Elon Musk is a toxic individual and is rapidly turning Twitter into a toxic ‘public square.’ However, unlike a real, physical public square that we can and should fight for, Twitter is a virtual public space that can be remade literally overnight elsewhere. And it is.
I don’t think there’s much point explaining to people currently on Twitter that it’s getting more toxic and less useful by the day. If you’re there, you’ve seen it. Musk has allowed back on Twitter people of the lowest moral character, who spend their days trying to harass LGBTQ people into suicide, or encouraging attacks on public figures, or who just go after anyone who isn’t one of them. Musk bans anyone who dents his fragile ego. He also appears to be banning accounts that expose Russian oligarchs. And of course China will pressure Musk into eliminating critics of the leadership there – if he wants to build and sell Teslas in China.
Twitter became as influential as it did because of the experts and all of us who follow them there. I follow a handful of the thousands of prominent climate scientists are on Twitter, for example. Lots of top infosec people. There are experts on authoritarianism, on politics, on economics, and on just about any topic you can think of. Nobody wants to lose that, and some of these prominent people have said they will fight for the public square that is Twitter.
But there is a very important distinction between a physical town square and a virtual public square. People around the world flood into physical public spaces to protest. We see this with the awe-inspiring courage of protestors in Iran, for example. Earlier Arab Spring uprising did the same. We do that in North America, which is why things like World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings are now conducted far away from the public. And who can forget the showdown between Chinese protestors and the Chinese Communist Party in Tiananmen Square?
It’s different with a virtual public square. A town square is an actual, physical location that people can occupy. It is defined by location, by the buildings around it, and so on. We need to fight for them.
Virtual versus Real Public Squares
The fundamental difference between physical and virtual public spaces is this:
- Physical public spaces are created by the buildings and physical features, as is obvious from the photo above and from every public space you have ever experienced. Because they are literally grounded in physical reality, they cannot be moved.
- Virtual public spaces are created by the people who inhabit them. They can be moved easily.
The government can send in the police and military to drive us out of physical squares, and routinely do, and we must fight for our public space – because it is ours. Whoever controls a virtual square like Twitter can invite or ban anyone he chooses, exactly what Elon Musk is doing.
In the last week or so, Musk has banned:
- The account that tracked his private jet using publicly available information – after publicly committing not to
- Accounts tracking the private jets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. I wonder why
- Journalists from CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and independents
This is not the article to go into this, but as a pathological narcissist, Musk will be unable to prevent himself banning people who hurt his feelings. It is only a matter of time until any reality-based person runs afoul of him and gets kicked off. What happens when a climate scientist points out the tremendous damage that commercializing near-space travel via SpaceX will do to the atmosphere?
Musk routinely ‘rage fires’ people who disagree with him, and is constantly threatening everyone else. It is inevitable that he will come into conflict with climate scientists, with national security experts, with experts on authoritarianism, with social justice campaigners, and everyone based in reality. He has already been on the phone with Putin and Jinping, and if he wants to make and sell cars in China, then you can bet the Jinping will have some demands.
There are Alternatives
The problem for Musk is that all these people can decamp Twitter and set up elsewhere, and in fact this is already happening. He’s even accelerating it by banning people. Where will those banned journalists go? To a new virtual public square. That is already happening, too.
Mastodon has been growing by leaps and bounds and looks the most likely successor to Twitter so far. Musk sees the danger so is now blocking all links from Twitter to Mastodon. People are also checking out Post, there’s Project Mushroom (an independent part of Mastodon), and many others. But let’s talk about the current frontrunner, Mastodon.
The Return of the Mastodons
Mastodon is currently a victim of its own success: the official site that explains how it works is so overloaded it is timing out as I write this. That said, all the instances are up and running and it has some huge advantages:
- Not owned by a billionaire or megacorporation, or by anyone, in fact. You can start up your own Mastodon instance and link it to all the others. If the original instance goes down or is taken over by bad actors, there are many others and they can block the corrupted one.
- The point above is so important I will stress this: How much media do you know that is NOT owned by billionaires and giant corporations? (Or governments?) All of the so-called mainstream media is owned by the rich, and they buy media to buy influence.
- The quality of engagement is hugely better. People who once had large following on Twitter have migrated to Mastodon, have a much smaller following at least initially – but are reporting far superior engagement. Twitter has countless inactive accounts, many trolls, and a lotta bots. None of those contribute positively to engagement.
- No advertising. The day may come when the operator of my Mastodon instance needs to charge money and I will be happy to pay a small fee for the service, but right now it is literally, actually free.
- No trolls or bots. The person or persons responsible for a given Mastodon instance have godlike control over it, as Musk does Twitter. They can be capricious or jerks or simply mistaken. But because there are many Mastodons, you can migrate to another one and keep your followers.
- No abuse. Prominent people on Twitter are under continuous attack by some truly vile people:
- These people are reported and turfed from Mastodon instantly. (I have to wonder – these people spend a lot of time and energy yowling about pedophiles – if it’s projection.)
Sure, the nasty people could set up their own Mastodon instance and some have. But the other Mastodons block it, so they’re whining into the void. [If you don’t know what an ‘instance’ of Mastodon us, you don’t need to. Just know that there are many different Mastodons in the herd and you can ride anyone you like that will let you (some are full). And most Mastodons talk to each other, so you can ride your Mastodon and others will still see your posts.]
The Time has Come to Move On from Twitter
The virtual public square is being recreated at great speed on Mastodon. It’s a healthy place where real conversations are possible and abuse is not tolerated. If you are an honest person, it’s only a matter of time before you’re kicked off Twitter or driven off by the vitriol. Better to start creating a new you on Mastodon (I don’t recommend Post because it’s owned by rich people.)
Thousands already have and are finding the experience far more positive. I predict that major media will create their own Mastodon instances so their reporters can post without fear of harassment or being locked out because they reported on the wrong person. Most major media already are posting to Mastodon as it is. Project Mushroom is a Mastodon instance created by a climate scientist for other climate scientists and climate-concerned people. It is not yet connected to the other Mastodons, but it will be. Check out their ground rules – you might like the place!
And my experts, the people I have treasured on Twitter, please do the same. Climate scientists are almost guaranteed to run afoul of Musk – or one of his business partners (e.g. China), or one of the nasty people he associates with – and then you’re done. Social justice people, get out now! Look at the people Musk is allowing back on Twitter: white supremacists, people who want to kill gay people, school shooting apologists – literally the worst of humanity. Journalists are already being banned. All truth-tellers will be targets.
There is no point staying and ‘fighting for’ Twitter, which is a privately-owned corporation, not a public square. Not just because it’s a lost cause, but because it sustains the power of all these bad people. If we all decamp Twitter for Mastodon or another public square, Twitter will lose all influence and power. WE are are that influence and power, and if we go elsewhere, we take our power with us.
Please help build this list so others can find the experts! You can find me at https://c.im/@greengordon.
Climate Scientists and experts:
Experts on Authoritarianism, Fascism, Extremism
Journalists and media
- https://mstdn.ca/@mikedesouza – The Narwhal
- https://sciencemastodon.com/@cathleenogrady – science journalist
- https://sciencemastodon.com/@martinenserink – science journalist
- https://mas.to/@joncohen – staff writer at Science magazine
National Security and InfoSec experts:
Social Justice Campaigners
- https://mstdn.social/@AmirAttaran – Canadian lawyer
COVID and health:
Humour or inspirational:
- https://futurist.info/@jimcarroll – Futurist and expert on narcissistic leaders