Thanks to Elon Musk’s rather erratic approach to free speech, employee relations, subscriptions, parodies and disinformation, a lot of people have taken to Twitter to declare that they are leaving Twitter. They will find it hard. 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 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’d describe it as a local monopoly.
Like many, I have departed for pastures new, namely Mastodon (you can find me on Mastodon’s EconTwitter server). But I’m sure I’ll still be tweeting, because I have nearly 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’s an outrageous failure of public policy that I can’t.
To see this more clearly, imagine that I decided I didn’t want to stick with my mobile phone provider. After minimal paperwork, I could move to a different network. My friends wouldn’t even know I’d done it; I could keep the same phone and the same phone number. Even if that weren’t true, my mobile phone is already vastly superior to Twitter in another respect: I can phone people whose phones are connected to different networks. It’s completely seamless; they may be on EE or Vodafone or O2, and it just doesn’t matter. A world in which you could only call people who used the same phone network as you would be the proverbial pain in the backside. It would also be, quite likely, a world in which the largest one or two networks became dominant — and in which many people felt obliged to carry two phones. Which, for social media power users who scurry between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and LinkedIn, might sound familiar.
The difference here is that the phone networks are interoperable in a way that Twitter simply isn’t. Not just the phone networks, either: Apple and Google make software that will 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 different from mine.
Sometimes (as with email) this interoperability is by design. Sometimes (as with banks and mobile phones) it has been strengthened by regulatory rules. Sometimes it is a matter of competitive compatibility: Apple decided to make software that would play nicely with Microsoft Office, and Microsoft couldn’t do much 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 the likes of Twitter and Facebook. A short essay written by Doctorow for the Electronic Frontier Foundation sketches out what it might look like.
First, you sign up for an alternative — a Mastodon server, perhaps. You give it your Twitter password. Twitter checks that you’re happy to allow the connection and that it’s not some hacker; then it notifies your friends that you’ve moved to Mastodon and asks if they’re happy for their tweets to be forwarded to you or not. (If you’d moved to the crazy town of Truth Social or Parler instead, they might refuse.)
Why did you move to a new service? Any number of reasons. Maybe the blue ticks are free over there, or the ads don’t rely on creepy surveillance, or you have more control over the kinds of things you see. Maybe the content moderation is more muscular. Or maybe the content moderation is nonexistent, and that’s what you’d prefer.
The point is, if Facebook and Twitter were interoperable with rivals, it would be easy to move and to bring your digital network with you. If your friends preferred the old social networks, they could happily stay there while still being able to reach you. And the whole arrangement would self-evidently encourage new competitors to enter the market, while pushing established players to raise 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 defence for the interoperators. If I, as a Twitter user, wish to sign up for a new interoperating service that uses my password to send my posts from Mastodon to Twitter, and pulls tweets from Twitter to Mastodon for me to view, then Twitter is not allowed to ban me or sue the interoperating service for doing so.
A world of interoperable social media would be unnerving to some. It might boost struggling rightwing platforms such as Parler and Truth Social. It would certainly make it much more difficult for social media companies to act as arbiters of what sort 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 wish to bring their friends with them when they leave.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 25 November 2022.
The paperback of The Data Detective was published on 1 February in the US and Canada. Title elsewhere: How To Make The World Add Up.
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