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In the two weeks since Elon Musk closed his purchase of Twitter, the social media site has seen some big changes: chaotic mass layoffs, wobbly new-feature rollouts, and serious questions from users about whether the platform will change so much that they no longer want to be a part of it.
But if not Twitter, where then? One increasingly popular answer is Mastodon. Because it’s decentralized (or “federated” in Mastodon’s phrasing), there’s no chance it can ever be controlled by a single owner like Twitter or, for that matter, Facebook, TikTok, and other popular platforms. But as users are finding, decentralization comes with its own challenges around usability and reach.
To learn more about the concept of decentralized social media, and its potential and pitfalls, 5280 spoke with Nathan Schneider, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Schneider is an expert on media platforms and decentralization, and also a co-founder of platform.coop, a hub that helps people start and grow online businesses reliant on shared user ownership. He also co-founded the (ultimately unsuccessful) 2016 #BuyTwitter shareholder campaign.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: Twitter is barely among the top 20 social media platforms globally in terms of active users. So what makes people so upset or interested in what’s happening with it now under Elon Musk’s ownership?
Nathan Schneider: A lot of Twitter users have had to check themselves and remember that we’re on Twitter all the time when the rest of the world isn’t. But in the #BuyTwitter campaign to explore user ownership, we used a historical metaphor about the Associated Press: Few people wake up in the morning and log on to the AP website. But it’s a very powerful media utility whose reports reach more people in the world every day than even Facebook, and it’s a cooperative owned by news organizations. Twitter serves, not an identical, but similar function.
Much of the activity on Facebook, for example, is visible only in specific archipelagoes. And increasingly, ascendant apps like TikTok and WeChat are also based on closed spaces. Twitter isn’t totally open, but it’s like a public square in that context, oriented toward network publication.
A lot of people are searching for alternative platforms right now. Is there a direct replacement for Twitter, and is Mastodon that?
Mastodon is a different beast. After our Twitter shareholder campaign finished, a group of us started a user-operated server on Mastodon called social.coop. And I’ve used it every day for years and love it. (Editor’s note: Like Twitter, Mastodon is a social-media network for short-form messages up to 500 characters.)
But I still use Twitter, and they’re very different. Mastodon has been much more of what essayist bell hooks called a “homeplace”—or a site of care and comfort, a group of people aligned around certain values and a community in the fullest sense. But it’s not the same as Twitter with the world as your feed, and that difference is critical. (Editor’s note: Mastodon’s timeline feature may seem familiar, but because it’s distributed, it’s more work to build your feed and communicate with other users.)
There’s an important place for decentralized technologies like Mastodon, though. One that everyone is familiar with is email. One reason for the persistence of email is that no one company is controlling the whole system. Even though Google has a lot of power with Gmail, users can leave to another service at any time. There’s a lot of value, especially in an internet with so much centralized control, to have certain spaces and networks where you really can choose your own adventure, and approaches like Mastodon’s that enable people to make those choices and go where they most want to be.
Are there structural limitations to what platforms like Mastodon can be, based on the fact that they are decentralized?
The technology is, I think, perfectly capable of achieving that Twitter replacement. The problem is really the economics. When Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web, he said, “There’s no way anybody can capture it because we have this beautiful, decentralized network.” Well, what he didn’t understand was money. If you have enough money, you can capture anything. What drives this system is venture capital. Just in these last few weeks, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey texted Elon Musk and said that Twitter never should have been a company. But to grow and really compete, they had to take on venture capital and grow at all costs. And that forced them to sacrifice their mission.
So in order for a more decentralized and democratic social media to emerge, we need the capacity to finance it. When Mastodon is one guy with open code and some people contributing, and Twitter is a $44 billion company with thousands of employees, it’s no competition, right? We need to enable new kinds of financing. That includes public financing and private financing—like electric co-ops. Shared ownership can be a reasonable business; we just have an economic system in which it is, in many cases, actually illegal. In 2008, Uber and Airbnb both tried to share stock with their users, and the government wouldn’t let them.
That recalls a thread that Joe Bak-Coleman wrote—on Twitter of course—about the tension of having a global, community-owned platform that is sustainable. Do you see that possibility?
Twitter was born of the moment on the internet when everything was supposed to be free because advertising would fund it. But it turns out, you can only centralize advertising a few times before it stops working. Ads are essential for Google and Facebook, but it’s just not a business model that works for most things. So most new media platforms today are built on subscription models, and people are already used to that because there are so many services doing that. I think that makes it an ideal time for models based on user contribution that could enable shared ownership.
A great Coloradan, Louis Kelso, was the inventor of the employee stock-ownership plan that was what enabled a business like New Belgium Brewing to become employee-owned. And I think we need that for the internet—the ability for users who are going to pay subscription fees down the line to be able to buy a company upfront and pay back that loan later.
We’re only two weeks into Musk’s ownership of Twitter and it’s been chaotic. What’s your best guess about what the next 12 months will bring?
Well, I’m not much of a predictor or futurist—the present is bewildering enough. But it’s important to realize that Twitter has always been run by egomaniacs. All of our major social media platforms are. What seems to be happening now is that Musk appears determined to root out the skilled, ethically minded bureaucrats running Twitter and trying to make it a safer and healthier place and honestly trying to run it more like a public good.
I think we’ll see Twitter supercharged as a business, rather than an economic commons. That’s going to have consequences. It is a shift in the public square, where when you allow money to behave as speech, you get outcomes that reflect that. I’m interested in what ideas he’s bringing in, but there’s no doubt that we are moving farther from the vision of social media being the people’s platform. So I think the urgency of developing real public squares is getting heightened, and hopefully we can turn that into something constructive.