Twitter Isn’t Even A Social Network
I’ve tried to write this blog post several times, and each time I get around to it my intro statement is no longer true.
Discarded Intro 1
Sometimes, usually in fact, change is good. Twitter isn’t suddenly bad because Trump is back, and it isn’t all fine now that he says he won’t actually use it. The problems with Twitter are much deeper, some are new but are not.
The new problem, that Elon Musk triggered, is trust. and it can’t be fixed because its about trust and arbitrary control.
Trust is still a problem for sure, but I feel like there is a more urgent message about this whole epic to get to first.
Discarded Intro 2
So Elon Musk says he’ll step down.
But will that fix anything?
Is that even the point?
Is it possible to fix the loss of trust he created?
Short answer: no, it is not. Longer answer: will he even? ugh.
Actual Intro: The Twitterness of Twitter
So let’s start with a simple truth, Twitter has never been a bastion of healthy discussion. Yet, what it lacked in civility it gained in access , universality and relevance. Twitter was always there, always available, never part of anyone else’s empire, and all the world was in one place. No other social network has ever been that global, that immediate, and maybe they never will.
But maybe there is now a contender “the world’s town square” that has a can be something something that none of the other major social Networks ever were, that is, an actual network.
Let Me Explain
The internet is, famously, “a series of tubes” for moving around information. This much-ridiculed statement in US Senator Ted Stephens in 2006 was a very misleading description of the internet. But these days I feel like, it wasn’t as bad as how we now use the word “network” to describe Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, MySpace, WhatsApp, LinkedIn or most other social “networks”.
The classic architecture of these services is, of course, a network in the sense that it maintains connects between people, its users and who they follow, who they are followed by, their current postings, etc. These connections are formed together into a graph of interactions, and that’s what the social media companies even call it, The Social Graph. In a computing sense, it isn’t a network, it’s a graph, or a database of records representing users, content and interactions. A network is something that transports information between its nodes, which could be computers, phones, drones, or any other computing devices.
The very foundation of the Internet, and all its protocols, exchange formats, addressing systems, the word “network” does not mean a database of interactions between users.
In Computer Sceince, a network refer to a system composed of multiple computers that communicate via designated rules and protocols. This “Inter-net” is the global meta- network resulting from many thousands of separate networks communicating with each other.
These networks are run by companies, internet service providers, governments, etc. In this sense of the word, Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok et. al. are just websites. Each of them is just a single server destination is a sea of networks in the global ocean of servers that is the whole Internet.
Hold On A Second…
Very large websites such as these are actually run on many servers, on many networks. So, Facebook of course, has a network of its own which runs the thing we call Facebook. This network is a major component of the functioning of the entire internet, especially because of its advertising network.
But that’s not the point. The point is that the nodes of Facebook’s network are not people or posts but just some servers, actual computers that run various parts of the database, the tracking, the communication. The computing network they do run is not social.
Even more importantly, there is a single address
https://facebook.com that leads you to a single website, which allows us all to interact with people all over the world via updates to Facebook Inc.’s massive User Information Relational Database.
That’s what Facebook really is.. And that database is their very valuable, maybe their only meaningful, asset.
Mastodon is both - it is Social and it a Network
It is composed of computers on a network that communicate with each other using yet another W3C protocol called ActivityPub. The webpage for the protocol even says it right up front:
Don’t you miss the days when the web really was the world’s greatest decentralized network? Before everything got locked down into a handful of walled gardens? So do we. – ActivityPub
Maybe you don’t miss it. One really good and fair reason for that could be that you never even experienced it. Those of us who watched the Web hatch out into the public in the 90s, and then realized there was a wider internet and learned how to use some of it, need to have some humbleness and perspective.
People born in the last 20 or 30 years only really know one world, the world that contains iPhones, where all music is some form of mp3, where Google is how you surf the internet and where everything on the internet, including our email, our social networks, our shopping, and more, are all served on individual websites. Websites that sometimes pretend to be networks or protocols themselves.
So What is Mastodon?
In the past few weeks, this has now been explained hundreds of times over, so I won’t go into detail, but I’ll focus on my main point. In mastodon, each network node, called an Instance, contains Users and their Posts. The Users can follow other Users and can like, share or reply to their posts. So, the database I was talking about on the Twitter website, or the Facebook website, also exists on each Mastodon Instance.
The network of Instances, now operate like a network of Email Servers, or Network of Web Servers, to route messages across the network. Some messages get broadcast to many Instances, some get sent directly to single Instances. Most Instances have a block list of other Instances they never send or receive messages with. A level of control that can’t even exist in most other social database websites, since there is essentially just One Big Instance, the website itself.
Why does it matter? Good question.