People waving fists and 'bird' placards

Image credit: Mashable

THE CONFUSING, chaotic and belligerent attitude of multi-billionaire Elon Musk since he took over Twitter should come as no surprise to anyone who has observed his behaviour over the years. The disruption and foreboding has caused many people and organisations to consider moving off the platform.

At present there is no intention to move Ekklesia away from Twitter, which has been a significant part of our recent operational model. But we take the situation very seriously, we will explore other platforms, and we remain committed – along with others – to looking for long term, sustainable solutions which reclaim the ‘public square’ of social media back from control by a handful of wealthy individuals and corporations, as well as the lie-industry around conspiracy theorists, Donald Trump’s legions, and the far-right.

In a matter of days we have felt the impact of growing online concern about Twitter. Our followers, who were about to tip over 12,000, have receded by several hundred, as friends and allies close their accounts. This is a real pity. In many ways, it is what Musk wants – part of his divide and rule strategy. That is why we are urging people to stay, but also to mobilise for a collective and more organised shift when that becomes possible as well as necessary.

Meanwhile, the actions Musk has already taken are undoubtedly undermining of Twitter as an open space for discussion and information sharing – appropriately and accountably moderated to screen out disinformation, misinformation, hate and threats as far as possible. What Musk ‘inherited’, by way of $44 billion, was very far from perfect, of course. But what he has done so far is to make things worse. He has sacked workers across the world (often illegally, and then needed to rehire some), effectively closed down the operation in Africa (with the odour of racism and colonialism that carries with it), endorsed the Republicans in the US midterm elections, and allowed various hate-mongers back on to the platform (while claiming he does not want to do away with appropriate moderation). In addition, top privacy and compliance officers are now reported to be leaving the company, giving the US Federal Trade Commission (which works to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices) “deep concern”.

Musk has also chopped and changed access policies, and has begun the introduction of a new ‘blue tick’ system which will turn Twitter into a two-tier communications operation. People with money (including frauds and trolls with resources) will be at the front of the queue, and everyone else will be left at a fast receding back. In fact the new owner has boasted that those who do not pay him $7.99 a month (per account, groups who have several should note) will be deliberately left behind. The algorithm will stop people seeing what they tweet and will reduce their presence and impact dramatically.

If this happens it makes talk of Twitter as a digital ‘public square’ nonsense. Instead, it is the beginning of yet another plutocratic system organised along the principles of neoliberalism – which is that money and speculation should triumph over all. We categorically oppose that approach. Twitter, like Wikipedia (with all its shortcomings, still a remarkable global knowledge base), should be a genuine commons. Unless Musk’s proprietorship implodes – which is still a possibility – that democratic vision is not the way things are headed.

So what is the alternative? The answer is that there isn’t a single one, and the current leader of the pack, Mastodon, has many hurdles to navigate, including trust, reliability, inclusivity and capacity. Its German founder, Eugen Rochko, told the media that over 120,000 people signed up over the initial two days of Musk’s Twitter takeover. Understandably, it has struggled to keep up. We are trying to sign up, for example, but have experienced technical problems and delays. For those who do not know, the difference between Twitter and Mastodon was summed up well by Time magazine recently:

Mastodon, which proudly proclaims it is “not for sale” and has around 4.5 million user accounts, is pretty similar to Twitter, once users get past the complicated sign-up process. The main difference is that it’s not one cohesive platform, but actually a collection of different, independently-run and self-funded servers. Users on different servers can still communicate with each other, but anybody can set up their own server, and set their own rules for discussion. Mastodon is a crowdfunded nonprofit, which funds the full-time work of Rochko – its sole employee – and several popular servers.

What needs to happen now is the further coming together of social investors, innovators with technical expertise, and people with an organisational vision of social media as a truly democratic, networked and popularly accountable space. Only this will help make Mastodon, or a parallel platform, truly viable. The danger, many argue, is that through digital proliferation and succession (which in some ways seems inevitable) a truly ‘joined’ up online conversation in the public sphere becomes more and more fragmented into different echo chambers. Equally, the walls between various online communities will get taller and less easy to traverse.

This is undeniably a problem. But the universalism of a medium like Twitter is over-estimated, both because it is smaller than many imagine (though a major space for journalists, politicians. campaigners, NGOs and those already engaged in public life), and also because, in spite of its appearance, it too is increasingly fragmented. Most people follow and are followed by those they like or know. Engagement across major differences of ideology and experience is often confrontational or superficial. Abuse, trolling and phishing have grown as the platform itself has expanded rapidly, if not exponentially.

The idea that these problems and limitations can be made to go away by enabling a ‘safe’ platform is an illusion. The danger is that safe spaces become enclosed, sheltered and ineffectual. ‘Social’ ultimately requires connectivity, not quarantining. Ideally the solution would involve making it easier for people to migrate, share and listen across various platforms. That in itself is often unwelcome to private owners and profiteers, as we have seen in the incompatible software and operating systems deliberately developed by competing tech companies. Overcoming such barriers on anything more than a small scale is also expensive and can be obstructed by those with commercial muscle in a grotesquely unequal economy, however helpful and desirable shareware and a Creative Commons is. So we come full circle.

What all this means, I think, is that now is a time for watching, waiting, conversing and exploring; rather than leaping precipitously. We live in a society which increasingly expects instant solutions, especially in the digital world. But that is not always how complex issues render themselves and are solved. Mature reflection as a prelude to better quality action is necessary – politically, socially, technically, and, yes, spiritually.

The sheer human dimension is critical, too. As one of our online friends commented: “I honestly haven’t got the energy for another social media account. I know that this isn’t a fashionable take right now but I still love Twitter and remember the loneliest times of my early days on here as a family carer and how I found a network of support.”

In the meantime, it would be a great shame if we were all to break the networks, links, information channels, friendships and solidarities we have formed via Twitter, sometimes over many years (some 14 years in Ekklesia’s case). That doesn’t help us, and if anything it hands more power to Musk. On the other hand, like others, we have no intention of giving a multi-billionaire any of our scarce money if we can possibly avoid it. In the medium or long term that may make full migration inevitable, when the tipping point between the fall of Twitter and the rise of something like Mastodon reaches the stage where it no longer makes sense to stay, or procrastinate, or divide our energies between multiple platforms.

As the saying goes, watch this space. (And thanks to Ros Atkins for this potted summary of what’s been going on.)


© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia. His columns can be found here (and archived ones here). Twitter: @simonbarrow