Wednesday 30 November 2022

In Memoriam Twitter

Funny how time and memory work. In my mind my blogging is an Old Thing that pre-dates more widespread social media and Twitter is a New Thing, but it turns out I started Twitting in 2008, the same year we set up KiaSA. Reading a post from 2009 reminded me that things were a little creaky to start with but it didn’t take too long for the blue bird to spread its wings, especially as its natural habitat of the smartphone became nigh-ubiquitous. My early Twitter feed closely mirrored MMO folk from the blogroll but as the world and their proverbial (or indeed literal) dogs (and cats) got into Twitterating so it expanded to a motley collection of comedians, authors, mathematicians, historians, journalists, sportspeople and such.

Things were generally fairly chilled in the early days, there was a novelty in the interactions between disparate folk. Of course it’s not the first time that “the masses” have been able to interact with “celebrities” (see Greg Jenner’s excellent Dead Famous for more on the history of celebrity and fandom, Greg being someone I discovered through Twitter). Internet-wise you might have bumped into Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett on Usenet or Vin Diesel in World of Warcraft but the scale of Twitter went mind-boggling pretty quickly. A hundred followers? Sure, small beer. A thousand? That’s a lot of potential interaction. A hundred thousand? Shortly after my first post grappling with the newfangled thing Ashton Kutcher edged out CNN to be the first to hit a million followers, the signal to noise ratio must be crazy at those volumes. Some folk started scaling down their presence or heading off entirely as it all got a bit exhausting, countless hordes ready to pounce on a wilful misinterpretation of the most innocuous statement, not to mention more orchestrated maliciously motivated campaigns. It’s not something I’ve personally experienced, thank heavens, but you get occasional glimpses in looking at a trending hashtag or replies to more popular Twittites.

I’ve never been a terribly prolific Twitterist of original content. There’s the vague ongoing worry over putting anything too personal online, probably unfounded, but who knows when some disciple of a long-dead game tracks down a mildly sarcastic comment about it from 2011 and launches a blood vendetta? It’s more that I don’t have much to say in a pithy format (hence this being a blog post rather than a thread of Twitterage). For me it’s become more of a combination of rolling news, an aggregator of interesting links (picking up where RSS feeds left off, in some ways), and commentary. The commentary often arrives first which can make for interesting attempts to reconstruct news stories based on reactions and spoofs, like George Smiley divining true Soviet interests by subjects suppressed by a double agent. If Smiley was working with memes of A Man Walking Down The Street With A Woman Labelled ‘Naval Manoeuvres In The Baltic Sea’ But Turning To Look At Another Woman Labelled ‘Hungarian Atomic Research Facilities’.

I don’t think I’m too misty eyed about the evolution from a scrappy assortment of vaguely tech-savvy folk to the corporate behemoth favoured by politicians, I’ve managed to curate a comfortable feed where there’ll always be something interesting or funny to scroll through on a break without too much existential dread (though you can hardly entirely avoid it these days). The effects of the Filter Bubble are always a concern, a good percentage of the people I follow appear to be of broadly similar ideology, but slightly counteracted by the variety of spheres from which they’re drawn so they’re not an entirely homogenous mass.

All in all things seemed to be bimbling along happily enough from my specific perspective, until The Event. The purchase of Twitter by the Unspecified Billionaire. It’s probably excessive caution again, but a brief glance at replies to just about any sort of commentary on the situation turns up the sort of ‘spirited defence’ of the chap that would make K-Pop stans say “steady on, now”, so it’s not entirely outwith the realms of possibility that there are teams crawling obscure blogs desperate to start a civil conversation about that statement. I hadn’t thought a huge amount about identification and verification, there’d been the odd bit of furore over who did and didn’t get a blue tick but it seemed to have settled itself down, until The Event. Oddly enough Terry Pratchett and Bill Gates had talked about the difficulties of “the parity of esteem of information on the Net” in a 1996 interview, I’m not sure if Gates might re-evaluate his prediction that “The whole way that you can check on somebody’s reputation will be so much more sophisticated on the Net than it is in print today” in the wake of the Blue Tick ‘Parody’ Chaos. Further decisions appear to have been made with the consideration and delicacy of a toddler with a chainsaw so heaven knows what the future holds. Perhaps we’re on the verge of a new age of unparalleled enlightenment, but it seems rather more likely to be a coin flip between the whole thing vanishing in an explosion of hubris or slowly falling apart as anyone vaguely competent and insufficiently zealous drifts away.

I’ve started glancing around for alternatives, and set up over on a UK Mastodon instance. It’s got that early days vibe again, for better and worse. The federated nature obviously has its strengths, but already there’ve been some rumblings over moderation policy and interactions with other servers, I don’t envy volunteer admin teams in the slightest. Data protection and security becomes quite the thorny issue. I still don’t have much to post, but I’m trying to make an effort with the odd dog photo at least. These things come and go; Bulletin Boards, Usenet, Slashdot, Livejournal, to pluck a few examples, I’ll see where folks head to and probably drift along myself. I’m partial to a bit of E. J. Thribb, so over to @ToneHannan for the eulogy (though I’ll copy the text here, just in case):

Farewell then

You were funny on
Eurovision night

Keith’s mum liked that
blue tick
she bought

At least I think it was
Keith’s mum