protocols, not platforms

Does everybody get to coin one maxim in their lives? If so, here’s mine: Everything gets worse.

Let’s say you’re shopping at the grocery, when you notice a new food product. It competes directly with another product you’ve been buying, which you are not super happy with. You like the looks of this one, so you buy it. You get it home, and what do you do know, it’s great! It might cost a little more than the alternative you’re used to buying, but you’re willing to pay for quality, right? I know I am.

Weeks and months go by, as you continue consuming your newly-discovered food, still happy to pay more than the inferior competitor. You are not the only person who loves this new product, and some genius at the company takes notice. Holy cow, this thing is selling like hotcakes! Surely we can make even more money. Cut corners just a tiny bit. Put a half-ounce less of the product in the container every now and then. Use cheaper ingredients. Extend the expiration dates, so older product won’t be discarded unsold. They’ll keep buying it, due to the great reputation we’ve built up!

Sooner or later, this great new product that you loved has reverted to the mean, and is maybe even worse than the thing it replaced. Back to the drawing board.

Who remembers what Google search was like, in the early days? Or Facebook? Back when those products had zero market share, they had to work hard to attract users away from the competition. The company’s goals were aligned with its users.

Right about the time a product achieves a near-monopoly, some genius product manager decides it is time to tighten the screws. Make search just a little bit worse, so the company can make more from ads. Make the user’s experience just a little bit worse, to increase engagement, and make more money from ads.

Social media is especially pernicious in this respect, because nobody is willing to pay for it. An oft-repeated saying: if you aren’t paying for the product, then you are the product. Social media’s actual customers are the companies paying for the ads. This leads to warped incentives.

(As long as I am ranting: what is up with billionaires, anyway? Quite a few of them have accumulated more money than they could spend in a hundred lifetimes, but still they want more. Disgraceful.)

There has never been a corporate-owned social media website that has ever felt anything other than slimy to me. As a result, I have never engaged with any of them with any real enthusiasm.

I can’t say that Twitter was exactly an exception to this rule, for me. I never liked it enough to contribute my own content to it. I do like its userbase enough to have spent many hours reading it, over the last couple of years. That all came to a screeching halt in the last month or so, when it was acquired by a tyrant.

Then came the exodus from Twitter, due to the tyrannical new owner. Many of the voices that I have come to appreciate the most are leaving. In particular, the ones with the highest morals were the first to jump ship. As well they should! If you stay on Twitter, the way it is now, and continue to contribute your content to it, then you are saying that you approve of the tyrant-in-chief banning reporters for writing about things that make him look bad.

Quite a few of the Twitter exiles moved to Mastodon. When did I first hear about this thing? At least a couple of years ago? I never took it seriously, though. It was ugly, awkward, and difficult to use. It struck me as an anomaly that only diehard techies could love. But now, being more or less forced to start reading the newly-created accounts of the Twitter-averse, it didn’t seem so bad as I remembered.

(Yes, I am aware of the competitors, like It will inevitably follow the same trajectory that leads to becoming slimy and unbearable, just like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram did. No thanks.)

After reading Twitter expats on Mastodon for a few days, and being pleasantly surprised, I made myself an account, and followed a lot of those people. All of a sudden, I love it. In the last day or two, it has dawned on me how different and revolutionary this is.

If you are unfamiliar with Mastodon, you will no doubt wonder what the big deal is. How is this one going to be any different than its slimy competitors?

For sites like Facebook and Twitter, there is only one company in charge. If they implement rules and policies you don’t like, you have no recourse. Of course you can leave, but all your connections are still there. Good luck getting everybody else to move with you. Conversely, nobody owns Mastodon. It cannot fall prey to a tyrant, or a tyrannical corporation, the way all the others did.

Let’s say a similar situation arises on the Mastodon server you pick. The administrator becomes a tyrant, or enacts rules you don’t like. All you have to do is pick a different Mastodon server, with an administrator you like, and migrate your account to it. You get to keep all your connections. Mastodon’s ActivityPub protocol anticipates this as a thing that might happen, and so they have made this process so simple that it is barely more than a button-press.

For this reason, Mastodon is the only social network I have ever openly embraced. I am willing to create content on this site. And I am going to encourage others to do the same.

A few words, if you decide to take the plunge. Yes, Mastodon is more difficult to use than whatever social media platforms you are on now. Its decentralized nature makes some things a lot more difficult to pull off than its competitors. But surely its worth a little extra effort, so that you are not beholden to tyrants, like the one who currently owns Twitter, or to autocrats who are doing their dead-level best to destroy democracy, like the one who owns Facebook. Mastodon has its quirks, but you will eventually figure it out. I am willing to help!

Oh, and another thing. Whatever Mastodon instance you decide to join, it will almost certainly be run by volunteers who are doing this in their spare time. Running servers of this type costs real money, and also time, for moderation and upkeep. Don’t be a cheapskate! Contribute a little bit to your Mastodon server administrator. Whatever you can afford. If you are willing to pay, then you are the customer, and no longer the product.

Come on in, the water’s fine.

(Update. About two days into my Mastodon adventure, I decided that I needed to move my account from my original server instance to a new one. It was not, in fact, “as simple as pressing a button.” I was stressed throughout the process, afraid I’d do the wrong thing and destroy my nascent social graph. Not something I would ever expect a novice to do without a lot of hand-holding.)