I’ve been pretty obsessed with figuring out how to run a Mastodon server on Reclaim Cloud the last couple of weeks, and it’s been a lot of fun. I do dig challenges like this, and I moved almost immediately from getting multiregion WordPress working on Reclaim Cloud into Mastodon, so it’s been a pretty intense month or two. But this is also the stuff I love about the field of edtech, seemingly overnight (albeit 6-7 years in the making) a technology arrives that drops the scales from your eyes. I had stayed on Twitter since 2016 by and large for #ds106radio as well as some film accounts and a few friends who stuck it out, but it has long been a space emptied of the manic joy of the early days of Twitter that peaked for me in 2011 when ds106 exploded there. To paraphrase a prophetic presentation by Gardner Campbell at Faculty Academy in 2007—or was it 2008?—we were all “mutants creating together.”
But that has not been the case (at least for me) for a long time for many reasons. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Twitter—it visualized the network like no other tool has to this day, and coalesced #ds106 in ways that continue to reverberate strongly. That said, it’s a long way from the “open” ecosystem where creative things happened on the regular. The API closed down and the politicians and celebrities moved in and the platform where you shared what you had for lunch became a tool for gaslighting a nation. It was an increasingly harder pill to swallow so breathlessly, but it was also a place where l had front row sets to witness the emergence of new forms of communication. I still marvel at the way people like Tressie Macmillan Cottom seemed to change the very nature of academic discourse and what it means to be a public intellectual in 140 characters, it was a kind of poetic art form that was interdisciplinary in ways that are hard to fully understand—it’s the whole person. There is no place for the absence of the writer’s biography within a work of Twitter art, it was like you were present for the artist’s emergence in ways heretofore impossible—and no paparazzi were necessary. At the same time the public became increasingly polarized and reading Twitter was often more of a chore than a desire.
All in all, Twitter was ridiculously fun for me, but after 15 years it’s probably healthy to turn the page. I had been struggling with finalizing the split for years, and before I started setting up Mastodon servers I was certain I had no interest in any other Twitter-like relationships: “Been there, done that!” was my thinking. But then, two weeks ago, I created a Mastodon profile after setting up the ds106 server and began peeking around and following a few folks. Almost immediately I remembered that lost excitement of a social space without all the overhead. I missed being able to communicate with people I had come up with professionally. And then D’Arcy Norman showed up on the ds106 server and I knew I was sold. You see, D’Arcy in many ways showed me how to blog, he also helped me understand the magic of Twitter with an early tweet about a Moose in his backyard, and seeing him on Mastodon made me realize he was one of the many people I was missing connecting with. I want my media to be social, I want to hang out and have fun, I want be able to spend time with other mutants creating something. Scale and followers can be anathema to that joyful impulse because things start to get “serious” and one’s voice and platform becomes the brand, and that is not an easy bit to disentangle. I have no doubt the fall of Twitter will have significant collateral damage, and that sucks.
But the thing beyond the sense of joy and excitement that connecting with folks on Mastodon offered was a return to a decentralized network driven by open source software premised on open protocols. A re-decentralization of the web where we live online. Seems like humanity oscillates between the consolidation and the diffusion of control for numerous reasons at various times in history, and I have to say decamping from the last big, centralized social media platform I spent any real time in was liberating. This blog has been my home base for 17 years (long before Twitter), so I don’t feel adrift in the least. I’ve requested a full archive of my 60K+ tweets, and I’m ready to clean them up and post them for posterity on my site with the intention of moving on. And I am ready to finally move because I have seen a viable alternative, and frankly it has been eye-opening how quickly I forgot all about Twitter. Increasingly I’m driven by the idea of helping other folks run Mastodon servers to further re-distribute resources and empower communities to take ownership of their social presence. I mean that has pretty much been my career vector since 2005 and it’s something I still believe in very strongly. My discovery of WordPress coincided with the start of my career as an edtech, and from day 1 I was blown away by the ability of open source tools to empower folks to build their own systems outside those they are no longer interested in supporting (in that case Blackboard). Mastodon is an example of just that, and now that people are joining in droves the network effects are hitting, it is coalescing for me. I particularly like how one can manage the social space in scales that are intentionally local at the server level and global at the federation level. That design makes things less monolithic and, hopefully, less driven by the attention economy that is fueled by likes and follows.
I think the final point worth making in these already too long and loosely coupled notes is that the fediverse enables a sense of migration that seems novel. Not only is it possible to move your presence from server to server, but it might be possible to go from platform to platform if these tools are operating on shared protocols like activitypub. This idea of portability and integration between communities made up of different technologies without a sense of lock-in was the hope of RSS, which was systematically erased in favor of platforms starting to militarize their perimeter in order to prevent migration between service borders. Maybe open isn’t dead yet, maybe, just maybe, we can reclaim open!