Twitter, Crypto and Web3 Chaos: WTF Is Really Going On
Plus Thanksgiving (aka America's big whitewashing exercise) and Mister Organ reaches Australia.
It’s the very strange American holiday “Thanksgiving” tomorrow — something I explore in this week’s Thanksgiving episode of Flightless Bird.
I went around with my lil’ podcast family to Michael Voltaggio’s house, where the Top Chef winner put on an entire thanksgiving spread for us. We ate, we reflected on the year, and we gave thanks.
Of course the weird thing about Thanksgiving is that it’s used as a myth-building exercise to erase America’s terrible treatment of its indigenous population.
The simple, undeniable fact is that when settlers arrived in America, 90 percent of indigenous peoples died — almost exterminated by a combo of genocide and introduced disease.
Yet a load of Americans don’t know this.
A listener based in Nashville emailed me after their kid came home from school with this explanation of Thanksgiving. It’s from a publication called Tennessee Studies Weekly — Our Place in the United States. It’s for Grade 1 students — and you can see why millions of Americans don’t know anything about the genocidal colonisation that took place here:
In the episode I talk to Crystal Echo Hawk from IllumiNative about how America got to this place, and how we can contextualise all this while stuffing our faces with food.
Now in other news, if you’re in Australia — Mister Organ is coming to some of your cinemas!
I’ll be zooming in for virtual Q&As in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth on December 10 and 11. You can grab tickets for those now.
It opens in Australian cinemas from December 11 in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth. Here is a list of cinemas that’ll be playing it.
Working on a streaming solution for you — as I keep saying, the better these cinema runs go, the better the film goes. Thanks to Kiwis supporting the film so much (it’s still playing in about 50 kiwi cinemas), Australia has now decided to play it. And on it goes….
Now you might remember Joshua Drummond’s incredible piece awhile back about climate change. He perfectly captured the angst of being trapped in a system that won’t let us change this impending disaster.
He also wrote an incredible piece about evangelical christianity called ‘Evangelicalism is not just a religion; it’s a parallel culture’, before taking on the stupidity of NFTs and cryptocurrencies.
And with all the disastrous weirdness that’s been going on on Twitter and in the world of crypto lately — Josh is back sense of it all.
Take it away, Josh.
Twitter, Crypto and Web3 Chaos: WTF Is Really Going On.
by Joshua Drummond.
Something big is happening.
It’s possible that the internet is at a tipping point, an era-defining moment, one that might determine the future of communication.
Unfortunately, before we get into that, we need to talk about crypto.
I’m sorry! Please don’t stop reading. I promise this isn’t just another cryptocurrency deep dive. I’ve written two massive pieces about crypto already, one where I discovered how useless crypto and NFTs are for creatives, and another in which I actually spent six months creating a NFT scheme to prove how useless crypto is for creatives. (Sadly, I was right.) This is, hopefully, the last thing I’ll ever feel like writing on the cursed subject. Here it is.
Crypto is fucked.
If you’ve been following along, you know that cryptocurrency’s only real use case is gambling, and it’s only good for that if you can cash out for what we will sarcastically yet accurately call “real money.”
To do this, you need an exchange — kind of like a bank, if banks were even worse, without any real oversight or regulation or consumer protection. And the crypto exchanges, like the rest of the web3 world, are going great:
FTX, the second-largest crypto exchange, collapsed, taking tens of billions of dollars with it. In hindsight (and foresight) this is the most obvious thing to ever happen, given both the nature of crypto and the fact that the exchange was run by this utter jackass.
Meanwhile, Bitcoin prices continue to tank, which is fantastic, because it means that “mining” for bitcoin — which requires vast amounts of electricity to the point that dealing in bitcoin is unconscionable for anyone who cares even slightly about the environment — may become unprofitable. Exchanges, and Bitcoin miners, are the really big dominoes.
If they fall, crypto is done.
So yeah, good. Maybe, if crypto dies, we can get to work reclaiming some of the important concepts that crypto managed to corrupt. That’s what the rest of this article is about.
If you’re like everyone else (which, let’s face it, you are) you use at least one of five social media websites. You’re on Facebook (owned by Meta), or Instagram (owned by Meta) or YouTube (owned by Google) or Twitter (owned by Elon Musk), or TikTok (owned by Xi Jinping). If you are an outlier, you might use Reddit (owned by the billionaire Newhouse family).
By now, the phrase “you are the product,” is well-known enough to be a cliche. Of course you’re the product. Everyone is familiar with the Faustian pacts we sign to use these sites. You get social media contact with friends and family, attention, awareness of the wider world. If you signed up to build a profile or perhaps a small business, the platforms offered you a powerful incentive: you could go viral. Make something cool or say something clever and human nature would do the rest: your work would be shared far and wide.
Many, perhaps millions, built businesses and careers on this viral capacity. You know the rest of the deal: in return for all that utility, your data is made available to advertisers, who make Mark Zuckerberg a billionaire. You also enable, to a minute degree, all the collateral damage caused by centralized social media, all the way from reply-guy harassment to the live-streaming of snuff video and incitement to genocide.
That’s not the end of it, though. Even though you’re aware of the damage these platforms do, they are holding you, your data, and even your friends and loved ones hostage in their digital Hotel Californias.
Leaving extracts a heavy cost. It’ll cost you photo albums, cherished relationships, that one hilarious thread that somehow got a thousand comments back when you were at Uni and that you still check on when you need a laugh. If you merely check out, instead of leaving, they still have your data, which is dissected and reanimated in the form of “lookalike” audiences that are used to sell to people who act like you online.
Even those who find their way out of social media’s walled gardens quickly find themselves in another one, because every social network’s purpose — when you cut away all the mission-statement guff about connecting people to each other — is the same: trap you and squeeze you for everything you’re worth.
Remember the promise that you could “go viral?” On many mainstream platforms, particularly those owned by Meta, this is now nearly impossible. You are permitted, via invisible algorithms that remain proprietary secrets, to have a certain amount of “organic” reach. Need more? Pay up.
These well-known problems have been much discussed for over a decade, and smart people deduced the answer might lie in something called decentralization. And it’s true! Decentralization, done right, could shatter the grip of billionaires on your digital life. It’s a shame, then, that this important idea is one of many wells poisoned by — yes, we’re back on this bullshit again — crypto.
Did it work? Did it ever. Plenty of people were sucked in by crypto’s utopian promises. Here’s how the web3 hucksters made their marks:
Them: “You know what’s bad? When vital services that allow you to talk to your friends or build a career or to dissent against oppressive governments are owned by one giant, unaccountable company, or one cartoonishly evil would-be memelord, who squeeze their users for profit while not allowing them to leave!”
You: “Yup, that’s bad, all right!”
Them: “Well, the best thing is to decentralize so you can still still get access to these vital services and enjoy the communities they foster, but they’re not owned by any one entity, and you can leave whenever you want — and take your community with you!”
You: “Sounds fantastic! Where do I sign up?”
Them: “That’s the best thing! We’ve financialized these decentralized services with our proprietary GriftCoin! Every time you click “like” on a post, you earn a GriftCoin! And for every friend you bring in, you earn GriftCoins! And these GriftCoins are backed up to an immortal blockchain, which is secured by all these buzzwords, and they’ll be worth millions of dollars one day, and all you have to do is buy now…”
You, hopefully: “What the fuck?”
See where that went wrong? Decentralization is an important, timely idea — one that’s instantly ruined by the apparent necessity of financialization. The problem faced by much of the tech world is that many of its best ideas can be spread freely, or very cheaply. Lest we all figure out how to have nice things for free, tech titans and the investors who gamble on them have to work out how to financialize their offerings.
Here’s an example of this process in action, via Elon Musk’s text messages (context: Musk was recently forced to disclose text messages in court as part of his Rachel-and-Ross-like flirtation with buying Twitter, and now we can all see what our group chats would look like if they were populated entirely by ultra-rich sociopaths who talk about lending each other a couple of billion dollars like you or I would talk about flipping your brother fifty bucks):
Jack: a new platform is needed. It can't be a company. This is why I left.
Elon: What should it look like?
Jack: I believe it must be an open source protocol, funded by a foundation of sorts that doesn't own the protocol, only advances it. A bit like what Signal has done. It can't have an advertising model. Otherwise you have surface area that governments and advertisers will try to influence and control. If it has a centralized entity behind it, it will be attacked. This isn't complicated work, it just has to be done right so it's resilient to what has happened to twitter.
Elon: Super interesting idea
Jack: I'm off the twitter board mid May and then completely out of company. I intend to do this work and fix our mistakes. Twitter started as a protocol. It should have never been a company. That was the original sin.
Here, Jack Dorsey, famous for co-founding Twitter and not at all famous for looking exactly like me, makes an important point. In his chat with Elon, he is talking about his new, decentralized social networking protocol, Bluesky. A decentralized web that gives power back to its users is a fantastic idea, but because Silicon Valley is incapable of having a non-financialized thought, Bluesky appears to be attached to (sigh) a blockchain.
Luckily, and also in the finest tradition of Silicon Valley, Jack’s idea already exists. Which brings us to the next point:
Twitter is fucked.
Twitter, let’s be clear, was always fucked. Again, there’s been a lot written about this, but two particular things stick in my mind. One was how easily malevolent forces managed to co-opt users who were opposed to malevolence.
The quickest way to get traction on Twitter was to be either snarkily or stridently mad (ideally both) at someone or something, to partake in or create one of the site’s famous pile-ons. Horrible people figured out how to make use of this tendency alarmingly quickly, turning the outrage of others into a signal of their own virtue and an advertisement for their own ideologies. Remember Gamergate? Remember the transphobic bathroom debacle? Remember President Trump? All these movements were, and are, immensely helped by well-meaning people’s opposition to them.
The other thing that lives in my head is the clangour and sniping and sarcasm and cruelty of Twitter itself. When I am worried I will not be liked, or that I am annoying, or that I am a cringey (or worse) earnest man who is not good at writing and who fails at everything and should shut up, I hear it in Twitter’s voice — in the chorus of every smug, supercilious prick who takes to Twitter specifically for the purpose of I know better. What’s worse is that, often enough, that prick has been me. Cris-crossing, overlapping waves of mental feedback, rising to a scream.
It makes me think of two strange writers who made bold claims about writing and digital communication: Watchmen author Alan Moore says that writing is a form of magic, of telepathy, of speaking mind-to-mind, and in the act of reading something, you are imprinted: the writer’s voice becomes part of your own consciousness.
Then there’s Marshall McLuhan, a famously obtuse media theorist whose most well-known maxim was the medium is the message. Much has been read into this pithy statement, but my own take is that you can’t divorce a text’s meaning from the form it’s conveyed in. When I bring these two assertions together, I find Twitter frightening. What psychic damage might this platform, which often seems to be the very embodiment of outrage, have done to us?
Your mileage may vary, and it’s possible I’m being overwrought. But even if I’m not, recent events have made Twitter untenable for many more people. If you are online, you know that Elon Musk bought Twitter and immediately — this is the best and most accurate metaphor I can come up with — scraped his ass all over it, like a dog with worms.
There have, at a conservative estimate, already been at least 44 billion words spilled over this acquisition, and you don’t need more. My only take is that I think the glee with which people have seized on Elon’s cruel mismanagement of Twitter is misdirected, at best. The richest man in history has purchased a weapon. He can now aim it at his enemies, or destroy it so it can no longer be aimed at him.
It’s bad. But it has an upside. It seems that, for many, Musk’s use of Twitter isn’t something they want to be complicit in. Many are leaving, and a lot of us are finding something new in something old.
Remember how I said Jack Dorsey’s brilliant idea for a decentralized network, free from any one entity’s control, already exists?
It’s called the internet.
The idea of inter-networked computers came about, famously, as a way to make systems more resistant to nuclear strikes. Decentralization is not a new idea, and you could argue that the centralization trend of the last decade or so is the real aberration. Many are keenly aware of the problem, and there have been a lot of fixes proposed. The awkwardly-named W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) proposed a protocol called ActivityPub, which attempts to solve some of the issues with centralized social media. Lots of social media experiments have been set up using the protocol, but they’ve never caught on with the mainstream.
Even as we’ve become collectively inured to the myriad abuses and absurdities of neoliberal economics and late-stage capitalism, a shadow realization is growing: it really shouldn’t be this way. Maybe it’s actually quite weird that we entrust our precious time and energy and family pictures to cruel, arrogant men, who use them to attain great power without the slightest bit of attendant responsibility. Maybe it’s strange that we share intimate details of our lives with advertisers, that secret algorithms govern what we see and interact with, that our public communications are so easily and frequently attacked by lizard-brained reply-guys.
Over time, it’s all added up, and Elon’s ass-dragging Twitter takeover has been the final straw for millions. They’re looking for an alternative, and it turns out there’s not just one. There are lots.
By the time you read this, every mainstream website in the world will have written their search-engine-optimized explainer on Mastodon and the wider Fediverse, so I’ll refrain from writing my own. If you need one, go read Wired’s guide, or Fedi.tips. The only bit I’ll add is that you don’t need to be spooked by the usual unhelpful tech jargon. A Mastodon “instance” is like a town, or neighbourhood. You can check one out before you move there. If you like it, you can stay. If you don’t, you can easily move.
Imagine if, like most people, you hate Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s overtly anti-user behaviour, but instead of being faced with the current like-it-or-leave-it dichotomy, you could just go to a different site that was run by your mates without losing your old friends or posts or precious pet pictures in the move.
This ability is precisely what activists Cory Doctorow and Rebecca Giblen argue for in their new book Chokepoint Capitalism, and it’s what Mastodon, and the other parts of the Fediverse, already offer. What’s more, many instances are created and moderated by local people, who carefully curate a list of blocked communities to protect users from attacks and hate speech. On the instance I joined, mastodon.nz, the TERFs and transphobia that curse the big social media sites are outright banned. It’s bliss.
The Twitter migration is a real phenomenon. My old Twitter feed is a ghost town. Almost everyone who I followed or found interesting has already left for one of the local Mastodon instances. They have found that Mastodon isn’t a straight Twitter replacement. Many people who managed to build up their livelihoods on Twitter are worried about this. In theory, Twitter gave you the potential for enormous reach. You could have unlimited followers, and you could still go viral.
The thing is, even if you discount Twitter’s bot problem, the site has been quietly throttling reach for a long time. I’ve been on both Twitter and mastodon.nz for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve run two unscientific experiments. The first was comparing my reach across platforms. On Twitter I have about 2500 followers; on Mastodon I have around 250. For a while, I posted roughly the same stuff to Twitter and Mastodon to see what would happen.
Mastodon was much better. Not only did I get similar or better engagement with ten times fewer followers, but posting on Mastodon created actual conversations, none of them with reply-guy types. People are engaging with me (and my artwork) in a way that hasn’t happened for years on Twitter.
The second experiment was unintentional, but revealing. Scrolling the Local timeline on mastodon.nz, I spotted a Covid-denying conspiracy theorist. Because they’d always carefully framed their disinformation as “just asking questions,” they’d done just fine on Twitter. I flicked the mods a report, with an explanatory note. On Twitter, reports like this often come back with something useless like “We’ve found the account you reported didn’t break the Twitter Rules.”
On mastodon.nz, they were permanently banned within an hour.
Mastodon and the Fediverse aren’t a panacea for our online ills. Nothing is. People will always be fractious and argumentative to some degree, and making things better is inherently messy. At the moment, people on Mastodon are arguing over moderation and content warnings — some instances make copious use of them, some don’t — and I don’t see it being resolved soon.
But, ultimately, this is noise, and my real fascination is with the signal. Many were already aware that it’s better not to offer up your digital life for a billionaire to devour just because their website is the engagement equivalent of quicksand, but this is the first time I’ve seen a comprehensive shift away from corporate-controlled media’s walled gardens, towards something that users own and control.
It’s extraordinary how fast things are shifting, and vitally, it’s all happening without invoking the great cryptocurrency scam, without being attached to the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, without anyone needing to buy even a fraction of a GriftCoin.
If you want to join in, you’ll find me @email@example.com
David here again.
We’ve got a lot to navigate at the moment. We live in a world where the world’s richest man is doing dick jokes on Twitter, and disinformation is being treated as reality by millions.
The least we can do is be semi-aware of the internet landscape and where it’s headed. How are you feeling about it?
I hope you have a good weekend. If you’re doing Thanksgiving, remember whose land you’re on.
If you’re a paid up Webworm member, remember you can listen to the podcast of the Webworm, Arise!, which seems to have gone down well.
“There were many standout moments, it was wonderful and surreal to have everyone in the same room drinking and eating together, listening to yourself and the panel discuss the year(s). Just being able to sit together and collectively go ‘wtf!’ meant a whole lot.”
You can listen to that episode here.