Algo, algo on the wall …

My thoughts currently circle around Twitter and Mastodon a lot. The migration of hundreds of thousands of users within just a few days created an explosion of posts, articles and discussions. It also triggerd quite a bit of self-reflection.

How much are we defined by our digital personas? I'm normally not a fan of the word persona as an overused buzzword from the UX world. But Seb Lee-Delisle wrote an interesting thread about his "bird site persona" the other day that really made me think:

I'm realising that my online persona at bird site was kinda grumpy. I think I resented the whole place and it just pissed me off. So inevitably I'd be motivated to tweet when something annoyed me.

Then Stefan Baumgartner posted just a few days later:

Going through my Twitter archive and strongly considering re-posting some of the old jokes... I was a lot less bitter 10 years ago.

He then continues in our conversation:

… I wonder if Twitter has only changed how I interact with Social Media or if it had more effect on me. It definitely wasn't good for my mental health, I can say that much.

This became a theme and I read more posts on Mastodon with similar thoughts. I felt exactly the same. Twitter made me bitter. Just like Seb, I started to resent the place – but also started to resent my own "bird site persona".

XKCD: Someone’s wrong on the internet

Twitter didn't start like that and I didn't start like that. What changed? Some say it’s just humans being humans. Social media doesn't work. There are simply too many people. Those are arguments that I read as counter weight to a potential success of Mastodon. It will be the same there. Will it though?

There are so many articles and studies about the effect of algorithms on social interactions and on society. I'm not an expert in this field and I can only report on patterns I see in the anecdotes of fellow Twitter users and myself.

This is what happened around me. The change was gradually. Just like the famous frog in the bathtub: The water temperature started to rise and I didn't notice.

It's like a veil that flows above everything. First, your posts don't seem to reach your followers in the same way they did. Original content vanishes from the timeline and is being replaced by rewteets and quoted tweets. People from the community vanish. Where are they now? Instead of interesting replies, more weirdos show up and react in ways that are passive aggressive first and quite active aggressive later. Every day is dominated by shitstorms and bad news.

I took this as a sign of the times. The world is in a state of multiple crises. That's why people change. That's why the tone changes.

My urge to escape grew stronger and I almost stopped posting entirely. I spent a lot more time on our Discord server for Kirby. My online safe space. But of course it is. We are in control there. We can kick out bad actors and the community is a lot smaller and more friendly. That makes all the difference.

But something didn't add up about that. I was part of a friendly community on Twitter as well. A self-defined safe space that didn't change too much over the years. I defined it through the people I followed. I was able to kick out bad actors myself by unfollowing or blocking them.

But that space disolved. Darkness leaked through cracks in the walls until it devoured everything.

You could partially escape by using a Twitter client with a chronological timeline, by extending your blocklist and filters. But it wouldn't change the most important part: The content, the retweets, the quotes, the replies.

Twitter drew an entirely different picture about the humans around me through its algorithms. That picture reflected back on me. It wasn't good.

In Rutger Bregman's book "Humankind", he debunks a number of famous social studies and historic depictions that turn out to be completely wrong, but shape our public world view since decades.

One example is the famous Stanford prison experiment that is supposed to show how humans naturally abuse their power and turn into brutal monsters as soon as given the opportunity. As Bregman shows in his book, this study is full of mistakes and obvious manipulations to create the results the team was hoping for. Yet it made it into modern western trivia. The uncorrected results are forming the public opinion about the outcome of such a scenario ever since.

The Twitter experience feels related. It started to shape my view of humanity through the lense of the Twitter algorithm. Scientists, activist, authors – interesting people I followed fell prey to the same bitterness. Sometimes it felt like watching them being fed to wolves when I read through replies to their posts. When attention is the only currency, expertise in a field is no longer a meaningful argument. My perception of the percentage of assholes in society drastically shifted. They were simply everywhere. All the arrogance and hubris. The mansplaining and boomer behaviour. It made me sick.

"Doomscrolling" and "hellsite" should have maybe sounded some alarms.

It is a stark misrepresentation of reality though, but by being so dominant it starts to seep into reality.

The same mechanics made it into old-school media. Even TV stations and newspapers with journalistic aspirations started to fall in love with false balancing and other dubious journalistic methods. Even people without any social media account got affected by the algorithms this way.

Twitter was once an amplifier for brilliant ideas, for positivity, for change, for a better future. Many didn't understand the power it had as a communication platform. But that power turned against the exact same people who needed this platform so urgently. It's now a waste of time and energy at best and a thread to progress and society at worst.