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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Whether to Tweet or Toot

photo of elephant trunk

photo of elephant trunk

Ethics, Community, and Social Media Migrations

Irina Raicu

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program (@IEthics) at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

What did mastodons sound like? Did they trumpet somewhat like elephants? Will many of us soon be “tooting” (yes, that’s what Mastodon posts are called), having stopped tweeting?

You might have heard by now about the phenomenon dubbed “#TwitterMigration”—the fact that, in the wake of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter (and the departure of key Twitter executives and layoffs of key Twitter staff), a significant number of Twitter users are moving to a social media platform (or federated system of platforms) called Mastodon—or, if not moving there, then at least creating Mastodon accounts as a backup in case they decide to stop using Twitter. Mastodon is not new, but (according to TechCrunch) its app “saw the most installs ever in a single day on Saturday, October 29, with 34,000 new downloads across both iOS and Android that day.”

Some people are excited by the prospect of the decentralized social network; on October 31st, professor Michael Veale, for example, tweeted enthusiastically about growing online communities of researchers: “If you haven’t tried Mastodon/the Fediverse, there’re now ~100 tech/policy/law/society ppl on our lil’ list (+100s I know of)…” According to EuroNews, the European Commission “maintains a server for EU bodies to toot from.” Others are a bit unnerved by the “fediverse” (possibly tired out by all the conversations about the metaverse, and reluctant to engage with any other verses). Still, as more of one’s conversation partners migrate, the pressure to join them grows stronger.

I have been tweeting as part of the Internet Ethics program for many years now (@IEthics). The program’s posts are primarily a curated reading list, linking to articles, research papers, and other folks’ tweets. Occasionally, I’ve gotten into conversations. Over time, I’ve built a network of expert accounts to follow, and have found Twitter to be a great tool for surfacing useful information and contacts (as well as sometimes-much-needed silliness).

I’ve also written a bit about the platform; in 2017, for example, I had a blog post titled “Should Twitter Suspend Donald Trump’s Account?” In May of this year, I published an op-ed titled “How Musk Could Protect Twitter and Promote Free Speech” (the bit that should probably have been added to that headline being “—but Won’t”).

It’s still interesting, however, to see how extensively the fate of Twitter (and the drama of its purchase and ongoing deconstruction) has been covered by mass media in the U.S., at least. Journalists were some of the platform’s earliest users, and one of the groups that has found it the most useful. For them, the potential loss of this tool is severe.

About 1 in 5 Americans say they use Twitter, but the platform’s influence has been far greater than that number might suggest. However, in the wake of its new owner’s recent moves and whiplash-inducing comments about what the site will do or not do in the near future, many users are reconsidering the ethics of their own continued participation on the platform. Given that more Democrats than Republicans report using the platform, and given that research has shown that up to 97% of tweets (in 2021 at least) came from the top 25% of users (“by tweet volume,” as the Pew Research Center puts it), the migration of heavy users might leave behind a very different company, and very different conversations.

The conversations are already different on Mastodon. As prof. Arvind Narayanan has pointed out (on Twitter), Mastodon and Twitter “are both socio-technical systems shaped as much by community and culture as by tech.” He added that “Mastodon seems to excel at thoughtful discussion…. One reason is of course the higher character limit but I think it's mostly the culture.” Does that mean that we’re less likely to see media articles compiling sound-bite-y Mastodon toots? Will we ever see Mastodon-created influencers? Will political candidates target their messages for distinct Mastodon servers? Will parts of the fediverse come to look like Facebook groups, with all the associated challenges, or will the Mastodon culture, as Narayanan describes it, lead to different types of communities?

For now (but not clear for how much longer), a lively and informative conversation about Mastodon continues—on Twitter.

Photo: "Elephant Trunk (IMG_2819b)" by Denish C is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Nov 10, 2022

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