Digital Public Parks

Until a few days ago, it is safe to say that I spent too much time on Twitter. I’ve had my account there for long enough that I’ve seen the platform evolve from the SMS-based, fail whale infested, early days, right up to today’s algorithmic hellscape. Don’t get me wrong, it has its bright spots. 15 years of following accounts and training an algorithm means my feed is very heavy on trains, bicycle paths, and cats. But my blocked user list is also currently standing at 1,485 and counting, so…

While I don’t plan on deleting my Twitter account, I have moved over to Mastodon. I can remember listening to an episode of the This Week in Tech podcast back in 2007 or 2008 where they were discussing Twitter’s instability and difficulty scaling. The platform was experiencing growing pains after its big expansion of users at SXSW. One of the solutions the guests on the podcast suggested was to decentralise Twitter. To let lots of different, independent, Twitter servers talk to each other. Jack Dorsey apparently later agreed, texting Elon Musk that the platform, “never should have been a company”.

With its federated structure, Mastodon feels very much like what could have been if Twitter had decentralised at the beginning. And the buzz on the platform reminds me of those early days. I’m sure it is annoying for those users who’ve been tooting for some time, but the #introduction posts and general sense of settling into a new place makes for an exciting atmosphere.

I’m not closing my Twitter account in much the same sense that I’ll still watch mindless Hollywood movies as well as more thoughtful indie and low-budget stuff. Having a place like Mastodon, free of ads, free of the need to exist in a commercial sense, is critical. Being able to go to a fancy shopping centre is a bonus. No matter how hard it tries, a shopping centre cannot be, “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

This parallels the offline-world, where public spaces are increasingly actually private spaces. I remember trying to get permission to have a small gathering of people outside City Hall (the old one) in London. I first approached the GLA, but they said it wasn’t their decision. Instead, I had to contact a property investment company and get their permission. They decided our event wasn’t in their commercial interest, so instead we had to meet in a nearby alleyway with views of the park around City Hall, but definitely on the other side of the fence.

The difference between a privatised park in London and a digital shopping centre online, is that online, there is essentially infinite space next to the shopping centre to build a public park. So let’s take a walk in the park, escape from the ads, the sponsored influencer ‘grams, the brand accounts tweeting at each other. Lets take some time to slow down and talk to each other… or share photos of cats.