I posted earlier this week about the surprise vacation I’m about to take to Costa Rica in two weeks. Some family and friends with whom I want to share some parts of my trip may wonder: why Mastodon? why don’t you just use Instagram like everyone else?
This post is my short attempt to answer that question.
Social media have always been part of the “free” but not free ecosystem of the internet. Just like email. The most generous reading of that early history is: skilled programmers had to spend a lot of time building something useful and motivating people to incorporate it into their lives. They did that on the gamble that, if they could get enough people using their tool (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), they would eventually learn how to monetize it and get paid for their work.
Eventually, the monetizing came (in a big way) through ads and the sale of aggregate data. But that wasn’t enough. Since 2015 all of the big tech companies have been challenging their teams to increase the amount of time that users spend on a platform, and the most effective way to keep someone on a platform is to slowly dial up their fear and/or anger. This explains why social media algorithms have, for years, pushed content that is increasingly polarized, incorrect, and/or fringe-y. Just like the soda companies and the cigarette companies, big tech has been engaged in a campaign to make their products irresistible and habit-forming, even if, to do that, they have to add harmful, poisonous elements to the product. (For more on this, have a look at Max Fisher’s book The Chaos Machine from last year or his interview on Offline).
I never joined Facebook even though I have experimented with every other social media tool I could find for educational and community building purposes. Learning about what big tech companies have been doing with ads, data, disinformation, and polarization has changed how I approach the web. I left Instagram in 2020; I left Gmail in 2020; I left Twitter last year.
I hope Mastodon represents a new generation of social networking building. It’s decentralized, open source, and managed by a non-profit organization. It does not sell ads, and it does not tweak its algorithm to keep you more engaged.
Coming off of social media has made me want to share less on the internet because of how complicit that behavior is with big tech’s unhealthy media practices. I haven’t really wanted to share as much. This trip I’m taking in two weeks is the first time I’ve been interested in having people “follow along” with something that I’m doing in years.
So, I’m using Mastodon because I want to return to authentic share culture and building community, but I want to do it outside of the systems that have become so toxic. I don’t need everyone to join on me on Mastodon, but, if by seeing people around you leave big tech platforms, you decide to do some research and alter your practices yourself . . . well, that’s just paying attention, isn’t it. 🙂