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The Great Social Media Shake-Up of ’23

When I was a child I was often told “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”, which is why I have said very little (scratch that, nothing) about Elon Musk on this site before. I think the nicest thing I could say about Elon Musk is that his name sounds like the name Disney would give to an odious animated skunk, (That’s still not a nice is it? Sorry Mum I tried). If by some miracle you are alive in the-year-of-our-lord-2023-A.D and have somehow avoided the unpleasantness of knowing who Elon Musk is, let me fill you in. Imagine a twelve year old boy. Now imagine somebody gave that twelve year old boy 242 billion dollars. Now imagine that twelve year old boy is sat atop another twelve year old boy in a trench coat in order to appear as an adult. That’s Elon Musk.

Unfortunately instead of using his obscene amounts of undeserved wealth on sweets (non-brits read: candy) or v-bucks or whatever twelve year old boys are into these days, Musk spent it on one of the worlds most popular corporate social media websites, namely Twitter. Yeah, Musk just bought the whole of Twitter, because when you’re the world’s richest man two-twelve-year-olds-in-a-trench-coat you can just do that. So what has Musk done with his new toy? Well if you ever played Lego Island as a kid and got the bad ending then that pretty much sums it up. Twitter wasn’t exactly a utopian citadel of a social media platform before Musk took over but he has made it worse in pretty much every way. Musk has turned the birdsite into a free speech platform where anything goes. Well, apart from the word “Cis” apparently which Elon has decided is a slur (I’m sure Elon’s hostility towards the trans community has nothing to do with his child transitioning and disowning him or his wife leaving him for Chelsea Manning), while actual slurs are perfectly acceptable. What Musk means by “freedom of speech” is the same thing most right-wing freeze-peach advocates mean by it which is basically “let the Nazis talk and silence the gays, now ready the flamethrowers we’ve got a lot of books to get through”. After firing all of the actually competent staff (from what I understand the technical aspects of Twitter are now managed by Elon hitting the servers with a wooden mallet until the magic machine starts working again) and giving any idiot with $8 a month to spare a verification badge, Twitter has apparently been run into the ground enough for people to actually start leaving.

So while Elon sits triumphantly atop his burning pile of Lego bricks people have slowly but surely started going elsewhere. One of the first places Twitter refugees started flocking to was the Fediverse or more specifically Mastodon (us long time users felt about this much the same way I imagine Usenet users felt in September 1993) which led to some more mainstream interest in the Fediverse. Tumblr are planning to add ActivityPub support and Facebook (I refuse to call them “Meta”) in a transparent application of “embrace, extend extinguish” have launched their own Twitter clone called “Threads” with ActivityPub support and will at some point be federating (at least with the instances that didn’t immediately commit to blocking them which most of the respectable ones have). Meanwhile ex-Twitter head Jack Dorsey has launched the bullshit-decentralised “Bluesky” which is basically selling itself as a reconstruction of pre-Elon Twitter. A lot of people apparently liked Twitter before Elon bought it, which to me seems a bit like saying “This abattoir used to be such a pleasant place to sit and drink coffee until they started pasting Nazi propaganda on the walls and charging you to get in” but to each their own I guess.

If it wasn’t enough for one popular social media site to drive away it’s users, Reddit (apparently inspired by Musk’s Twitter) decided to implement API fees that would negatively impact third-party clients (which are very popular). This action sparked site-wide protests and mass blackouts. A large portion of subreddits went private for days, making huge swathes of Reddit inaccessible. Reddit responded by sending the boys over with baseball bats to force subreddits back open and threatening to replace subreddit moderators, all while comparing them to landed gentry, which is a bit like a landlord calling a tenant landed gentry for complaining about the rise in rent. So many Reddit users and communities have migrated to “Kbin” and “Lemmy”, which try to replicate a Reddit-like experience in the fediverse.

Things are starting to get a little weird over in Youtube land as well. Youtube not only has a new CEO who wants to add NFTs to the site but it seems also that Youtube is cracking down on adblocking by implementing a three-strikes policy where you’ll be unable to continue watching Youtube videos unless you turn off your adblocker (which is like the psychological equivalent wading through raw sewage naked while covered in open wounds). So unless you want to be inundated with ads for either Raid Shadow Legends or a Right-Wing political organisation that wants you dead, guess you’re going to be cutting down on Youtube. But I hear you ask “Can’t I just use some alternative frontend like Invidious to watch videos instead”, well for now yes, but it seems Youtube is cracking down on that too. What this means for the future of tools like Youtube-DL I do not know.

Front-ends like Invidious and Nitter have been a great way of interacting with the contents of these platforms outside of walled gardens but their future seems uncertain. Not only is Invidious suffering but at the time of writing Nitter is non-functional due to Elon’s decision to restrict access to only registered Twitter users (you can currently view individual tweets but not profiles or search) and limiting the amount of tweets you can view in a day.

A great deal of amassed information and media on the internet has been posted through the likes of Twitter and Reddit. The continued security and accessibility of that data is at the whims of a CEO. There have been a lot of Reddit posts and threads that have helped people, a lot of history has happened on Twitter (remember the time the president of the United States almost started WW3 with North Korea?), will it still be accessible tomorrow? Up-hill efforts are made to archive this data constantly, but there’s only so much that can be done when you’re up against massive conglomerates that don’t see that as important. This is one of the many reasons we should be embracing open and decentralised platforms to begin with. So let’s champion the likes of ActivityPub and not just return to the familiar Just-Like-Twitter-Before-Elon projects.

It should be very concerning that the platforms most of us use to communicate are centralised, corporate owned and can be bought up by any pair of wealthy 12 year olds in a trench coat. However, in doing what he did Elon has shaken-up the status-quo of our social media landscape (though not in the way he intended I imagine), which I think is a good thing and long overdue. I don’t think this will settle in a place where we are all using open, decentralised, non-corporate communications anytime soon, but perhaps we’ve been nudged a little further in that direction. Perhaps in a few years time Bluesky and/or Threads will be bought by someone who looks suspiciously like two twelve year old children in a trench coat.