It had been years since I heard the phrase “What server are you on?”
It used to be in reference to Usenet, then Discord. But in recent weeks, as many have started to flee Twitter, friends, friends of friends, work colleagues, and randos I met one time are all asking the question in reference to Mastodon. One firm reported in early November that 1 million people had left Twitter after Elon Musk’s takeover; weeks later, even more have abandoned it.
Some experts and pundits are saying this exodus marks the death of social networks. Those articles aren’t entirely wrong, but they aren’t that right, either. What we’re seeing is not so much the death of an age as an evolution in social networks—a shift towards community-focused and -designed spaces like Mastodon, Discord, and Twitch. While social media was for 15 years or so focused on bringing your message to as many people as possible at one time, we’re heading now toward a future in which it’s about reaching a much smaller group of people with whom you already share interests, beliefs, or affinity. Hence the server question: On Mastodon (something of a Twitter clone) and Discord (which is more Slack-like), different spaces are called servers ( also known as instances on Mastodon). Anyone can sign up and create their own server. While Discord is all one interconnected product and technology, Mastodon is open-source, and the instances/servers can disconnect from the main federated timeline if they want to. There are servers for video games, for fandoms, for particular professions, for advocacy, and for just about anything you can think of.
Community-focused social networks aren’t anything new—WhatsApp and Telegram message groups have long been described as social networks, and Reddit’s existed for what feels like forever. But the focus on specific communities is different, as is platform design that allows for a variety of different kinds of communications across video, streaming, multiple message boards, one-to-one messaging, and communal spaces large and small.
Posting publicly on Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, or Instagram is a lot like using a megaphone to scream to a large, massless, faceless crowd. A Discord server or a WhatsApp group is more like going to a friend’s party; I may not know everyone there, but I can get a sense of who is there and who is listening, even if the majority of attendees are strangers. I can flit from a larger group conversation to a smaller, more intimate sidebar with a certain kind of ease I can’t on a lot of other social networks. Mastodon, WhatsApp, Discord, Twitch, or even Facebook groups offer mixed spaces that exist somewhere between the public and private. They function as slower and smaller networks, even if they can host thousands of people. The slowness comes from design choices. For instance, while it’s possible to screenshot or forward a message, WhatsApp places limitations on the ability to forward messages. Discord has some of the most nuanced content moderation controls around for administrators and users alike, such as the ability to block words, specialized phrases, and whitelist content.
The big technology companies exist in a Web 2.0 context. The rise of their massive platforms grew out of the shift from Web 1.0 to 2.0, from the static to the dynamic. These technical changes also reflected (and reinforced) societal shifts, which we’re also starting to see today. People want more control over their digital lives; while influencers and some others still want as many likes and shares and comments as possible, most people seem to increasingly see widespread sharing of their content to be a risk, not a feature. That suggests we may be embarking on a Web 3.0—one that has nothing to do with blockchain, but is instead a return to some of the features of Web 1.0: small networks, trusted communities, anonymity, and avatars, now with the necessary socio-technical support of trust and safety teams, content moderation, and intersectional thought we’ve learned over the past decades. The shift toward user augmentation, combined with privacy, security, and trust and safety, is this necessary shift toward a new and better web.
This isn’t to say we should all exit en masse to Mastodon and completely abandon our Instagram or Twitter. Twitter still has value. Johnathan Flowers, a philosophy professor from American University, has pointed out the necessity for a singular space, like Twitter, for organizing. That’s one reason why I’m still sticking around, even though it has never been a safe place for me (because of the work I do) or for many other people.
The truth is that no platform is entirely safe for marginalized groups and BIPOC communities in particular. Federated communities like Mastodon have and will have problems with white supremacists and bad actors starting their own instances since decentralization does allow for literally anyone to make their own instances and servers and become their own content moderators.
In our current and next web, we need something of both—a place that is general and easier for organizing (like a Twitter), with options for smaller, community-focused spaces. What I still love about Twitter is the high level of chatter; the volume is overwhelming in a way that I like. I want to see breaking news and new memes. But I also crave deeper conversation with communities and stronger community ties, which is a kind of communication design Twitter doesn’t handle very well.
Mastodon is growing radically in number of new users every day. Another sign we may be entering a new age? On Nov. 1, the privacy-centric messaging app Signal launched its Stories feature, bringing the corporatized social network design feature to messaging-only apps. Within minutes, a handful of my friends started posting stories. Some of these were activists who just don’t or can’t use Instagram. Getting to see glimpses into their lives, including selfies, was amazing. Prior to Signal Stories, if I saw these friends’ faces, it was only in person. If I’m lucky, sometimes I see them once or twice in a handful of years. I didn’t realize how much I had missed them until I saw their faces—something made possible by allowing them to feel comfortable and in control of their information. For the communities I work with, this is a necessary step forward in combining encryption, privacy, and social networks in a way we actually don’t have right now.
Social networks come and go, and our recent technological history is a littered graveyard of Google Readers, Myspaces, Ellos, and Friendsters. Facebook and Twitter are the giants of our current web, but they don’t have to be our future. As we can see now, Silicon Valley’s push to grow and expand at all costs was a mistake. They were described as too big to fail, but it turns out they are just too big to function, at least as currently built. Recently, I spent about five minutes carefully curating my Signal Stories recipients, slowly separating out professional contacts from my friends, one by one. Signal Stories isn’t perfect (Janus Rose summarized the problems best), but I am willing to spend more time creating specific lists on Signal because it feels different; more sustainable, trustworthy, and focused on community public interest. The biggest selling factor for Signal Stories is that I’m already there and so is my core community. Right now, my community is in multiple spaces: across Twitter, Instagram, Signal, Twitch, Discord, Mastodon. Once this period of upheaval has ended, I suspect many other people will also have followed their communities to smaller spaces—at least part of the time.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.