Thanks to Elon Musk’s rather erratic approach to free speech, employee relations, following, parody and misinformation, many people have taken to Twitter to declare they are quitting Twitter. . They will find it difficult.
It’s not because Twitter is addictive; for most people, this is not the case. That’s because Twitter gives them something they can’t get anywhere else – a set of connections with other users and the ability to reach them and be reached by them. If you could only get to one supermarket, you wouldn’t describe it as ‘addictive’. You would describe it as a local monopoly.
Like many, I left for new pastures, namely Mastodon (you can find me on Mastodon’s EconTwitter server). But I’m sure I’ll keep tweeting because I have almost 200,000 people following me on Twitter. It’s an annoyance; it would be much better if I could bring them all with me to Mastodon. It is an outrageous failure of public policy that I cannot.
To see more clearly, imagine that I decided not to stay with my mobile operator. After minimal paperwork, I could switch to another network. My friends wouldn’t even know I had done it; I could keep the same phone and the same phone number.
Even if that were not Certainly, my mobile phone is already vastly superior to Twitter in another respect: I can call people whose phones are connected to different networks. It’s completely transparent; they can be on EE or Vodafone or O2, and it doesn’t matter. A world in which you could only call people who use the same phone network as you would be the proverbial pain in your back. It would also, most likely, be a world in which the larger one or two networks would become dominant – and in which many people would feel compelled to carry around two phones. Which, to experienced social media users rushing between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and LinkedIn, might sound familiar.
The difference here is that phone networks are interoperable in a way that Twitter simply isn’t. Not just phone networks either: Apple and Google make software that will read and write Microsoft Word files; you don’t need an Outlook account to email your Outlook friends and a separate Gmail account for your Gmail friends; I can send you a bank transfer even if your bank is different from mine.
Sometimes (as with email), this interoperability is intentional. Sometimes (as with banks and cell phones) it has been 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 was little Microsoft could do to stop them.
By Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow explain in their new book strangled capitalism, there’s no technical reason why such portability can’t extend to Twitter and Facebook. A short essay written by Doctorow for the Electronic Frontier Foundation sketches what that might look like.
First, you sign up for an alternative – a Mastodon server, perhaps. You give him your Twitter password. Twitter verifies that you are happy to authorize the connection and that it is not a hacker; Then it lets your friends know you’ve moved to Mastodon and asks them if they’re happy to have their tweets forwarded to you or not. (If you had moved to the mad city of Truth Social or Parler instead, they might refuse.)
Why did you change departments? A number of reasons. Maybe the blue ticks are free there, or the ads don’t rely on creepy monitoring, or you have more control over the kinds of things you see. Perhaps content moderation is more muscular. Or maybe content moderation is non-existent, and that’s what you prefer.
The point is, if Facebook and Twitter were interoperable with rivals, it would be easy to move on and bring your digital network with you. If your friends preferred the old social networks, they might just stay there and still be able to reach you. And the whole arrangement would obviously encourage new competitors to enter the market, while pushing established players to up their game.
Interoperability will often work best with some regulatory muscle behind it, and one approach (not the only one) is to legislate to establish a broad defense for interoperators. If, as a Twitter user, I want to sign up for a new interoperability service that uses my password to send my messages from Mastodon to Twitter, and pulls tweets from Twitter to Mastodon so I can see, then Twitter is not allowed to ban me or sue the interoperability service for this.
A world of interoperable social media would be disconcerting to some. This could boost struggling right-wing platforms such as Parler and Truth Social. It would certainly be much more difficult for social media companies to act as arbiters of what type of speech is unacceptable. But it was never a good idea to give social media companies monopoly power over what can and cannot be said. And it was an even worse idea to let them put obstacles in the way of users who want to take their friends with them when they go.
Tim Harford’s new book is “How to make the world add up”
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