The internet is broken due to structural injustice

Over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that the Internet as we know it is utterly broken. Lately, I’ve also been pondering how participants in the modern Internet have enabled and perpetuated harm to society at large. Repeatedly, we have seen the independence of the commons chipped away by powerful men who wish for participants to serve their own whims, while those who raise concerns with these developments are either shunned, banned or doxed.

On Friday, October 28th, we will see another demonstration of these structural injustices where the commons takes another loss to the whims of a powerful man. Last time, it was freenode’s takeover by Andrew Lee, and this time it will be Twitter’s takeover by Elon Musk. No, really, the deal is already concluded: TWTR will be delisted from NASDAQ on Friday.

Will this be the end of Twitter? Probably not, but it will be the end of the current relationship the commons shares with Twitter. Instead of acting as a self-described “public square,” it will further evolve into a chaotic cacophony of trolling and counter-trolling driven in the name of algorithmic engagement. Some will move to other microblogging services and networks, and will likely discover that everything which made Twitter horrible likely applies in some way to the replacement.

Are social platforms working as designed?

The reality is that microblogging sucks, but Twitter managed to make it addictive for a few reasons, which is why the most popular alternative, Mastodon, is basically a copy of the underlying formula, but tweaked to work on the ActivityPub federated network (the so-called fediverse).

The formula is not that hard to understand if you understand how people think and react to stimulation. People are inherently social creatures, and because of the formula used by Twitter, have tried their best to use Twitter despite the inherent conceptual flaws behind microblogging.

If you’ve ever sat down at a slot machine, you will likely note that they are constantly making noises as you interact with them. These sounds are designed to stimulate the reward center in your brain and thus cause it to release endorphins. In the same way, microblogging and other social platform formulas have built rich notification systems to ensure that users experience pleasure from being online. Don’t believe me? Try muting the notifications from Twitter or Mastodon and see if you remain interested in it: odds are, after a while, you won’t.

The other key part of the formula: sow discord amongst the users. This can be done organically (by users) or algorithmically. People have an inherent desire to be right, and this keeps the engagement loop going as people fight over stupid things like whether Android or iPhones are better. The things being argued over do not even have to have any basis in reality: people are more than happy to hold positions which falter to any modicum of dialectical analysis, such as whether furries are actually shitting in litter boxes in schools (obviously this is bullshit if you think about it for more than 10 seconds).

Eventually these pointless arguments evolve into arguments which have actual societal impact: are trans people legitimate and do they deserve rights? Obviously, they are, and they do, but in a world where microblogging discourse is the primary form of media ingestion, the consumer is manipulated with fight-or-flight challenges to make their own 280-character thought piece on the discourse of the day, which leads them to consider the possibility that perhaps Chudlord18 might be on to something when he points out that George Soros was seen at the last Bilderberg meeting, entirely ignoring the part where Chudlord18’s post was disinformation.

Sadly, as we see in the world today, it turns out that fascism is the most optimized ideology available given the limited cognitive bandwidth constraints of a 280-character post. This is because the answer is always simple with fascism: generally a death threat towards the marginalized group of the day will do just fine, which easily fits into 280 characters: “Storm the capitol building!”? “Hang Mike Pence!”? Yep, even congressional members and vice presidents can be marginalized under the right circumstances, and it’s under 280 characters.

Spamming and scamming

Fascism is hardly the only problem that these networks face. Almost every day I get spam like this on either Twitter or Mastodon:

Spam messages for an affinity-fundraising scam from a Mastodon user

Spam like this is a huge problem with Mastodon, but not with Pleroma, another ActivityPub server, which provides a robust message filtering facility. However, due to the combination of mismanagement of the Pleroma project and an absolutely absurd fediverse turf war, admins of Pleroma instances are written off by some Mastodon admins as being evil, even if they are otherwise harmless.

Between this and the architectural complexity of deploying a BEAM application like Pleroma on Kubernetes, by comparison to how easy it is to deploy Mastodon using Knative on Kubernetes, I am using Mastodon. Since the project mismanagement issues are largely resolved now, I might suck it up and convert the instance to Pleroma in the near future just so I can deal with the spam in a more automated way.

I’ll probably continue to use Mastodon (or maybe Pleroma if I switch my instance to it), but lately I’ve been using microblogging platforms less and less, as I have realized that ultimately the format doesn’t provide the sense of community I am looking for.

And this is ultimately the problem with the fediverse: everything on the fediverse is a clone of a proprietary platform, with basically the same social downsides. It turns out when you take something useful, and turn it into a “social experience,” you basically ruin its utility.

Social tools which are actually respectful

To me, social tools exist to facilitate communication with my friends, and perhaps expansion of my friend group to others which have the same interests. It turns out that we already had good social tools for this all along: blogs and IRC. Because of certain realities – it is inherently easier to clone an open protocol and turn it into a proprietary service – for most people, these social tools turned into centralized platforms like Dreamwidth and Discord.

Microblogging forces you to shout at people, while IRC (now for the most part Discord) facilitates thoughtful conversation. Social photo sharing encourages the editing of photographs to make people appear more attractive for additional likes, while posting photos of yourself to your blog removes that dopamine loop and lets you just focus on living and occasionally documenting your life.

Yes, the point is that these tools are largely boring. They aren’t meant to dominate your life, they are meant to facilitate communication with your friends. They exist to serve the needs of the commons.

Maybe somebody will eventually build the tools I am ultimately looking for. In the meantime, I’ve expanded my list of contact points to include services I previously kept mostly private.

But either way, for the most part, I won’t be investing my time in microblogging anymore, be it on Twitter or Mastodon.