This article first appeared in Village magazine, May/June 2023 edition

As journalists drift back to Twitter after the initial wave of enthusiasm for Mastodon, accepting diktats from Elon Musk in return for his audience, the federated networks exemplified by Mastodon deserve a second look.

Twitter changed, not gradually then suddenly as Hemingway had it, but immediately on takeover. In the heady first days, as the billionaire welcomed banned racists and neo-nazis, one statistic was repeated several times. Ten percent of users drove 92% of the content on the site. And as algorithms filled timelines with bile and crypto-bros, many of those users migrated to other platforms. Some were already active elsewhere, and reduced Twitter time. Others simply left.

Mastodon saw worldwide growth from under one million monthly active users last Halloween to over two million actives in February 2023, with the total number of accounts passing the landmark ten million mark. And while some news reports have focused on the decline in monthly users since the figure peaked at 2.3 million, what is remarkable is so many decided to stay.

Churn happens on all social sites, but what really matters is the “network effect”. Users sign on, look around, and decide whether or to stay. In the early days, gaining traction is hard. New users log in find a desert, and little incentive to stay. But as early numbers grow, network effects kick in. New arrivals find a thriving community, and often familiar faces. Some will be high profile names, Stephen Fry and Greta Thunberg, or writers like Stephen King and John Scalzi. But also there are those everyday active users mentioned earlier, driven off Twitter. And the more people stick around, the more attractive the site becomes to the next wave.

One thing Musk got right was identifying Mastodon as a threat. But his reactions, banning mentions of the network, suspending users who posted links to “backup” accounts, even blocking mastodon links as “malware”, elevated the threat to many who had never heard of it. If anything, his antics drove more users to the upstart. Nothing is as sweet as forbidden fruit.

For many, Mastodon was a culture shift too far. New arrivals found themselves in a place designed from the ground up to minimise things that made commercial social networks intolerable. The earliest adopters – and builders – of the fediverse were determined to avoid what they saw as the mistakes of commercial networks. No algorithm promoting viral engagement, which tended to boost anger as a consequence. Reduced search, restricted only to hashtags. No equivalent of Quote Tweeting, as it encouraged pile-ons. So while engagement with others is often higher on Mastodon, several design choices make it is more difficult to “go viral”. For writers, designers, creative artists and others using the platform to promote their work, that made for a difficult adjustment. Some inevitably left, returning to Twitter, or other networks.

Journalists in particular returned to the Musk mothership. addicted to the immediacy the site provided in covering breaking news, the perceived clout of a legacy “blue tick”, access to other journalists, politicians, celebrities and other newsmakers, and of course, the endorphin rush of algorithm-fed shares and likes.

Trouble is, as Musk opens the site to previously banned accounts filled with incel memes and Pepe the Frog avatars, fires moderation teams responsible for reducing bullying and information warfare, and actively encourages the worst instincts of the alt-right in messages he chooses to amplify himself, the entire site lurches to the right.

In the 1990s, American political scientist Joseph Overton developed the idea of the “Overton window”, the range of ideas considered acceptable at any given time. Crucially, the window can shift over time, a dynamic clearly in play in the online culture of Twitter.

However, just like the proverbial frog slowly boiling in a heated saucepan, Twitter denizens may not feel the culture shift. For many new to Mastodon, the immediate reaction was how much nicer the mood was. It revealed them of how “the birdsite” had been a decade earlier, how much changed with each tweak of the algorithm in the intervening years. That process has accelerated since November.

Since those who remain are disproportionately journalists and other media workers, shifting Overton windows will be reflected in the ideas they consider part of the mainstream, which raises obvious issues about editorial judgements. Journalism is in danger of being boiled alive, cooking in a heated saucepan surrounded by Pepe the Frog memes.

The real tragedy may be news media miss a golden opportunity to break their addiction to social media. From disastrous “pivots to video” to chasing clickbait, social has been an expensive game for publishers. The fediverse offers the chance to build a clear alternative for their audiences, with communities they can managed through their own instances rather than at the whims of Silicon Valley billionaires.

Newsman Kermit the Frog looking to the right.