Gradually, Then Suddenly

This week marked a turning point in social media.

Some parts, like the massive layoffs at Meta (owners of Facebook) and the ongoing drama at Twitter, made the news. But one critical part hasn’t, and it’s the one that will mark the beginning of a substantial change in social media history.

To understand the move, you have to first look back and believe in Geoffrey Moore theory of change. In “Crossing the Chasm,” Moore talks about a market divided into five groups. On one side of the chasm are the innovators and early adopters, on the other, everyone else.

Core to the early ethos of social media was the belief that connecting people would be a multiplier for good. The community of innovators and early adopters centered on that core saw social media as a tool to lower access privilege and democratize conversations.

Social media was born of the initial internet dotcom boom and bust, a time when techno-optimists believed in the internet’s power to only do good. That ethos was because of a couple of factors:

First, the internet community was still small, limiting the number of bad actors and creating the possibility of isolating any single instance of a bad action to insulate the group.

Second, the group was relatively homogenous in its thinking, a flaw that would prove disastrous later on. We (and the reason I use “we” here is that I was part of the problem) claimed openness to all. We, however, were naive in that our understanding of “all” was more limited by a dialogue that would look to paper over differences and look to solving those issues later.

But social media, and the Internet, is a mirror for our society. None of the early engineers of social media realized the complexity in dealing with a combination of genuinely bad actors, some clueless people, some well-meaning but unaware of their privilege participants, and the rest of what makes our society.

Add in the bias of algorithmic coding and content delivery and the incentive to drive engagement (some would say addiction), and the current situation in mainstream social media appeared to be a foregone conclusion.

But back to Moore. Some innovators grew disenchanted with what social media was becoming and did what they do best: find a different approach. The response is the Fediverse and a tool called Mastodon, which together form the basis for a new form of social media that isn’t concentrated on a single platform. Because it is distributed, it creates the possibility of blocking particularly bad actors.

Because it is an innovator product, the offering is still a little more complex to operate than what mainstream users may be used to. So there will be some work needed to improve overall usability, discoverability, turning the concepts and products into a polished offering that can gain broad acceptance.

These past few weeks, the big change was in the arrival of a mass of “early adopters.” Prompted by the chaos at Twitter, hundreds of thousands of journalists, technologists, writers, etc… moved to Mastodon and entered the Fediverse. This massive Twitter migration represents one of the single most important event in the history of social media to date.

To exist, a social media platform needs three things: people, content, and tools to help people share content.

Mastodon and the Fediverse are the core tools, building on decades of distributed internet concepts to reimagine what we’ve come to know as social media and organize the “feed” in a non-AI-driven approach reminiscent to the old days of social media. With a substantial migration of people who were using Twitter to chat to the Fediverse, the people who create a lot of the interesting content have arrived.

Gradually, Mastodon and the Fediverse are reseting the clock on social media back to its early days, with people experimenting and discussions about where to go next taking off.

This is both an exciting and a brittle moment for this space. On the one end, the early community of innovators, who created these alternatives because they were worried about the corruptive influence of capitalism into what they saw as a “social” movement, is going to have to adapt to an onslaught of “new people” who may come with different ideas.

Many of the newcomers have built audiences on traditional social media and will look for an ability to do the same. While it has not happened yet, I would not be surprised to see large brands, now pausing Twitter and reconsidering their ad spend there, thinking about how they can leverage the Fediverse and Mastodon to continue the discussion with prospective and existing customers. These components will bring tension to what the community should look like.

Every community norm results in some form of biases. The biases existent in Fediverse and Mastodon norms are bound to be raised and challenged.

All this presents an opportunity for both growth and failure. I don’t know which way it will go (I hope for growth because I continue to be a techno-optimist) but one thing is clear: the debates that are going to take shape in the small corner of the internet known as the Fediverse are bound to either create something new and amazing or suffocate a promising baseline for change.

So expect to read more about the Fediverse and about Mastodon in the coming weeks and months (probably not that much from me as I’m not sure of what else to add to this conversation) and pay attention.

I, under the alias @[email protected], will be watching. Feel free to follow me there if you want to watch with me (and here are some handy tips to get started.)

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