Twitter May be Ailing, but Mastodon is No Remedy

    Nov 23, 2022

    OTTAWA—If Twitter is a city that’s burning, Mastodon represents the suburbs. Digital white flight has seen white liberals leave downtown Twitter to flee to the gated, segregated communities of Mastodon.

    As I wrote last week, Twitter is ostensibly circling the bowl due to a crisis of leadership. Apparently, Elon Musk isn’t the genius weird nerds purported him to be, and now he’s single-handedly destroying one of the most connective platforms on the internet. I’ll return to the importance of this centralized, connective structure later. However, back to Musk, who must be the worst employer and manager of all time. Not surprising, since he almost ran PayPal into the ground and there are greater implications to his takeover of Twitter: labour rights. The bourgeoisie have always aimed to reduce the labour rights of workers, and they have had successive liberal and conservative governments to help them.

    Musk is only the latest to reconfirm that you can’t run a company by treating employees like hot garbage. The knee-jerk response is to leave; however, not all employees can do that easily. Those on H-1B visas only have 60 days to look for other work when laid off, so those who can’t will have to remain at Twitter and take Musk’s documented abuse. And abusive he is. According to Wired, his rampages were legendary: “One manager had a name for these outbursts—Elon’s rage firings—and had forbidden subordinates from walking too close to Musk’s desk at the Gigafactory out of concern that a chance encounter, an unexpected question answered incorrectly, might endanger a career.” In the latest news that demonstrates his racist management style, former employees at Twitter Africa are suing Musk for discrimination over their severance terms, as CNN reports: “Laid-off employees at Twitter’s Africa headquarters are accusing Twitter of ‘deliberately and recklessly flouting the laws of Ghana’ and trying to ‘silence and intimidate’ them after they were fired.” He was so racist to Black employees at Tesla that the State of California sued him, The Guardian tells us: “California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), which alleges that Black workers in the company’s Fremont factory experienced ‘rampant racism’ that the company left ‘unchecked for years.’”

    A genius, indeed.

    What is clear is that labour issues will always affect the quality of the product. On the night of Nov. 20, full-length movies began appearing on the platform, most notably The Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift and Hackers, as users noticed that Twitter’s copyright strike system was down. And since Musk’s genius management style has driven most of his employees to quit, only a skeleton crew remains to manually take down copyright-infringed content, rather than an automated system that usually handles these things. It’s like 2010 YouTube again. And while Twitter continues to function, even amid a World Cup, there is a countdown happening to when we all open that app and it’s lights out.

    In response, many people are fleeing to Mastodon, where white liberals have set up shop. But Mastodon is fundamentally different from Twitter in that it’s a decentralized platform. This means that every “instance,” which is a community that hosts a server, is run by its own moderators who decide on the instance’s terms of use. Twitter, on the other hand, is a centralized platform, where terms of use were determined by the board of directors (when Twitter was a public company), and now that the platform is private, by Musk himself. As Neiman Lab explains, “Each instance has its own vibe, standards for admission, and content rules. Each server can block communications from other servers if they don’t appreciate their style.”

    And therein lies the problem: Mastodon is a gatekeeper’s paradise. In my use of the platform (I am on the largest instance, Mastodon Social), I have noticed that liberal, white fragility reigns. Saba Eitizaz of The Toronto Star tweeted: “Mastodon has been reportedly blocking content and suspending accounts of racialized women or anyone who’s talking about social justice/equity/race and asking for ‘trigger warnings’ on issues that are a core part of BIPOC lives. Some instances are being run like fiefdoms.” Mastodon’s federated structure creates a larger echo chamber because the moderators can limit your speech if it makes them uncomfortable—and we know that when white people feel uncomfortable, they gatekeep, meaning that Mastodon is more exclusionary than Twitter. There have been reports of BIPOC women, especially, experiencing the silencing, dismissal, and hostility of these white spaces that claim to be better because they claim to restore the “civility” lost on Twitter. Notable tweeter and astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein talked about her experience on Mastodon, of being called the n-word multiple times and how vulnerable she feels because Mastodon doesn’t have a block button. She must rely on the moderators of the instance to do the right thing, giving moderators on the platform outsized power to ignore the racism she received.

    As I’ve written before in this paper: “Liberal and progressive spaces, while claiming to be inclusive, are abusive to racialized people,” and Mastodon is no different. Jeremy Littau, professor of journalism at Lehigh University, quote tweeted me with this: “There are a *lot* of people in the Black community here on Twitter telling us Mastodon has a real white-flight feel. After a couple weeks there, I’m not sure how much intentionally choosing diversity there can fix it. Don’t dismiss the critique with tech Utopianism. Sit with it.”

    Black and brown people in the digital gated white communities of Mastodon are even more vulnerable than they would be on Twitter because they don’t have their communities to fall back on when things inevitably go awry. And that’s why the solution is not just to change instances; communities are not easily replicated and replaced. They represent years of the work of consistent communication and mutual support that has sustained a lot of us. When I was being targeted by the far-right, my Twitter and real-life communities came through with massive support. I would never have gotten that on Mastodon, since that’s not the vibe. Me leaving somewhere due to bad management and abusive leadership? Babe, I live in Ontario.

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.