At a panel I was on at Theorizing the Web in 2017, one of the panellists said: “We don’t have time to wait for social media tools that don’t have blood on them.” (note: I’m trying to find a name for who said this!)

I’ve been thinking about that comment a lot this week, while trying to get to grips with Mastodon, seeing many people leave Twitter and head for other platforms in light of Musk’s takeover and subsequent changes. Sunny Singh wrote this fantastic piece about the ‘digital white flight’ which seems to be happening from Twitter to Mastodon right now, outlining clearly:

Marginalised people inhabit Twitter despite its design and intent, not because of it. Musk’s takeover means that communities we have built are at risk. But this is not a new experience in the real world or digital spaces. Twitter has merely been another tool for building and rebuilding our communities. When Twitter entirely ceases to work for us, we will move on to rebuild our communities again. Because those communities – like ourselves – exist, survive and thrive despite, and not because of, the structures of violence that are our world.

Her point is well-made – underlying the migration from Twitter upon Musk’s takeover is the assumption that whatever comes next is, first, worse than what came before, and second, that there is a ‘better’ online space out there. For many, neither of those are necessarily true – and testing those assumptions also takes a great deal of labour and time that some don’t have.

It’s been interesting to see how the move from Twitter to Mastodon has happened. Just from my own perspective, a large majority of the tech/society academics that I follow seem to be well on their way to either moving totally over to Mastodon, or using both platforms, at least for now.

But among the activists, organisers, and, frankly, almost anyone outside of the US and Europe – there’s very little movement that I can see. Even organisers in Europe who I follow have asked their followers, “what should I do now” and very few responses even mention Mastodon.

Why not? From what I can see, there’s a few reasons. First: the big changes that Musk has talked about – rolling out payment for verification, for example - only affect a fairly elite few. Verification wasn’t so important to lots of people, and in fact I imagine lots had given up on its usefulness after years of trying (and failing) to get verified. Second, the roll out of payment seems only to have launched in a few countries so far, starting of course with the United States. That means that many users have yet to see any actual changes – so why bother moving yet? So much about social media thus far has been myopically (and harmfully) Western-centric – who is even to say that Twitter/Musk will bother rolling out changes in ‘the rest of the world’? (Though the inevitable system outages and infrastructure fails that I imagine will come, will undoubtedly affect a wider portion of users.)

Third: because maybe they simply don’t want to leave Twitter. I’ve been thinking about how for some, Twitter has become part of their identities. Having a large Twitter following grants a certain power - even with the more recent algorithmic amplification and lack of clarity on timelines, you can amplify issues you care about. You might get quoted more in local, national or international media if you are tweeting about current issues and you have a large following. You might even meet people in real life who know you not just from your work, but from Twitter. For some, it might be their main way of reaching communities they care about or need to be in touch with for work or activism, or their way of keeping up to date with what others are doing and working on, not just from their own communities but from others.

And that seems to be a major difference between Twitter and other platforms – Mastodon allows you to find people who you know are on there, and follow hashtags you already know about, that is, deepening your knowledge of certain communities and people. But at least personally, I use Twitter to listen and learn from all sorts of people and communities I know very little about, and the algorithmically-generated suggestions have in many ways been helpful on that front. People tweeting about living with disabilities, climate activists in countries I know little about, refugees tweeting from camps they’re in in different countries, local journalists and politicians who are pushing for progressive policies in their own corners of the world… these are all people I wouldn’t otherwise come across, but whose perspective and approach I so appreciate hearing.

I’m not sure yet if Mastodon or some other platform will offer that – it does feel so far like the affordances of Mastodon are more around conversation and slightly ‘deeper’ connection with people than on Twitter, but that might change.

So what are people doing instead of, or alongside, moving to Mastodon? From what I can see, it’s:

  • Setting up a newsletter (usually Substack)
  • Reviving dusty websites and/or (re)starting to blog
  • Setting up or using Whatsapp channels/groups more
  • Moving to, or posting more on, other social networks that have specific purposes (eg. putting work-related posts on LinkedIn)
  • absolutely nothing different.

I’m interested to see what comes next – more Mastodon instances, greater awareness of the alternatives to Twitter, or just a flight of Global North users away from Twitter while the rest of the world stays put?