Back in February 2017, when I heard that Mastodon, an open-source alternative to Twitter, was up on the internet, I signed up immediately. By then, I had been on Twitter for a decade and had already become both addicted and disenchanted with the medium.
The addiction meant that real-life conversations were frequently interrupted by having to look at the phone. This damaged personal relationships. It also meant serious impediments to reading or writing for any length of time because of the distraction caused by the urge to look at the timeline. Because my work requires me to engage in public discourse, I couldn’t simply shut the account and walk away (or even mothball it, like I did with Facebook). I was looking for ways to de-addict myself from Twitter while using the platform to promote the political values I stand for and the policy proposals that the Takshashila Institution advocates.
‘Hazaremania’ and the downward spiral
The disenchantment had started creeping in from 2011 during what I call “Hazaremania”, when millions of Indians unthinkingly followed Anna Hazare (remember him?) and the deeply flawed Lokpal Bill. While the quality of conversations on Twitter were light-hearted, rich and natural in its early years, the downward spiral started with the sanctimoniously vicious supporters of the anti-corruption movement – and the political party supporters working behind the scenes – attacking anyone who dared to disagree with the small clique of political entrepreneurs who had collected around Hazare.
Soon after, Narendra Modi’s 2014 election campaign systematically organised social media to dominate the narrative, with an amoral, no-holds barred approach to public discourse. By 2014, I had been personally attacked and slandered by supporters of two different political causes, on Twitter. Since then, I’ve also been attacked by the radical Left and the Congress supporters, which might restore the cosmic balance, but only subtracts more joy.
Much of my unhappiness with Twitter until then was due to the manner in which people were using it, and the purposes they were using it for. On the blogosphere, in the pre-Twitter days, the quality of discourse was higher, not least because you had to write full grammatically correct sentences and string together coherent paragraphs. It was through blogs that I met, became friends and colleagues with some of the most thoughtful and intelligent people. Twitter not only killed blogs –because it offered the path of least resistance for a thought to reach an audience – but ruined the quality of discussions too. You didn’t need to string together a sentence in any known human language in order to abuse or attack anyone you didn’t like. You could easily collect followers by spewing venom, vitriol and making blatantly false claims. It became impossible to have a serious public conversation. Yet because of the massive number of users on the platform, Twitter became a good platform to broadcast your opinions and ideas.
No challenge to Twitter
So, when Mastodon came along, I thought it could become what Twitter once was — an egalitarian space for high-quality public conversations. However, a couple of months after signing up, I realised that network effects (the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users on it) and switching costs (people with large numbers of followers would have to start afresh) meant that Mastodon was unlikely to challenge Twitter any time soon. I lurked around a little longer, but eventually lost interest.
Until Twitter suspended Sanjay Hegde’s handle. You don’t have to agree with everything Hegde says to acknowledge that he’s as responsible as any Twitter user can be. Asking him to take down posts that were so obviously unremarkable and suspending his account when he didn’t, raises serious questions on Twitter’s algorithms, internal processes or political relations.
In my own personal experience, Twitter had allowed blatantly hateful and bigoted tweets on its platform citing its commitment to free speech. Of course, Twitter is a private company and is entitled to behave arbitrarily on its private property (no matter what its declared principles are). Just as users are entitled to pack up and leave if they don’t like the way Twitter does things. The only problem is – there is currently no competitor that can match the global reach that Twitter has.
Can Mastodon find a sweet spot?
Last week saw the beginning of a semi-migration of some of India’s most thoughtful and interesting people to Mastodon, and it could somewhat change that dynamic. It sends a signal to the people running Twitter that influencers can move out – perhaps completely – if the company doesn’t play fair. Mastodon has already begun to enjoy network effects and FOMO that will attract, initially at least, a higher quality user base. If Twitter chooses to ignore the signal, then Mastodon will more likely take off. If the watering hole becomes too filthy, animals that like fresh water will move elsewhere, taking the ecosystem with them.
Over at Mastodon, there’s a lot of excitement and hope that the new platform will avoid the failings of the ‘birdsite’. Since the 1990s, I’ve seen a few cycles of initial hope and eventual disenchantment to be overly optimistic about its prospects. I noticed a lot of new users saying that Mastodon is different because it is community-moderated. Actually, Twitter’s failings are more a result of its success, less of its corporate structure. Once there are millions of users, Mastodon too will suffer a decline in the quality of conversations. Maybe there is a sweet spot where each of its ‘instances’ can have enough users to be viable, but not connect to so many that quality drops. Maybe.
Also, Mastodon’s federated structure might interact with India’s political economy in ways that will make online interactions less egalitarian, more subject to government control and more vulnerable to cyber-attack. And if it does not attract a significant global user base, we would have cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, and will be poorer for it. I work on foreign policy, and that alone is reason for me to remain on Twitter until the alternative has comparable reach.
So, for now, I’m tooting on Mastodon with automatic cross-posting to Twitter. This allows me to follow great conversations on the new platform while being able to share posts with my Twitter followers. The odds are currently against Mastodon’s success, but they improve a teeny-weeny bit with every new user and every new toot.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.