ring-rules-them-all” sorts of personalities or companies. We’re already seeing exclusivity. We’re being invited further into walled gardens closed off from the internet, where news is blocked or headlines on our shared content may be removed.

There is a part of me that, despite the free speech issues, is glad to think that news may not filter into spaces like Facebook directly from media. Our public agencies and media have ceded corporations ownership of the public square. It was easy and, the theory goes, that’s where people were. Or, if they weren’t there yet, they would be.

“I know why you did it … and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.” V, V for Vendetta

This all may seem overwrought. It’s just Xitter.

But it’s not, is it.

I’ve been reading and re-reading Max Fisher’s The Chaos Machine. It’s unsettling, to say the least. It does a great job of picking apart how the algorithms of Meta and Google, on Facebook and YouTube in particular, can undermine information and audiences and, in some places, nations.

In Myanmar, social media platforms indulged the fears of the long-dominant Buddhist majority who felt, with democracy’s arrival, a shift in the status quo that had long privileged them. In India, it was the Hindu majority, on similar grounds. In 2018, BBC reporters in northern Nigeria found the same pattern, the Fulani majority pitted against the Berom minority, all on Facebook. In America, social media had tapped into white backlash against immigration, Black Lives Matter, increased visibility of Muslims, cultural recalibration toward greater tolerance and diversity….

The defining element across all these rumors was something more specific and dangerous than generalized outrage: a phenomenon called status threat. When members of a dominant social group feel at risk of losing their position, it can spark a ferocious reaction. They grow nostalgic for a past, real or imagined, when they felt secure in their dominance (“Make America Great Again”). They become hyper-attuned for any change that might seem tied to their position: shifting demographics, evolving social norms, widening minority rights. ….
Online, as we post updates visible to hundreds or thousands of people, charged with the group-based emotions that the platforms encourage, “our group identities are more salient” than our individual ones, as William Brady and Molly Crockett wrote in their paper on social media’s effects. We don’t just become more tribal, we lose our sense of self. It’s an environment, they wrote, “ripe for the psychological state of deindividuation.”

Max Fisher, “The Chaos Machine”, Chapter 8, 1. Church Bells, ¶4

As we participate on those platforms, we undergird their existence. We provide the eyeballs to monetize, the opinions to make more extreme, the socialized interactions.

The thing that struck me most was that I had been on some of these platforms and had not experienced this. I also had not been aware of these impacts even though I’d understood that the platforms will not act to inhibit algorithmically-encouraged violence and murder. It was like having a very bright light turned on. I use a mixture of ad blockers and script limiters and privacy controls. I also don’t use proprietary apps, preferring, even on mobile devices, to use websites. I forget how different my experience is from most other people’s.

This suggested that any user who entered the network of Chemnitz videos—say, by searching for news updates or watching a clip sent to them by a friend—would be pulled by YouTube’s algorithm toward extremist content. Asked how many steps it would take, on average, for a YouTube viewer who pulled up a Chemnitz news clip to find themselves watching far-right propaganda, Serrato answered, “Only two.” He added, “By the second, you’re quite knee-deep in the alt right.”….
Recommendations rarely led users back to mainstream news coverage, or to liberal or apolitical content of any kind. Once among extremists, the algorithm tended to stay there, as if that had been the destination all along.

Max Fisher, “The Chaos Machine”, Chapter 9, 1. The YouTube Riot, ¶4 (emphasis added)

Since “The Chaos Machine” was published, additional research into YouTube recommendations and extremism content has occurred. Research published in August into 2019 algorithmic changes indicates that unwitting YouTube “rabbit holes” to extreme content are rare. The paper also has a definition for what a “rabbit hole” is!

A rabbit sitting among long grass, facing to the left with one eye watching the photographer
A rabbit gives the camera side eye

And there are those who argue that it’s not the technology at all. Bad people are going to be bad, regardless of your algorithm.

One other thing that I came away with was that, as information professionals, we might be fighting the wrong fight. When we read about people drawn into misinformation or disinformation or worse, we may think that they don’t understand what they’re reading. We focus on information literacy and reading with the goal that those things will mitigate the impact of the technology.

But what if it’s the technology.

When we see people share misinformation, especially people whom we find unsympathetic, it’s easy to assume that they’re dishonest or unintelligent. But often all they are is human, overcome by social instincts to see truth in stories that, in a more neutral context, they would choose to reject. The problem, in this experiment, wasn’t ignorance or lack of news literacy. Social media, by bombarding users with fast-moving social stimuli, pushed them to rely on quick-twitch social intuition over deliberative reason. All people contain the capacity for both, as well as the potential for the former to overwhelm the latter, which is often how misinformation spreads. And platforms compound the effect by framing all news and information within high-stakes social contexts.

Max Fisher, “The Chaos Machine”, Chapter 6, 3. Looking for Russians, ¶ 16 (emphasis added)

It’s tricky at an organizational level. Libraries want to be where the people are. But what if our participation just solidifies the sense of participants that the commercial platform is the public square, because the public resources are there? Do we have ways of meeting our community without those tools?

I think the answer is probably yes. Again, if we step back from “are you on Q platform” and think about the technologies, we have non-algorithmic alternatives. Like email.

But people receive too much email, you might say. They certainly can. But we know they’re not clicking on Xitter and Facebook links even if they interact with them. And we know that social media post impressions vary significantly from your actual follower count. We may be avoiding email for reasons that we don’t apply to other social media platforms.

And I expect we all worry, on a personal as well as professional level, that we may be out of mind if we’re out of sight.

Small Steps

As I started, I have already shifted all the news and information gathering I can to RSS feeds. I no longer rely on social media platforms for news, getting it directly from the sources themselves. This means having to look at issues like paywalls and the cost-shifting of having been monetized by Xitter v. paying directly for information access.

It also means I’ve started to tidy up my social media platform access. I wasn’t on Facebook and won’t be on Threads. Nor BlueSky. I have, for the last time, deleted my LinkedIn account. It is a great example of a place where I had a profile but not a community and it was never going to become one.

Surprising to me, Mastodon has become a place I spend a decent amount of time each week. It was a bit slow to start but once I found a few hashtags to follow—something that was not possible on Xitter (yes, you can bookmark a hashtag, but on Mastodon, the matches just appear in your feed). From there I found some people, then I found some more tags, and so on.

One thing I’ve noticed is that my Mastodon world does not involve many people in the legal field or even in libraries. Since it was driven by my interests, my feed has slowly grown (and been weeded) in ways I might not have discovered if an algorithm was involved. I mean, let’s face it, Xitter was still recommending things like “Russia travel” to me as an interest as of the last month. Not. going. to. happen.

A screenshot listing Twitter interests.  One says "russia travel" and there is a marked checkbox next to it.
A screenshot of Xitter Interests (only visible on web interface, not app)

I am following about 10 times as many accounts on Mastodon, as well as a handful of hashtags. There is more than enough daily content for me, stretching from #DogsOfMastodon to random legal and news items. I am definitely experiencing more serendipity and greater cross-cultural information.

A feature I like on Mastodon that you had to get a third-party app for on Twitter is to know if people you follow are active. I’d followed 213 people as of the start of September but there is a dormant follower page on your web-based Mastodon interface. I could see the people who were no longer participating. Dormancy is determined by activity, not posts. I unfollowed the people who hadn’t been on for a few months and who I didn’t personally know and got down to 157. Which is almost Dunbar’s number. Coincidence?

It’s not like any of this is too much of a stretch for me. I am worried about those communities who’ve become reliant on corporations for their interconnectedness or their information. I don’t have much to lose by stepping away from the platforms. I still can’t help but feel that audience loss on any of these platforms is probably a net good thing.

Heck, I’ve even reverted to writing some folks letters or sending postcards. There is a certain amount of pleasure in being in contact with someone without feeling a notification nag me to respond or an algorithm push me to connect. I’m looking forward to seeing what other changes are wrought with our media.