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.