A year ago last week, having taken steps to preserve my privacy, I started an account on the ubiquitous website that at the time was called Twitter. Much has happened since then, as you may have heard.
Twitter was, as it always had been, a snotty place filled with people incapable of having lives, whose certainty of opinion was in inverse proportion to their actual knowledge. It, along with the other big antisocial media, had spent a lot of money on its efforts to spread demonstrable lies. Its (and their) misinformation about COVID-19, echoing government edict and killing any discussion to the contrary, left it with blood on its hands. Twitter lied and people died, as the virtual demonstrators might say.
My purpose in going there was specific and focused. I figured I could avoid the strong currents and waterfalls and instead mostly occupy a little eddy of my own making. This has turned out to be somewhat true.
When I got there, Twitter had just been purchased by Elon Musk, the flamboyant billionaire who spent $44 billion on it because, best I can tell, he thought it would be an enjoyable hobby for himself. He instituted some changes. I like some of them — if a lie is sufficiently egregious, the “community” can append notes that pretty much always say you should pay no attention to the assertions made, because they aren’t true. A payment system was established that replaced the old “blue checkmark” designation. Previously, it meant that the person with the blue checkmark was to the best of Twitter’s knowledge whom he or she claimed to be. Now it meant that the person paid Twitter a small amount of money each month.
I saw no advantage to paying, until one Saturday in June (the Saturday before or after the Wagner Group mutiny — it looked as if Saturdays might become horror shows from then on, but it didn’t turn out that way). That Saturday, Twitter effectively went down. I was in the middle of what seemed to me a pretty important discussion, and it was just after Musk had floated the idea of limiting the number of “tweets” a non-paying subscriber could see daily. I wondered if the impulsive Elon had gone ahead and instituted that policy, so I signed up for the paid thing. It didn’t help. (Though I still wonder if Musk’s plan/threat/trial balloon had been floated ahead of scheduled maintenance, to get people to react by subscribing to the paid version, as I had.) There are apparently some other features I get in exchange for my money, but I have not noticed any. It certainly didn’t reduce the number of advertisements — largely for shady games, shady cryptocurrency, and shady gambling outfits, reminiscent of the early days of the Worldwide Web where they served as warning you’d stumbled into the wrong part of town.
A month later, Musk renamed Twitter (also late on a Saturday night), now calling it “X.” As in “former.” Over the next few days the icons on our phones and tablets changed from the irritating blue bird from a B-grade children’s book to an X as Darth Vader might have written it. We did nothing to make this happen, which is kind of frightening.
Users complained, now blaming everything on Elon. I naively thought that this meant there had been a significant change. In so doing I disregarded 30 years on the Worldwide Web (as opposed to the internet — there’s a difference) and had forgotten that online everyone always complains about everything.
Alternatives to X-Twitter began to appear. MetaFace started something (whose name I do not care to mention, because I do not want on Judgement Day to have steering people to any Facebook thing added to my already long list of offenses against all that is good). A virtually extinct platform called “Mastodon” — at least they didn’t name it “Dodo” — was drawing some interest. A Twitter clone called “Bluesky” had started up in 2021 and now tried to capitalize on the demonization of Musk. Founded in part by one of the louder and more reprehensible principals of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, Bluesky had an interesting reverse-marketing plan: you couldn’t just subscribe. You had to be invited.
Some of us have been online long enough to remember the day when online communication was simpler and in a lot of ways more satisfying. For those not working at research institutions, online access and access to the beginnings of the internet came via dialup modem calling in, usually, to a computer bulletin board system, or BBS. The more advanced (and often very complicated) BBS systems offered portals into the internet itself, the chief popularly useful part of which was Usenet. It could be difficult to navigate, but this was an era when the online world was populated by non-idiots (who, okay, were often defective in other ways). Just getting there at all required proficiency or luck; either would do. On Usenet, you could communicate with short-tempered, blisteringly focused, often highly intelligent people around the world. (And download uninspiring pornography, but it let you feel naughty and bleeding-edge.)
BBSes usually had their own local message boards, where built-in software (including simple editors still in wide use today; chances are you have one or more of them on your computer right now) let you send and respond to messages from other users on the local system. There were even shareware offline readers: you would log in, download all the conversations, log off, read and respond at your leisure, then log in again, upload your replies and download the next batch of messages.
And for the most of us who didn’t always want to hassle with Usenet, there were other international messaging systems. The most popular was probably FidoNet. which surprisingly still exists. My favorite was RIME, or RelayNet International Message Exchange. Messages were generally aggregated only once per day, from the couple hundred BBS systems from around the world that were on RIME. Despite that shortcoming, I could communicate with people in places where news was happening and advance my own coverage because of it. It was wonderful, and the communities created there were close and caring, most of the time.
There were other online services: Compuserve, Delphi, GEnie, among others, all of which were text-based. (Compuserve and Delphi still exist in some form.) The graphical bells and whistles of the Worldwide Web — the “www” in URLs — would have required transfer of so much data that they would have overwhelmed most dialup modems (though not my trusty U.S. Robotics Courier HST v.everything, the gold standard).
Beginning about 1990, online services began to be graphical. The Prodigy service, a goofy partnership between IBM and Sears-Roebuck, headquartered a couple blocks from my house in New York, was listed as the largest online service in 1993, with its silly user interface in which characters appeared as if written by a child with a crayon. The far more elegant America Online, remembered now primarily for spamming the nation’s physical mailboxes with floppy disks of its software, used the very nice PC Geos interface. Prodigy disappeared, as things associated with IBM tend to do (yes, I’m still bitter about OS/2), in 2001, while the skeleton of America Online still rattles around the internet. They worked even with slow modems because their graphical elements resided on your local computer as part of the service’s software.
I won’t even get into the miracle of email lists, formally known as listserv systems.
The point, and thank you for indulging my amble down memory lane, is that we were communicating happily and efficiently via computer long before there was the graphical Worldwide Web or the modern corruption of all that is good and holy known as “social media.”
One of which is X-Twitter.
Recently, having read the complaints about Elon’s pride and joy, I experimented with its competition.
The first was Mastodon, which my friend, OFB editor and publisher Tim Butler, has recommended. I’d meant to give it a try, and the opportunity arose when I downloaded and installed Vivaldi, the only web browser for Android (GrapheneOS in my case) that offers acceptable functionality and privacy, in my contrarian estimation. It turns out that it has Mastodon built in, more or less. So I created a little account there. It is nice, but it is like a wedding hall when no weddings are underway. The lights are on, but nobody is home. It is different enough from X-Twitter that you won’t think you’re on one when you’re on the other. One of the best features of X-Twitter is the ability to dash off a quick private note, a “direct message,” or DM, to another user. While it is not easy to find, Mastodon has this feature as well, and it is fairly easy once you’ve sorted it out. The big question, it seems to me, is whether it will achieve critical mass, or be yet another of the arguably better but ultimately unsuccessful competitors to flawed but established services, whose carcasses litter the online trail.
I was able to get an invitation to Bluesky from someone I know on X-Twitter. Expecting unimagined glories, I created my account, pasted in the invitation, and watched it fire up.
It quickly became clear that the invitation scheme was a clever way to keep users from overwhelming the system, because it ain’t soup yet. It is a Twitter clone missing much of X-Twitter’s functionality — for instance, there’s no DMing there. Maybe someday, not now. A person might go there as a political statement or something, but it’s not cost-free, because you will lose things you think of as basic on X-Twitter. It would be nice if it succeeded (because I already have an account there), but I ain’t holding my breath.
Direct messages are a very useful feature on these whatever-they-are platforms — they’re sometimes called “micro-blogs,” but this name came from the same loons who thought “form factor” is an improvement on “size and shape.” Don’t for a minute think your private messages there are private. They’re not — they’re just not particularly public. So an important adjunct to any of these (or any other plan to use your phone, tablet, or desktop machine for communication) is Signal or, if you are using Android, the hardened Signal fork called Molly. I cannot praise these applications highly enough. You should get them and you should insist that anyone you might ever exchange text messages with gets them. Insist on it. In today’s unsafe world it really matters. And they’re entirely free, unless you are kind enough to thank the developers with a donation.
The state of play right now is this: for all its controversy and quirks, X-Twitter is the only game in town. If you want to register your hot takes or make sure anyone who is interested can find out what you had for breakfast, there is nothing else. I suppose you could join with associates or family and all adopt one of the others — probably Mastodon, which does show promise — but if you want to drive on the eight-lane highway, X-Twitter is all there is.
Though as we’ve seen, the online world is always subject to change without notice.