Of course the attention economy is threatened by the Fediverse

Megan McArdle says this week, in the Washington Post, that “Twitter might be replaced, but not by Mastodon or other imitators.” I’m not linking to the article, you can easily find it, but that title is all we need for my purpose here, along with this bit of context: she has 93K followers on Twitter.

Nobody wants to walk away from that kind of audience. Well, almost nobody. Sam Harris’ recent Twitter exit is a rare example of someone concluding that a large follower count is a net negative. If I were in his shoes I’m not sure I’d be able to do the same. When my own audience was at its peak — at BYTE during the dawn of the Internet, then at InfoWorld in the early years of the blogosphere — I could press the Publish button on my blog and watch in realtime as the responses rolled in on waves of dopamine. It’s addictive, there’s never enough, you’re always looking for the next hit.

When Twitter started, that momentum carried forward for a while. I never racked up a huge follower count — it maxed out just shy of 6K — but most of those people followed me early on, thanks to the the ad-supported publications that had brought me to their attention. My Twitter following reached a plateau years ago. Did I wish for 100K followers? Sure, I’d be lying to pretend otherwise. But gradually I came to see that there was a sweet spot, somewhere between (let’s say) 200 and 15,000 followers, where it was possible to enjoy the kinds of pleasant and stimulating interaction that I’d first experienced in web forums and the blogosophere.

Until it wasn’t. Like a frog in slowly boiling water, I failed to notice how the Twitter experience degraded over time. Fewer and fewer of my 6K followers corresponded regularly, and my social graph there became stagnant. For me the Mastodon reboot has been a delightful replay of the early blogosphere: new acquaintances, collegial discussion, positive energy.

If you occupy a privileged position in the attention economy, as Megan McArdle does now, and as I once did in a more limited way, then no, you won’t see Mastodon as a viable replacement for Twitter. If I were still a quasi-famous columnist I probably wouldn’t either. But I’m no longer employed in the attention economy. I just want to hang out online with people whose words and pictures and ideas intrigue and inspire and delight me, and who might feel similarly about my words and pictures and ideas. There are thousands of such people in the world, not millions. We want to congregate in different online spaces for different reasons. Now we can and I couldn’t be happier. When people say it can’t work, consider why, and who benefits from it not working.

Here’s a graph of the Fediverse as it appears from my perspective right now.

It looks and feels healthy and it’s working just great. I don’t want us to replace Twitter, or imitate it. I want The Internet Transition that I hope is underway.

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12 thoughts on “Of course the attention economy is threatened by the Fediverse

  1. Hi Jon,

    I am super torn with the tweeter to mastodon thing and the result has me all a fluster. But, I have thought a lot about keeping the good things close. I think I am still moving like this https://www.thewholeclassroom.com/2022/01/21/scaling-to-small/ even though I do love the serendipity of the larger spaces.

    A few weeks ago I did this https://www.thewholeclassroom.com/the-shape-of-community/ and at that point I was like, i’ll just give you my phone number. That is the connections I need. The connections I want. Maybe coffee shop visits too…

    But as noted in it, “As Kurt asks us, “Can you notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” Maybe that is the community we are looking for? Maybe it has already found you?”

    I feel warm and well hugged by the large and small communities, but my daily behaviors are all messed up compared to what they were. You nailed it with, “I just want to hang out online with people whose words and pictures and ideas intrigue and inspire and delight me, and who might feel similarly about my words and pictures and ideas.”

    Sounds good to me.

  2. > I do love the serendipity of the larger spaces

    The Fediverse encompasses smaller and larger (but emphatically not global) spaces. I started with mastodon.social because it’s a larger one, and it turns out to be large enough to foster the kinds of serendipity that I value. I might or might not move to a smaller one but I’m encouraged, for now, that interaction among smaller and larger servers is, while not seamless, pretty darned good all things considered.

    I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong but for now my take is that a global conversation happening in a single online space is an incoherent idea and undesirable outcome.

  3. Have you measured how many people follow you via RSS as I do? (And I realize I am dating myself but I did read your columns in Byte)

  4. I guess I don’t know, I’m on wordpress.com which I think doesn’t count RSS subscribers?

    From time to time I’ll post something here without pinging Twitter — or now, Mastodon. Even more rarely someone will then show up and comment. That’s how I know who is an OG follower!

  5. It’s very much worth remembering that the people who crave that sort of attention from strangers are not most people, though because they are by definition the kind of people who want bylines and publication, media are full of people insisting on the lifeblood importance of applause and attention. In particular, they’re full of men insisting on the importance of these things — and it’s the same men who take it very, very seriously when a rich man who’ll never starve is in danger of losing an important job, because, my god, an important job, underscoring the man’s importance. For them it’s like cutting an arm off. But for most people it’s a very brief period of unemployment that the man’s finances will never notice, so what the hell is the issue.

    It’s a real problem, the attention to those things. The promotion of the idea that people shouldn’t be expected to lose audience or position because the people doing the writing find it so ghastly a prospect — it’s not good for the society, for the democracy.

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