It’s been. . .a while. It would take too long to review everything that’s happened since I posted last, so let’s start with a recent turn of events: the absolute implosion of Twitter. I’ve been on that site for about fifteen years, and for portions of that time, I barely looked at it. At others times it’s been a critical part of my professional work. Given my on-again, off-again relationship with the space, it feels weird to say that the recent events are terribly significant to me, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I feel at a bit of a loss as I watch my community over there fracture.
Personally, I’ve scuttled away to Mastodon and set up a profile there, and I’m just dipping my toe in. (I still can’t figure out how to get my website verified which I find utterly annoying, but whatever.) On the one hand, I find the concept of the federate web very compelling, but I’m also sensitive to the argument that if we all leave Twitter we’re just turning it over to let the most toxic pockets of the internet flourish. Perhaps we need to make a stand:
I feel that the Twitter icon on city, county, state, and federal agency websites and the fact that they use it as a primary communication channel has elevated the platform to be more than just a private holding. I think that the 450+ million plus users that have adopted Twitter around the globe make the platform more than just a private holding-—it is also ours.Kin Lane, We Are Strengthening the Toxic Bros Playbook With Our Response to Twitter
I’m also fascinated and troubled by the complexity of a space like Mastodon as a safe refuge for those leaving Twitter, particularly historically marginalized groups and voices. While, in theory, it seems like a federated approach, with individual, granular instances able to offer moderation of postings would be ideal for combatting toxicity and offering safe harbor, in reality, we’re already seeing the approach getting weaponized–this is compounded by the fact that recreating a community in a new space takes a great deal of labor (and is an inherently imperfect practice). The outcome could eventually lead to a lot of lost or fractured communities that had found voice and power within Twitter.
And then there’s the fact that Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko is more than a little problematic. Can a project like this find a way to survive and thrive with that kind of shadow cast across it? Is this, on the whole, the “improvement” we’re looking for?
I don’t know the answer to any of this, and I’m not sure where I’m going to land. I will admit to a somewhat knee-jerk reaction at first when I heard people airing concerns about the complexity of Mastodon and how hard it is to find one’s people here. My first thought was that this is exactly how Twitter was back in 2007. There was no roadmap, and it took a long time to amass something that felt like a community. But, of course, this isn’t 2007. Twitter, as Kin points out, is almost a public utility at this point. Not only have communities amassed and connected there, but people earn their living in that space, some marginalized folks have found safe haven there, and it’s literally become a communication channel for issues of public health, safety, and services. Before we had Twitter, we had no space (online or in person) that provided this mix (and scale) of connection, community, fluidity, and representation, so we had nothing to lose as we figured out how it worked. Now there’s a lot to lose.
While I’m a fan of the way Twitter has allowed me to build professional connections and relationships, I don’t have a huge personal stake in its success or demise. So I’m doing a lot of reading and listening and thinking about what this all means and what comes next (for me, at least).
Wherever I end up, or most of us end up, or all of us end up, I feel pretty strongly that we need to learn a lesson from what’s going on. It was always foolish of us to believe that a business had our best interests at heart, even before Musk took over. And we should examine our relationships with other tech companies through this lens–more carefully than ever. Companies change, new owners arrive, new policies develop, and new business models emerge. Through all of this, the primary concern is always going to be financial, not moral. Values are not going to win the day. So we need to figure out how we either bulwark ourselves in these spaces and fight for our values within them, or we need to choose spaces where we have control over the choice and instantiation of values.
For me, I keep coming back to ownership and control and why it matters. Martin Weller muses that maybe we need to revisit the question of owning our own domains, and I would say there is no maybe about it. But, as always, I think it’s about more than the practicalities of ownership. It’s about wrestling with the beast that is the internet, pushing ourselves to understand its foundations (technical and philosophical), and making intentional choices about where and what we share (and what control we are or are not willing to give up). I’ve said before that Domain of One’s Own was never just about buying domains or building websites. It was always about these deeper considerations.
And, for me, perhaps most importantly we have to figure out how to build literacy and capacity around these considerations at our schools. When I left UMW a few years ago, I came to Plymouth State in part because it was another school with a Domains initiative. The pandemic has complicated the growth of that project in some ways, and I’m troubled to admit that I’ve had less time than I’d like to think about how it exists within the particular context of PSU.
As I watch and wait and ponder what my next steps are within and away from Twitter, I’m thinking hard about how I can use this moment to jumpstart a conversation about what it means to own the Web at my own school. Next semester we are running a module on Tech and Tools within the Design Forward program we’ve been building, and I want to make sure these questions ignite conversation there. Next week, I’m running a workshop on Mastodon and the federated web. And a library colleague and I are planning a program for the spring for faculty along the lines of “Everything You Don’t Know about the Web and Are Afraid to Ask.” (That’s a working title. lol.)
Meanwhile, we’re hearing rumblings that our larger system in New Hampshire is planning a bigger roll-out of Domain of One’s Own across all of our campuses. I’m delighted to hear there is renewed interest; I hope that as this project emerges we can focus not only on the technical infrastructure and possibilities but also on the fundamental questions surrounding what it means to live, work, think, teach, and learn (and create, govern, share, build, research, advocate, rebel) online.
For a while, it felt like I had said everything I had to say about this topic, and maybe it was time to shut up. In some ways, I think that’s still true. But…I think we all need to keep talking, keep teaching, and keep learning. I’m dusting off this site in large part because I need to walk the walk. I need to be sharing and writing and thinking about my work here, in a space that I control.