The internet works in a very simple way. You say something, and then someone replies to the thing you said. You may either get a bit of joy from that reply, or you may find the reply frustrating or annoying in some way.
It doesn’t get more simple than that. And honestly, it feels like a lot of our problems of the moment are rooted in replies—who’s sending them, what they’re saying, whether you’re getting tuned out. Some might argue that the reason why internet culture feels so bad lately is because the reply guys got sick of being blocked and muted by the very people they want listening to their screeds.
That has led to some retreats to other platforms, but the problem is, a year into this grand reset of social media norms, it didn’t really solve the problem so much as help expose the fact that other shades of reply-driven drama are out there.
Last week, a debate on replies picked up in the fediverse, as the news source Mastodon Migration pointed out the widespread problems that large accounts were having with snipe-y or even cruel replies.
As the pseudonymous account put it:
One thing to clarify is that the quotes cited can lead to the impression that ALL these popular posters are thinking of leaving Mastodon. This is NOT the case or the intention of the post. Rather the problem we are seeing is these and many other regular posters are receiving an increasing amount of frustrating negativism and reflexive nay-saying in the responses. We can do better.
I will say that while I work nowhere near the scale of the folks mentioned in the thread, like Ken “Popehat” White or Matt Blaze, I have a big enough presence that I’ve seen my share of it, and have even to some degree seen it on other platforms like Bluesky. The problem is, there’s a certain type of pedantry that has followed the internet through its various forms, especially in more technical channels, and it often creates a negative experience because it seems to be driven by ideology or disdain for people who don’t think the same way.
Example: After posting my recent piece about lapel pins, I got a reply from someone who was upset that I dared tie the topic to the Humane AI Pin, despite that being the inspiration for the whole piece. But they went further and attacked the design of the site in a way that suggested it was more about making me feel bad than actually hating the design. I never interacted with this person before, but I’ve seen his kind all over.
(I even saw it in person at VCF East once. My crime? I pulled out my laptop to collect notes on what I saw—and it was too new for the guy commenting on it.)
In some ways, the saga is a revival of the dreaded reply guys that haunted Twitter for years. But on new networks, different types of people are getting different shades of reply guy. People who had minimal reply guy interactions on the birdsite now have reply guys.
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The formerly-bird-shaped elephant in the room
To be clear, some of this comes off as a concern about gentrification caused by the departure of so many people from one big platform to many smaller platforms.
But I think it also reflects ongoing challenges with the fact that despite all the ugliness, backstabbing, and toxicity coming from the platform formerly known as Twitter, it’s simply a difficult beast to kill. People are trying to leave or minimize their presence, but it’s extremely difficult. And I feel some of that myself. The truth of the matter is, as much as I appreciate journalism school academic Dan Gillmor’s frequent pleas to leave Twitter, the fact is, there are things that tool does that haven’t been recreated elsewhere, as much as we grit our teeth about it. It remains the best place for real-time drip-drip of breaking news, as Kara Swisher pointed out over the weekend after breaking a bunch of news, then immediately emphasizing the site sucked. Plus, in a world where people do their jobs on social media, you are often stuck reaching people in areas where you don’t want to go.
To offer a real-world scenario as to why the birdsite lingers: The mall has mostly closed, but the problem is, the mall is still the only place in town with an Apple Store, and you need service on your laptop. You see the boarded up storefronts and the poor security, but the fact of the matter is, your laptop is still broken. At some point ideology and practicality are at odds.
I ran into this very situation a week or two ago when I found myself stranded by a Lyft driver. I looked in the app. No chat function. No phone support to speak of. The only option that helped me in that situation? Getting in Lyft’s DMs on the birdsite.
Twitter also had gained features in the pre-Elon days that we completely took for granted and are now missing from newer platforms. Perhaps one of the most prominent ones was the quality filter that helped minimize spam or particularly toxic accounts. One of the best features that site ever had was the ability to close threads. Now, as celebrities and influencers show up on Mastodon, we need those tools.
But those tools are at odds with the fragmented nature of the Fediverse, which wants to be a lot of things. Is it a modern extension of old-school Eternal September-style Usenet culture? Is it the new Twitter? Is it a tech demo for a ground-up digital future? Are the Twitter users getting in the way of that? More importantly, are the Usenet descendants?
I think the problem with toxic replies highlights that we have not actually figured this out quite yet. They’re ultimately reflections on the fact that we’re never going to have the ideal of early-2009 Twitter, where people were breaking news about dramatic plane landings in rivers and Jack Dorsey didn’t have any facial hair.
Maybe the Eternal September mindset will never go away. Maybe it’ll just keep showing up in increasingly toxic forms.
We’ve lost our innocence on social media. We may never find it again. The replies reflect why.
Links Worth Replying To
It’s top of mind for just about everyone in tech, I know, but I’m leaving the OpenAI subject matter alone over this way in part because I already wrote my piece on it for The Daily Beast.
A shoutout to Alec Watson of Technology Connections, who gave a shout to us in his recent video on The Clapper. (I should note that, related to today’s topic, Watson has been pretty candid about his challenges with fediverse reply guys.)
I listened to André 3000’s flute album. It slaps. (Plus the song titles are easily as good as his bars on UGK’s immortal swan song, “Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You).”) We need more amazing instrumental music, and the flute is a deserving instrument. This Slate piece on the topic makes me feel like other people get it, too.