How to get off Twitter but keep your followers

Thanks to Elon Musk’s rather erratic approach to free speech, employee relations, subscriptions, parodies, and misinformation, many people have taken to Twitter to declare they are leaving Twitter. They will find it difficult.

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 to other users and the ability to communicate with and be contacted by them. If you could only go to a supermarket, you wouldn’t describe it as “addictive”. You would describe it as a local monopoly.

Like many, I set out 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 a nuisance; It would be so much better if I could take them all with me to Mastodon. It is an outrageous failure of public policy that it cannot.

To see this more clearly, imagine that I decided that I didn’t want to stick with my mobile phone provider. After minimal paperwork, I was able to switch to a different network. My friends wouldn’t even know I did it; I could keep the same phone and the same phone number.

even if that they were not True, my mobile phone is already far superior to Twitter in another way: I can call people whose phones are connected to different networks. It is completely transparent; they can be on EE or Vodafone or O2, and it doesn’t matter. A world where you could only call people using the same phone network as you would be the proverbial pain in the butt. It would also, most likely, be a world where one or two larger networks became dominant, and many people felt compelled to carry two phones. Which, for power social media users running 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 phone networks, either: Apple and Google create software that reads and writes 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 wire transfer even if your bank is different from mine.

Sometimes (such as with email) this interoperability is by design. Sometimes (as in the case of banks and mobile phones) it has been reinforced by regulatory rules. Sometimes it’s a matter of competitive compatibility: Apple decided to create software that would work well with Microsoft Office, and there wasn’t much Microsoft could do to stop it.

Like Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow explain in his new book bottleneck capitalism, there is no technical reason why such portability cannot be extended to Twitter and Facebook. A short essay written by Doctorow for the Electronic Frontier Foundation outlines what that might look like.

First, you sign up to an alternative, maybe a Mastodon server. You give him your Twitter password. Twitter checks that you are willing to allow the connection and that it is not a hacker; then notify your friends that you’ve moved to Mastodon and ask them if they’re happy to have their tweets forwarded to you or not. (If you had moved to the crazy town of Truth Social or Parler, they might refuse.)

Why did you switch to a new service? Any number of reasons. Maybe the blue ticks are free there, or the ads don’t rely on creepy surveillance, 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’d prefer.

The point is that if Facebook and Twitter were interoperable with their rivals, it would be easy to move and take your digital network with you. If your friends preferred the old social networks, they could happily stay there and still be able to communicate with you. And the entire deal would evidently encourage new entrants to enter the market, while also pushing established players to up their game.

Interoperability will often work better with some regulatory muscle behind it, and one approach (not the only one) is to legislate to establish a broad defense for interoperators. If I, as a Twitter user, want to subscribe to a new interop service that uses my password to send my Mastodon posts to Twitter and pulls tweets from Twitter to Mastodon for me to see, then Twitter can’t ban me or sue the interop service. for doing it.

A world of interoperable social networks would be disconcerting to some. It could boost struggling right-wing platforms like Parler and Truth Social. It would certainly be much more difficult for social media companies to act as arbiters of what kind of speech is unacceptable. But it was never a good idea to give social media companies monopoly power over what can and can’t be said. And it was an even worse idea to let them put obstacles in the way of users who want to bring their friends with them when they leave.

Tim Harford’s new book is “How to make the world add up

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