Monday, November 07, 2022

Digital civil society rises amid commercial turmoil

NOTE About this post: I'm trying to make sense of something happening around me rapidly. Will be back to revise my thinking and (I hope) improve the text.

The following post is about the chaos that is now Twitter, the growth in the #fediverse, the damage being done in real time to disbursed communities of people and activists, the possibilities of digital civil society coming through to shine, and the need to think carefully and collectively. There is some terminology that may be new to readers. See below.*

Half the staff of Twitter was laid off on Friday, November 4 including members of the human rights, accessibility, and election integrity teams. The local news (here in San Francisco) is that layoffs are coming to Meta (Facebook), Uber, Lyft, Stripe, etc. See this layoff tracker. These are a big deal in my region - lots of jobs lost. This also means lots of people with (potentially) a vested interest in and relevant skills for digital civil society. Some non-tech companies wasted no time in reaching out to the newly unemployed. This isn't only a Bay Area phenomenon - the companies, their workforces, and digital civil society are all global.


Let's get some speculation out of the way:

What if we take him at his word? The new owner of a certain social media site favored by journalists has said his goal is to turn the site into something else. Specifically, X - an all in one app such as WeChat. Communication, payment, retail, transport, etc. 

So, there's that. He's not trying to save the site, he's trying to destroy it. And chaos is his tactic.

Now, building something new may be his goal. But destroying things that he (and many others) don't like is also happening. Perhaps it's a consequence, perhaps it's intentional. Certainly the chaos is intentional. For those in the U.S.A. we've seen this before: 2017-2021 this was the primary communication tactic coming from the former president. Make headlines, deal with fallout by making more headlines, don't like that, try this. "Hey, look, squirrel." 

There's no doubt that Twitter is falling apart and that a single person is wielding the sledgehammer.

The purchase, the lawsuit and backtracking, the firings, the chaos, the timing are almost fictional in their sly but public, obvious but "conspiracy theory?-esque", could be deliberate, could be just beneficial fallout kind-of way.A good writer could build a whole narrative around the backroom cabals of pleading millionaires (whose whining was outed as part of a headfake lawsuit), the entanglement with politicians and political groups quite proudly and publicly intent on voter suppression, one-party rule, the end of free and fair elections, and the new owner's apparently primary source of pleasure, trolling. 

Speculate away. 


There's no doubt that the collapse of Twitter (intentional, deliberate, self-inflicted, self-protective) is causing chaos for on the ground organizers and carefully-built communities. People with disabilities. Communities of color. Queer communities. Critics of power - technological, financial, and political. Some are finding their accounts suddenly closed.

The chaos is destructive to public protest, community organizing, and distributed networks of grassroots power,

Many people fleeing Twitter are headed over to the #fediverse,* trying to learn the customs and protocols, being schooled in community practice, and desperately seeking their previous connections. You can watch in real time as people leave Twitter and come rushing in the doors of Mastodon or other parts of the #fediverse. In less than a week, the vibe in the new place has started to shade from "Hey, I'm new here, how do I participate?" to "Let me continue to act like I did over there, bring some self-promotion with me, criticize the norms over here and see how quickly we can change the #fediverse to be familiar, rather than change our behavior to fit in." (slightly overblown, but you can see it now, around the edges)

From the perspective of digital civil society (dcs) - this is our moment. People hosting #fediverse servers have long been part of digital civil society. Volunteers making spaces for online communities - one of the oldest behaviors in a networked world. People who have only ever used commercial services like Twitter and Facebook and who have either 1) developed every trick in the book to outmaneuver the algorithms and data extraction or 2) made peace with the cost of using those services for their greater need of community finding/building instead have a chance to participate in and help expand/deepen digital systems that are as fragmented, diverse, and pluralistic as the best of physical world civil society. We can build alliances, norms, and call out bad behavior. We can find our own people and interact with potential allies. We can build apps and practices on top of what is already there - being careful not to destroy this digital world by demanding it look like, act like, feel like the rotted systems of Twitter and Facebook that seem comfortingly familiar. The familiar is poisonous in this case. The analogy of climate change is sitting right there. Don't build more of destructive ways, try different ones.

This is an amazing moment to experience community-led, less-extractive, less corporatized digital life. It's not perfect (privacy is...complicated), and it's open for you to help improve it. It takes learning and time - just like moving to a new community should. People there need help, and they are asking for it. Communities that were connected via the commercial platforms are seeking ways and places to rebuild and reconnect. They're wise to watch and learn. First mover advantage is a corporate mindset. Careful community building might be yours, instead. 

Having your online community blasted apart is painful. For many, the effort to rebuild is enormous. People with chronic illnesses and disabilities and other communities BY DEFINITION can't jump up and move, not physically and not digitally. While healthy people with the time to do so are moving on  to find new digital homes they're not organizing or getting out the vote, they're still busy understanding what differentiates a toot from a tweet.* While journalism and even site users are pre-occupied with the finances of a billionaire, the election misinformation and manipulation runs amok.

Let it be noted - online communities for marginalized people, coordinated GOTV efforts, election protection, and disinformation removal were blasted apart five days before an election. We will look back at this period through the lens of election outcomes first. Right now, I'm urging you to experience the period while understanding the harm that's been inflicted. We will rebuild our online communities, and in doing so, I hope we keep the confusion and pain of this period alive in our memories, for whatever we join into or build anew should be designed to prevent this from ever again happening.

I do want to note that parts of digital civil society are ready for this. There are institutions ready to Reboot Social Media. Scholars and builders redesigning digital public infrastructure. New_Public has been hosting discussions on better digital media and now there's Project Mushroom. (I"m sure there are many more of these efforts - send them along to me, please) 

Some of these examples are coming from big, wealthy institutions. The people doing the community building and organizing, they may still be reflecting, reconsidering, and resting. Both are important parts of digital civil society. 

Digital civil society's moment is now. The wheels are coming off - or at least starting to wobble on - the big, commercial, data extractive sites of Twitter and Facebook. There's open space for communities, activists, technologists, civic leaders, and community organizers to build digital systems that they can influence, even control. All that "tech for good" project work? Time to try it out in a world without a dominant commercial social media site. This is a moment, it may not last. Twitter is reeling and Facebook's corporate owner is firing people and piling money into other products. Don't doubt for a minute that other commercial sites - IG, YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr - they're busy trying to capture as many people as they can during this period of turmoil. We too, the makers and thinkers and builders of digital civil society, can do this also. We're the ones those companies want to lock in, so there's not better time to find our own way and make our own spaces.

*Some terminology

#Fediverse. This is the collective noun to describe thousands of independent servers connected via a shared protocol, that allow people to set up accounts and communicate with others, anywhere on any server. Most of the servers are run by individuals or community groups, paid for by the hosts or crowdfunded donations. Each host sets their own rules. Joining the #fediverse now is not unlike joining Twitter in 2008. You have to find the people you want to interact with, curate your own community. There is no master algorithm feeding things into your line of vision. The fediverse includes well-established but previously niche groups, marked by diversity of almost all kinds (right wing hate groups and sites cannot be connected to some servers), and focused on community-built communication and community building spaces.

Mastodon. Part of the #fediverse. Like Twitter, its mostly text sharing, with space for photos and videos. Also links to other parts of the fediverse that are dedicated to sharing photos, videos, etc. Mastodon is getting a LOT OF PRESS, but it's only one part. By end of this week it's fair to guess that every mainstream paper, magazine, news site in the US will have run or linked to a "How-to" guide to Mastodon. Likely true in other parts of the world also. 

Tweet: what one posts on Twitter. 

Toot: what one posts on Mastodon.

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