Thanks to Elon Musk’s rather whimsical approach to free speech, employee relations, subscriptions, parodies and disinformation, many people have taken to Twitter to declare that they are leaving Twitter. They will find it difficult.
This is not because Twitter is addictive; for most people it is not. It’s because Twitter gives them something they can’t get anywhere else: a range of connections with other users and the ability to reach and be reached by them. If you could only get to one grocery store, you wouldn’t describe it as “addictive.” You would describe it as a local monopoly.
Like many, I have left for new pastures viz Mastodon (you can find me on Mastodon’s EconTwitter server). But I’m sure I’ll still tweet because I have almost 200,000 people following me on Twitter. It’s an annoyance; it would be much better if I could take them all to Mastodon. It is an outrageous failure of law and order that I cannot.
To see this more clearly, imagine if I decided I didn’t want to stay with my mobile carrier. After minimal paperwork I was able to switch to another network. My friends wouldn’t even know I did it; I could keep the same phone and phone number.
Even if that were not indeed, my mobile phone is already much better than Twitter in another respect: I can call people whose phones are connected to different networks. It’s completely seamless; they can be on EE or Vodafone or O2, and it just doesn’t matter. A world where you could only call people using the same telephone network as you would be the proverbial pain in the back. It would also, most likely, be a world where the largest one or two networks became dominant – and many people felt compelled to carry two phones. Which might sound familiar to power social media users who fumble between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and LinkedIn.
The difference here is that the phone networks are interoperable in a way that Twitter simply isn’t. Not just the phone networks: Apple and Google make software that can read and write Microsoft Word files; you don’t need an Outlook account to send email to your Outlook friends and a separate Gmail account for your Gmail friends; I can send you a bank transfer even if your bank is not mine.
Sometimes (like email) this interoperability is by design. Sometimes (as with banks and mobile phones) it is reinforced by regulatory rules. Sometimes it’s a matter of competitive compatibility: Apple decided to make software that would work well with Microsoft Office, and there wasn’t much Microsoft could do to stop them.
As Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow explain in their new book Chokepoint capitalism, there is no technical reason why such portability cannot extend to Twitter and Facebook. A short essay written by Doctorow for the Electronic Frontier Foundation outlines what it could look like.
First, you sign up for an alternative – perhaps a Mastodon server. You give it your Twitter password. Twitter checks if you want to allow the connection and if it’s not a hacker; then it will let your friends know that you have moved to Mastodon and ask if they are happy to have their tweets forwarded to you or not. (If you had moved to the crazy town of Truth Social or Parler instead, they might decline.)
Why did you switch to a new service? For any number of reasons. Maybe the blue checks there are free, or the ads don’t rely on creepy surveillance, or you have more control over the kinds of things you see. Perhaps the content moderation is more muscular. Or maybe the content moderation isn’t there, which is what you prefer.
The thing is, if Facebook and Twitter interoperated with rivals, it would be easy to move and take your digital network with you. If your friends preferred the old social networks, they would be happy to stay there while still being able to reach you. And the whole arrangement would naturally encourage new competitors to enter the market while forcing established players to up their game.
Interoperability will often work best when there is some regulatory force behind it, and one approach (not the only one) is to legislate to establish broad defenses for the interoperators. As a Twitter user, if I want to sign up for a new collaborating service that uses my password to send my messages from Mastodon to Twitter and pulls tweets from Twitter to Mastodon for me to view, then Twitter shouldn’t ban me or the collaborating service charge to do this.
A world of interoperable social media would be unnerving for some. It could boost right-wing platforms like Parler and Truth Social. It would certainly make it much more difficult for social media companies to determine what kinds of expressions are unacceptable. But it was never a good idea to give social media companies a monopoly on what can and can’t be said. And it was an even worse idea to have them put up obstacles for users who want to take their friends with them when they leave.
Tim Harford’s new book is “How to make the world beat”
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