Information and Technology: Part #3
In the first two posts in this series *(which you can read here and here) I talked about some of the ways in which we use computer technology has changed over the years. I have also gave examples of how technology is absolutely wonderful when it is used with the aim of simplifying daily tasks, connecting us to the information we need and to putting us in touch with those people we love. But I have also shown how computer technology can be misused and may actually become a threat to our democracy. Our ability to access the information we desire at any given time and our ability to communicate with others is being curtailed as you read these words. Facebook and Google are already censoring the information we have access to in response to initiatives by the federal government aimed at having these companies direct a portion of their ad revenues back toward Canadian media companies as a fee they should pay for using locally created content on their social media sites. Regardless of whether you support Mark Zuckerberg, owner of Facebook or Prime Minister Trudeau, on behalf of journalists and media outlets across the country, the fact remains that there is a battle being waged over who controls the information that you and I get to see, how we get to see it and how we express our reactions to it with each other.
In this debate I can only speak for myself. I have been growing increasingly uneasy with how these companies are operating and the seemingly omnipotent nature of their influence on our daily lives that they seem to possess. So, this leaves me with the question of am I just going to complain about this state of affairs or is there something that I can actually do about it? I have wrestled with this problem and have come to the conclusion that I have three major choices to make: 1- I can throw my hands into the air in despair and admit that social media usage and technology in general, are both so fully integrated into my life that there is no way to meaningfully disengage from it. The battle is already really over and I need to reconcile myself with the fact that companies such as Facebook and Google have more real power to affect my life than national governments do. As such, Trudeau is wrong to seek redress from social media companies. The future will unfold as social media companies dictate and we will become increasingly dependent/vulnerable as a result. 2- The second alternative is to pull the social media plug completely and close all social media accounts. In the short term, that would mean that I would revert back to the way things were before social media ever became a thing. If I wanted to contact someone back then I would pay them a call, use the telephone, write a letter or send an email. If I wanted access to news and information, I would start watching the CBC National news again. Perhaps I would buy a newspaper subscription, as well as some magazine subscriptions, too. I may not get as many birthday greetings as I do now and I may miss seeing everyone’s Halloween costume ideas but I would be able to connect with the world on my own terms, albeit in a greatly reduced manner. 3- I could seek alternative platforms that would allow me to remain connected via social media without having my content censored and/or manipulated by a single company or person like Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. But are there social media alternatives that function any differently than the mainstream sites? That is what this post will truly be about.
As I pondered what to do about the sense of unease that was consuming me these past few years regarding social media and its role in my life, I came to the conclusion that maintaining the status quo on my end was simply not feasible over the long haul. Something had to change. That something turned out to be Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. His deal to buy Twitter was what gave me the impetus to pull myself away and, as always, it all had to do with information and who controls it.
As I have stated before, I loved Twitter. It was my favourite social media site bar none. At the time I joined in 2007 or 2008, Twitter billed itself as a virtual town square. As you may know from history, town squares were the original meeting places in many towns and cities. It was where speakers stood atop soapboxes and stated their views for all to hear. You could choose to listen to these speakers or you could go on about your day. If you stayed, you could mount the soapbox when the speaker was finished and rebut their claims or agree with them and, by doing so, amplify and reinforce the points being made. It was where the news of the day was shared. It was where people came together in times of crisis and in times of joy and celebration. You don’t have to go back very far into world history to see examples where town squares (or other similar meeting spaces) played significant roles in shaping world events. When I think of such places I immediately remember the Solidarity Movement at the Gdansk Shipyards in Poland. I remember Hong Kong citizens gathering in their downtown core by the thousands to sing songs of revolution from Les Miserables while defying Chinese authorities. I remember environmental activist Greta Thunberg and tens of thousands of those she inspired, all marching together to try to stop climate change from ending life as we know it on our planet. Is there a more well known town square than Times Square in New York City which sees thousands of revelers gather to ring in the new year? Finally, if you have access to news coverage today, what you are witnessing are the mass protests against Israel’s invasion of Gaza and the loss of so many innocent lives. Being able to gather together to share and debate ideas is one of the most fundamentally established of our social behaviours. It is true of cultures all over the world and for a while, it was true on the social media site known as Twitter.
For most of the years between 2007 and 2022, Twitter was my go-to source for news. I can’t tell you the last time I actually read a national newspaper that I was holding in my own hands or when I last watched the CBC or CTV National news before bedtime. This is not to say that I cut myself off from those news sources. On the contrary, organizations such as the CBC had a strong presence on Twitter. So very early on in my time on Twitter, it became increasingly clear that shows such as the CBC National News at 10:00 at night were becoming redundant to me and many others as well. By the time the evening news came on television, most of the content it was broadcasting had already been experienced in real-time throughout the day by Twitter users. This meant that network news shows ended up taking on the role of recapping the news of the day rather than delivering breaking news. This caused these news shows to alter their delivery model in such a way that they spent more time talking about the news than reporting it. The last decade or two has seen the rise of the news commentator as an important participant in the dissemination of information. In many cases, news commentators appear on panels so as to give opposing sides the opportunity to air their views. This has led to a climate of both-sides-ism in which every fact is seemingly up for debate and a consensus on what is real has become increasingly unobtainable. If the basis of good journalism has been a clear and unbiased reporting of the facts of a story then modern television news has done journalism a disservice by creating an atmosphere when facts are allowed to be declared as mere opinions which, when done, allows these “opinions” to be dismissed as fake or biased.
Because television news shows seem to have lost the plot when it comes to their mandate, Twitter became a more relevant and informative route for me to take. It was the absolute best place to be when news events were actually breaking. It was thrilling to find myself involved, so to speak, when events such as the Boston Marathon bombing was happening, for one example. In real time Twitter users came together to connect victims with first responders, they began piecing together (through video clips) what had actually happened and, in doing so, who the bomb suspects were, thus, enabled the tracking of their whereabouts to take place in real time. That is just one news-related example. There were many others along the way. I also enjoyed Twitter during events such as the Academy Awards when so many truly funny and insightful people would be live tweeting the ceremony. I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed my time there. I still consider my time on Twitter to have been well spent. Even though I no longer have an active account, I still miss the experience of being on Twitter. But, having said that, because of the way social media has been weaponized by those seeking to undermine democracy, it was impossible to stay. This leads us to the crucial question: did I simply turn my back and walk away or was there an alternative soft place to land? As it turns out, there was.
I began questioning how Twitter functioned around the time that Donald Trump was campaigning to be U.S. President. Prior to this, there were always loud, passionate voices on Twitter. But I never really minded that because it seemed to reflect the reality of the world I am familiar with. There are leaders and followers everywhere. There are those who enjoy the sound of their own voices, too. That, in and of itself, does not disqualify a website or a society from being important and useful. But as the Trump campaign heated up in 2015 or so, the nature of how those loud voices were being used seemed to change. Debate on Twitter became less about forcefully changing opinion or passionately debating a point of view. Soon it became a means of intimidation. Twitter started becoming a social media site where certain speakers would be targeted in a political sense and ganged up on online. A perfect example of this is former Canadian Energy Minister Catherine McKenna. This is unfortunately far from a unique experience. Many people, especially women and minority group members have gone through the same thing. In the case of McKenna, she came to national prominence in 2015 when the Justin Trudeau government came to power. Initially, the sense was that this government was going to be very progressive in many ways. One of those ways was the appointment of many women into cabinet positions. While this was not the first time a woman has held a position of power in the Canadian government, it did send a message to the rest of Canada that a new regime was in charge and that change was afoot. As we all know, there are some people who adapt to change more easily than others. Many of the very best people I know in this world are women. I think that we might actually stand a better chance at saving the planet if women were in charge of it all but that may just be me. Many others were not like me. Modern politics being what it is, working together across party lines is almost completely unheard of these days. It seems as though an opposition party’s main modus operandi these days is to destroy their rivals whatever the cost. In the case of Catherine McKenna, she was not only a strong woman in a traditionally male-dominated role, her portfolio was one that was charged with helping Canada to transition from a fossil fuel-based resource economy to one based upon green initiatives and renewable energy. Her gender and her policies were seen as threats to the oil industry and, specifically, to the province of Alberta. Therefore, those who sought to oppose her did so in the guise of defending the traditional Albertan way of life. The method they chose to use to attack her was social media. Primarily, it was through Twitter. McKenna maintained an official Government of Canada, Ministry of the Environment Twitter account through which she would publish news releases, photo ops, etc. These tweets became battlegrounds. It didn’t matter if she would tweet about some city getting a new fleet of battery-powered electric buses or that an elementary school somewhere was growing their own food in a garden for school lunches…it didn’t matter at all what the content of her tweets was about or how innocuous they were, each tweet would be met by a barrage of negative comments. Most of the comments were from men or else they were from accounts known as trolls or bots. Trolls could be real people or they could be computer-generated responses. The idea behind the negative accounts was never to convince others of a differing point of view. The sole purpose of the negative response was to silence her voice. Whether the comments were rising from a wellspring of misogyny or were economically based is irrelevant. The point was that they were organized and targeted responses aimed at intimidating McKenna from leading the way forward in a portfolio that was as important to the world as any in the Trudeau government. It was disappointing but not surprising that Catherine McKenna did not run again for re-election in the last federal election. Her voice was effectively silenced. As a country, we are the poorer for it. And like I said, her experience was definitely not unique. Twitter was becoming a very difficult palace for many people to be.
Life on Twitter was becoming problematic for many but it got worse when Elon Musk took over. One of the first things he announced upon taking ownership was that he was going to cut Twitter staff back to bare bone numbers, he was going to reinstate the accounts of many who had been banned for inappropriate behaviour (such as Donald Trump) but, most of all, he was going to demand that users offer up lots of personal identification in order to be recognized as a verified user (as opposed to a troll or a bot account). In reality, he was stripping away many of the security features that had previously existed and yet, was demanding access to the most personal of our information in reply. He asked for our trust that it would be a better Twitter experience for all. I didn’t trust that this would be the case so I closed my account. It was getting harder and harder to stay on a website that was openly making life difficult for so many users. The question wasn’t if I would leave, it was whether or not there was somewhere else to go. Fortunately for me, around the time that Musk was taking over Twitter, users began talking about leaving for a social media site called Mastodon. They said it was a much more civilized version of Twitter and that it was run more as a co-operative rather than being owned by a single owner. Having nowhere else to go, I decided to check it out. This is what I have found out about Mastodon.
This explanation will be helped a lot if you have even a passing familiarity with the TV show Star Trek. If you don’t then that is ok. I will do my best to make it all make sense. But, if you are familiar with Star Trek then you will remember that Captain Kirk or Captain Picard (or whoever was the captain in the version you may have watched) did not navigate their way through outer space on behalf of the United States of America. They did so on behalf of an organization called The United Federation of Planets. The United Federation of Planets was an alliance of a wide variety of planetary inhabitants who all worked together for their mutual benefit. Each planet remained autonomous. Each planet had their own culture, languages and history. All were allowed to exist as they saw fit. One of the overriding “laws” in the United Federation of Planets was that none of the Starfleet spaceships could interfere with events on an allied planet without first being invited to do so. In other words, it was a universe in which the inhabitants of the various planets all acted as one would in our own local neighbourhoods. In those neighbourhoods, we each have our own house. We each basically do as we please within the confines of our homes. We respect our neighbours’ right to live as they see fit in their own homes. We look out for each other, too. This sort of setup is how Mastodon is structured.
Unlike Facebook or Twitter, there is no one person who owns and operates Mastodon. Instead, Mastodon is made up of several hundred individual computer servers called Instances. (I don’t know why they are called that but they are). Each of these servers is dedicated to serving the interests of a particular group. Those interests can be by nationality or by hobby or any number of other things. My home base in Mastodon is on a server called Mstdn.ca, which stands for Mastodon Canada. Most but not all, of the people who have accounts on Mstdn.ca do so because we are Canadian and/or because we have interest in Canadian affairs. However, I am not limited simply to my little part of the Mastodon world. My server is connected to every other server in the same way that the Star Trek planets were all under the umbrella protection of The United Federation of Planets. In this way, I have a news timeline feed (that looks and functions a lot like Facebook and Twitter) for just those accounts I follow, as well as a feed that is made up of posts by all members of Mstdn.ca whether I follow them or not and then, a third and final feed that consists of every account from every server on Mastodon. I watch one feed at a time and can switch between news feeds whenever I desire.
The big difference between how Mastodon is run and how Facebook and Twitter work is that there are no algorithms at play because there is no overload there. My local feed of people that I follow is only ever as busy as it gets because of their activity. For the first few months on Mastodon, it felt as though I had left the hustle and bustle of the virtual town square and had landed in the middle of a public library. It was very calm and quiet and peaceful. My content was filled with people primarily sharing their art and music and poetry and scientific projects than anything else. As time has gone on, I have found more accounts to follow in terms of breaking news and current events. Because of that, there are more people who follow me now, too. I use Mastodon as a pipeline to get my blog posts to the world and am slowly accruing followers there because of a shared love of music and/or storytelling. Mastodon has still not fully become what Twitter used to be for me but it is ok and getting better. It is certainly a much more civilized experience and because of that, it is a very welcoming place to land should Twitter prove to be too much for you.
Way back in the beginning of this post, I stated that there were three ways to respond to how manipulative social media sites seem to be these days: you could stay and suck it up, you could cut the strings from your mittens and simply leave or else you could search for alternative sites that might do the same sort of thing. With regard to Twitter, I have opted to leave that site and try out Mastodon. So far so good. I am hopeful that my Mastodon experience will continue to grow and become richer and more interactive but, for now, I am content to be there and am happy to be as far away as possible from Elon Musk. In tomorrow’s post, I will shine the spotlight back on Facebook and tell you about some of the things that my wife and I have done to combat their ban on news coverage so that we can remain as informed as possible about what is going on in our world. Until then, take care. Bye for now.
The link to the official website for Mastodon can be found here. ***Having said that, if anyone is truly interested in Mastodon and would rather sit down and have me walk you through it all, I would be happy to do so. For now, feel free to try it on for size yourself or have me help, whatever works best for you.
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