This article will be a work-in-progress node of my digital garden to hold my observations about social media in one place.

If you know me, chances are you have heard me scream about quitting Twitter and joining Mastodon. I joined a little before the first wave of Twitter migration. While I had been wanting to get my friends to join Mastodon for a long time, I didn’t actually think they would. Although it was proving to be the better alternative for me personally, and I knew it would help many of them as well, the enormity of corporations made me believe that it would remain a small network.

It is astonishing how Musk’s antics catalysed Mastodon’s somewhat mass adoption. On my feed, I now see several ex-Twitter users talking about how the nature of Mastodon helped them realise the toxicity of profit-driven platforms. Many meta-threads float about the Fediverse, describing the small heuristics they had developed to survive mainstream social media and the relief of letting them go.

Thus, the past few weeks have been very interesting, and I felt like reflecting upon them.

Why did I join Mastodon?

I have had an unhealthy dynamic with social media. Unstable and conflict-ridden interpersonal relationships characterise BPD; we often misinterpret intent, get very attached to people and simultaneously look for signs to indicate that a person is evil. This black-and-white thinking was exacerbated by parasocial relationships. A lot of it has to do with my inability to hold conflict in a conversation, of course, but it was also because the nature of platforms left no room to be pragmatic: to engage in discourse, to disagree without quote tweeting, to extend good faith towards people. It was also very clout based, and my lack of clout would make me feel unworthy.

I would swing from:

  • Spending the entire day looking to post something cool and get some engagement to feel good about myself
  • Detesting the performance I had to do, the way I constantly sought to content-ify my day-to-day life.

Social media influencing is something that I hate with every last cell in my body. In fact, you should check out this poster made by a few friends and me. It analyses influencers from a Marxist lens.

One is a commodity on profit-driven networks, and the dehumanisation arising from the commodification was apalling. Thus, I joined Mastodon because it seemed like an acceptable alternative. And in terms of healthy engagement, it was! People followed one another based on mutual interests and not social capital. Optimising algorithms did not drive engagement, and I happily gave up trying to commodify moments from my life. It was also a less addictive alternative. The significant amount of intended and unintended (servers going down, the network being slow) friction did wonders to keep me from doomscrolling.

Twitter burning up

When the first wave of Twitter users shifting to Mastodon occurred, I was sceptical. I assumed they would go right back to the bird site after the hype was over, and who could blame them? Social media is meant to be addicting and the pandemic cemented its importance in our lives. However, when people just kept coming, my scepticism tempered down a bit, and I felt some hope. Perhaps a world where corporations don’t control our interactions online was possible after all!

It was very radical, and I started promoting Mastodon very earnestly. Despite its flaws, it was still better than Twitter. Just the idea of decentralising servers felt very compelling. I posted long essays about Mastodon and hope on my other social media, saw many others do the same, and it felt like a movement.

Infinite Detail of Mastodon

A lovely sci-fi book by Tim Maughan, Infinite Detail is the story of humans in a post-internet society. Without spoiling too much of the content, the book’s protagonist, Rushdi Mannan, is the architect of The Croft, which has removed itself from the surveillance and hegemony of Big Data. However, rather than challenging or altering surveillance states and capitalism, the Croft ends up becoming an escape; an alternative, where one can exist far from the networked society.

The Fediverse reminds me of The Croft. With a motley crowd of anarchists, left liberals, and FOSS enthusiasts, Fediverse is an aspiring digital utopian project. Like in the Croft, many parts of the Fediverse also view its mass adoption as a victory. To be fair, it is a victory to an extent because it has achieved something no one would have thought possible two months back. However, one must question the extent of this win.

In the book, The Croft eventually falls, from a radical commune to a feudal-style haven, hiding from the other power hungry parts of the world. Many architects of The Croft become wanted “terrorists”, restricting their mobility and forcing them into a hostage situation. The technology that sustained The Croft, becomes defunct after the Internet is taken down. The technoutopian dream’s downfall gives way to cynical survival-of-the-fittest attitudes amongst Croft’s newly established top ranks. Despite squirming out of the grip of neoliberal surveillance, the Croft fails to be immune to the political economy.

Hope with a grain of salt

Mrinu post
Image Description in the footnotes1

After seeing this post on my feed, I suddenly realised Mastodon’s potential to alter digital society blinded me to the most critical quip I had with social media: it’s potential for political change.

Granted, social media has its place in politics and mobilisation. Historically, it has aided protesters, strikers, and dissenters organise. It is a great medium to find political allies and its interactions exert significant influence over its users’ views and ideology. But all social media, including Mastodon, are a part of the same ecosystem that Twitter and Instagram exist in, and that ecosystem will largely dictate Fediverse’s survival. The real enemy remains this ecosystem, and it is far from being defeated.

Anupam post
Image Description in the footnotes2

For example, if the Draft Telecom Bill is passed in India, no amount of decentralisation or federation would protect Indians from the Government’s tyranny over their online presence. If the developers of Mastodon and the various volunteers running the servers come under fire by governments, the project could collapse.

Libgen, a service that has aided many students and researchers, always seemed infallible. I believed the technical experts would find a way through legal persecutions, even when it Libgen was faced with a dead end. The depressing fact remains that most people have lost access to Libgen today. Of course, there are still ways to access Libgen, but they will be limited mostly to people comfortable navigating the technicalities of piracy. In short, even accessing these digital projects is contingent upon one’s privilege.

What my main point is, I guess, is that it is good to hope. Without hope, there is no way for us to act. But it is also necessary, as communists, for us to remember where our struggle lies. And many old Mastodon users are aware that it isn’t a solution but a means. A significant section of these users regularly criticises the development of the platform and the founder for his tendency to dictate the architecture of the network. While we encourage people to join Mastodon, we must also critically engage with the shape its development takes. Most importantly, we musn’t forget that in the real world, much work needs to be done.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might want to check out Cory Doctorow’s How to Leave Dying Social Media Platforms.
If you want to join Mastodon, but don’t know how, look at this post HOW TO CREATE AN ACCOUNT ON MASTODON .
If you are on Mastodon but are finding it difficult to use, look at the #FediTips, #TwitterMigration, for tips and tricks.

  1. Post by @[email protected] “let’s not pin so much hope on social media when the societal fabric is brutally teared upon” ↩︎

  2. Post by @Anupam_[email protected] “Alright, let us post something here to start off. A bit of tech policy perhaps. India has something called the Draft Telecom Bill, which is a proposed law for which public comments are invited. ONLY 4 DAYS are left. You need to look at this bill. It proposes issuing licenses for all telecom services. It redefines telecom service to ANY MACHINE TO MACHINE communication. So your email, whatsapp, telegram, signal, your twitter/mastodon/reddit, any messaging app on any random website, zoom/skype” ↩︎