Current thoughts on social media

02 November 2023

It's now been a year since The Muskover (Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter). Many wondered whether Twitter would still be around by now, or a technological or financial wreck. Technologically it's still present, despite losing a lot of experienced engineers the site is still up and working, although there's a sense of unreliability that brings back memories of the fail-whale days. It hasn't gone bust either, although there are regular articles showing not just that Musk vastly overpaid for Twitter, but also questioning how long its finances can keep going considering the heavy debt load placed on it.

I won't try to summarize opinions on what the now-renamed X is like as a social media experience. On this, like most things, there's no shortage of Opinions On The Internet. But I will share my personal view, for those that might be interested. After all, one more opinion can't do much harm.

In doing this, I need to explain how I use social media, since people's views of the state of social media will naturally vary depending on their usage pattern. I first started using social media (in some form) in the late 1980's with Usenet. I learned quickly that I disliked the often-heated arguments that blew up there, and so I avoided reading them and, above all, avoided getting into them.

For social media now, the main reason I read it is to know about new events from people I'm interested in, especially interesting articles. I avoid any feed that involves the platform trying to figure out what I might like. Instead I pick selected feeds to follow and organize them into a handful of lists to read according to my current context. (eg tech stuff during the day, current affairs and boardgames in the evening.)

Given that, I see much less of the excrement that many people talk about on X, and it hasn't got noticeably worse since the muskover. The biggest change is that so many of the people I used to follow are no longer there. There is an upside to this, checking my X feed is now much faster than it used to be, but at the cost that my awareness of what's going on with those folks is a lot less.

I'm seeing a platform diversification. People haven't gone to one service, but have split up among many: Mastodon, Bluesky, Threads, LinkedIn, Instagram.... That makes it harder for me to follow them, since I have to sign in on a bunch of different places. Some remain on Twitter, but it's now feeling like one of several places to go to. I find that annoying as I don't want to be checking a dozen social media sites to find people.

Habit means I still check X fairly regularly for those people who are still there. I started using Mastodon about a year ago, so that allows me to follow people on the Fediverse. I got a Bluesky account, but haven't posted on it yet. It's handy for a couple of people I like to follow there. I continue to resist LinkedIn, I wouldn't mind its posts, but the whole connections and job recommendations strikes me as a nightmare waiting to happen. I don't have Threads since I do most of my social network reading at my desk and it was originally mobile-only (I'm also hoping it will make good on its plan to implement ActivityPub). I used to use Facebook for mostly non-work people, but now whenever I open the app I see more ads than interesting posts. I never signed up for Instagram (another reason why I haven't got around to Threads yet).

That covers my reading activity, what about my writing? As I mentioned earlier, I learned to avoid discussions or arguments on Usenet, so I don't look to post for that. I might rarely comment on someone else's post, but then try to follow Charles Miller's useful rule and post only once. If someone posts an interesting article, I'll repost it if I think my repost will give it more attention.

My main use of posts is to notify people about a new post on My primary way of alerting people about new posts is my Atom feed, but sadly these feeds aren't as widely used as they used to be. (I peruse my Atom/RSS feeds daily, it's still my favorite way of keeping up with long-form material.) I got into the habit of posting such announcements on Twitter a while ago, as my sense was that it had a much bigger reach than the Atom feed. Certainly I think that posting such announcements were the reason why I got to over 300,000 followers on Twitter. When the muskover occurred I also started posting on the Fediverse using Thoughtworks's Mastodon instance.

I mentioned earlier that Twitter seems much quieter for me as reader, since many of the folks I like to follow have left. I would imagine this means there's less reason for me to post announcements there too. But it seems that there's just as much reaction as there used to be. Here's the distribution of the number of retweets for my posts pre and post Musk.1

1: Posts here are posts that I classify as professional. Pre-musk is January to August 2022, post-musk is the same months in 2023. I took a break during September 2023 and didn't post, so January-August seems like a good base of comparison.

The distributions are similar for likes. It seems reasonable to use these as proxies for interest in the posts. It may be that bot activity distorts the figures, but this is the best evidence I can get.

I can also compare retweets between my Mastodon and X accounts. 2

2: Each dot is a professional post. The lines are ggplot's smoothed conditional mean using the loess method.

Despite its troubles X is still more active than Mastodon, but not as much as the difference in follower count would suggest. To get a better sense of their value I should put some attribute cruft in the URLs and figure out how to track them, but it isn't really that high on my priority list.

Some people are critical that I still use X, considering the antics of its owner. But I think of this from my readers' perspective - where are they and how would they like to hear about new material? The numbers above indicate there's still enough readership following on X to be worth announcing there.

There's also the question of whether I should start posting on the other platforms too, but then I get worried about the hassle of posting on a plethora of places. Posting on X, Mastodon, and Atom isn't too bad, but I really don't want it to get worse. So, at least for a while, I'll stick to this trio.

The reason I'm posting on Mastodon is because the future I want is one that's based on interoperability. I want to see an open protocol that isn't dependent on a tech-lord's whim. ActivityPub is currently the one that looks most developed. Bluesky's AT Protocol may become important in the future, so I'm also keeping an eye on that.

That's also why I avoided using Medium, Substack, and similar products. I want to own my words and thus I post on my own domain. I'm fortunate enough to have a regular employer and some books that sell well, so I don't need to monetize my online writing. By using my domain I can be sure that I can make material available and present it in the way I like.

I post on some small discussion lists using Slack and Discord, both of which work well for smaller groups. I rather like a group that has a limited membership. That way I can take into account the context of the group when posting, which usually makes it easier to post things.


1: Posts here are posts that I classify as professional. Pre-musk is January to August 2022, post-musk is the same months in 2023. I took a break during September 2023 and didn't post, so January-August seems like a good base of comparison.

2: Each dot is a professional post. The lines are ggplot's smoothed conditional mean using the loess method.


Thanks to Julien Deswaef for helping me compile posting data.