Sunday 20 November 2022

Follow the yellow brick road, part 2: How should decisions about new features be made in the fediverse (and based on what data?)

woke up to this exchange on Twitter’s use of user data (and user demands) to develop new features, and it pushed so many of my buttons that it immediately made me cough up this giant hairball. With apologies from the chef.


“Hello I must be going”


“I cannot stay
I came to say
I must be going
I'm glad I came
But just the same
I must be going, la-la!”


The original thread was from a ex-Twitter designer who, on his way out to start a Mastodon sabbatical, gave sage advice to Mastodon co-builders about “listening to its users” when deciding to adopt new features (or not) going forward. Most importantly, he seemed to suggest that a rethink regarding three specific features that currently make Mastodon different from Twitter might become necessary - namely its reverse-chron timeline, the absence of quote tweets, and the absence of algorithmic curation of feeds, i.e suggesting and hiding content from users where the algorithm has decided, based on their previous behaviour, that they are particularly/not interested in it.


Now, I have seen discussions on all of these features in my short time since I joined Mastodon and overall, I love that they are being discussed. I love it because the different perspectives that people bring to the table on each of them allow me to look “under the hood” of each of those features and understand why some people or communities might see them essential while others are vehemently opposed. What I appreciate the most is that those discussions are taking place at all, out in the open, where even non-techies like me can start to understand the basics and where many different communities can and do provide input from their own lived experience.


I’ve been on Twitter for 13 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.


I expect to change my mind several times yet on the desirability of many of the features under discussions, including QTs, CWs etc. I am less certain that my views will change on the algorithmic curation of my feed. I was literally one of the people mentioned in the original post that hated this feature on sight and constantly complained about it and who made it responsible for much of what Twitter has become. I would be desperately sad to see this introduced on Mastodon.


But my view on individual Mastodon features is not why I spent my morning writing this blog post. I’m writing it to pick up on two related things that came out of the original thread and the QT/reply.


Give users what they want


The original poster (an ex-Twitter developer, remember) justified Twitter’s decisions to introduce all of the above features by saying that it was “what 97% of users wanted and thanked us for”.


Taken apart, this statement has three effects, of course. 


1. It justifies design features that were, in practice, introduced by fiat of a centralised authority without much public consultation on the basis that they were really introduced as a response to some sort of majority-based (if unverifiable) verdict. It thus frees Twitter from responsibility for the subsequent negative impact of those features, which arguably contributed to the easier siloing of people into information ghettos, which in turn made them easier targets for disinformation and manipulation of all kinds. With some consequence for democratic discourse.


2. It pitches people against each other by painting the (alleged) 3% percent of Twitter users, who (allegedly) had concerns about these features, as both elitists, who think they are somehow better than the “unenlightened public”, and as dinosaurs, who will ultimately have to bow to the wishes of the majority, if they want their social media space to be successful. Now where have I seen this strategy before?


3. It obscures Twitter’s own motivations for introducing those features, namely fostering an “attention economy” and increasing user engagement, which in turn renders a bigger treasure trove of behavioural data for monetisation and commercial exploitation. Coincidence, surely. Oh look, a squirrel!



Now, I said this before and I am fully aware of how many people will think me elitist for saying so, but what users want is not always what is in users’ best interest.


As a “user” in one sense of the word, many people desperately want to be dependent on A-class drugs, cigarettes, alcohol or sugary snacks. They want to vote for Brexit to “have control” in the face of likely economic carnage, they want to control immigration to protect themselves even if that means asylum seekers in dinghies drowning in the Channel,  and they want the right to refuse to take reasonable precautions in the middle of a pandemic with predictable effects, particularly for the clinically vulnerable, because “free’em”.

Even assuming that giving users what they want was Twitter’s main motivation for introducing these features (narrator: It wasn’t), using “what users want” as your sole or even predominant yardstick for new development is a terrible strategy that opens the door to a majority dictatorship. 

We know all this because we’ve had these discussion before, in the context of our discussions on philosophy, democracy, ethics and human rights. And because we’ve had those discussions, as a society, we look at the consequences that the things “users want” will likely have – for the users themselves and for others – and then we put in place some rules around this (or at least, we used to).

When “what users want” is either detrimental to their interests or the interests of individual “others” (children, partners, etc.) or the community, we impose restrictions. We do this through the various constraints on behaviour at our disposal, law being one of them, and we are mostly very aware that what individual or groups of users want should not be the sole factor we, as a society, take into account in our decision-making. 


So to argue that certain design features on a Social Media site will quite naturally manifest unless elitist designers override “what users want” seems to me quite close to the thinking that was behind the “people are sick of experts” remark so beloved of the UK rightwing. And we all know where that got us,


Personally, as I already said above, I feel that there is a lot of good to be had from the open discussions of the various features and their effects on different communities, because it opens all of us up to different perspectives. What users want should certainly play a part in future development. But so should their motivation for wanting it and the (possibly unintended) negative consequences for heeding them. And I hope that when the decisions are made to adopt or not adopt some of those features, they are made as a result of these – messy, I know – discussions. Not because some central authority decrees it, yes, but also not simply because a majority of users, who may not yet be aware of the longterm implications, “want it”.


If I only had a brain…


Which beings me to the second point the kicked me off this morning, and that is the attitude implicit in the reply (or QT) to the original post.


The poster of that reply expresses a desire to learn from the original thread because the poster was a “Twitter designer” who shared his advice based on a "soak in Twitter's data." There is such longing (for that data) in that remark, it is hard to dismiss it, if you are, like me, a researcher yourself.


And surely, the second poster then goes on to bemoan the fact that outside researchers almost never got access to Twitter’s treasure trove of data because Twitter saw it as proprietary and actively obstructed, for example, independent research on harassment. The poster calls this “a waste”.


And I sympathise, I really do. I have friends in academia, who engage in empirical research and who would often sell their first-born for a chance of doing some work with that kind of data. And not just the raw data Twitter collected, but also – as the second poster highlighted – the results of Twitter’s own  “many thousands of A/B tests”. Releasing those results publicly would, in his view, “ be a valuable project”.

And this “desire for data” is a desire that has already been voiced on my feed with regard to the Mastodon data soon to be generated. How do we secure access to that data for researchers?”, I hear people asking. And I understand the excitement, truly, I do, but I have a question. 

AITA when I say that constantly having my behaviour analysed as part of A/B testing by Twitter without my consent “for research” made me feel like a lab animal and is one of the reasons why I started self-censoring a lot on that platform? Or am I right for taking both an ethics and a lawyers’ approach to this and argue that we must:


·       Challenge (and challenge again after discussions with marginalised communities) our own understanding of what the scope of, and the conditions for, access to public data for researchers should be, and

·       Resist the temptation to use in our own research “fruit from the poisoned tree” (i.e. the results of Twitter’s A/B tests).


I’m very aware that these are questions that many people with more expertise in both empirical research and ethics have discussed for a long and that I’m making my own observations as something of a dilettante savoir. And I get that empirical researchers get excited about the many opportunities for enquiry that these data treasure troves could provide. 

But I can’t help thinking that just asking for the right to do in your project what Twitter itself did behind closed doors is not the “white knight” argument people think it is.  Personally, that is certainly one of the reasons why I have always had such an aversion to projects that were uncritically pushed by “open data” and “data science” prophets, at least where those projects included the use of the personal data of real people.

Don’t pay any attention to the man behind the curtain

What I cherish most about Mastodon so far, is that we as users are intimately involved in the discussion of which features Mastodon should employ. And yes, that is probably down to the structure and the fact that these discussions are happening in smaller communities. This may not scale as more and more people join, and I don’t have a solution to that if I don’t want to be one of those late-arrivals, who wants to pull up the drawbridge behind herself.


But rather than putting my energy into figuring out how we can make Mastodon more like Twitter or pushing to re-create its features because they were what “people wanted”, I’d like to spend that energy on (first) interrogating those features, ALL the motivations for their adoption and also, and most importantly, the research community’s own approach to finding out “what people want” or what is good for them in the first place.


Because “people” is all of us on there, so a more empathic, iterative, discursive, ethnographic, “call and response” approach that involves us not just as objects to be studied but as co-builders and decision-makers may be what we need to develop. 


I don’t know where those on the good ship Mastodon will have sailed it in a few weeks’, months’ or even years’ time. But wherever we may go, I hope we go there intentionally lest we replicate not just all of Twitter’s mistakes but also its method for making them.

[Caption: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful”]


Tuesday 15 November 2022

Turning around a tanker: Digitalisation of services in Europe’s biggest economy


I saw this article by Anke Domscheit-Berg this morning on the ongoing (if glacial) efforts to achieve “Verwaltungsdigitalisierung”  (digitalisation of public services) in Germany and it got me thinking about all the experiences I’ve had since moving here and my absolute disbelief that the biggest economy in Europe still manages to function for people in the digital age.


For those who don’t know this yet, I’m a displaced Kraut, who spent much of her adult life in the UK. As such I was conditioned to see as “normal” whatever the UK does about anything, including digitalisation. This may have clouded my judgement somewhat, so take my musings with a pinch of salt. But here goes.

Digitalisation: How important is the user experience?


Now there are a lot of jokes going around in the UK about that that reference all the ways in which the various UK government’s efforts at digitalisation of its public services went terribly wrong. Overrunning government IT projects, a certain inertia by, and lack of training of, the people required to operate new systems and budgets that end up being nowhere near the figure the project started with are not a uniquely German problem. They all happened in the UK too. 


And I am not a full proponent of “digitise everything”  approaches, given the way in which we have often bought the convenience afforded by digital services for the price of the indisputable short-term and long-term harm they also cause, particularly, to marginalised communities. But purely by living there, I have become accustomed to being able to do most of my everyday tasks online. And then I moved back home and, boy, now I’m on a steep learning curve.


And what I am learning mostly is that, boy, does convenience count for something when you are forced to deal with agencies that have a certain amount of power over your life and the lives of your loved ones. And boy, has the absence of that convenience affected even my own (white, middle-class, well-educated, privileged) experience of living in Germany again. 


“A fax you say? Let me see…”


In fact, it started before I even moved here, in 2018, when my Germany-dwelling mother fell ill and proceeded, for a couple of years, to go in and out of various hospitals. I was often trying to organise these visits from Scotland and what with data protection concerns (sic!) that usually included me having to identify myself to the relevant people in Germany and provide them with documentation both about my mum’s situation and my own right to act on her behalf. At which point I discovered German health trust’s continued and loving relationship with the fax machine. 


You couldn’t email these documents, you see, because that was unsafe. You had to fax them. And the last fax I had had in my life left it around 2009 when the multi-function HP printer I used for that purpose joined its maker. But no matter, I thought. I work for a big UK university. They will have a fax machine somewhere. Well, actually, they do not.


When I approached our all-seeing all-knowing facilities manager with desperation written on my face, I was fortunate that she liked me and shared with me the secret of a rumour she had heard that a certain stationary shop in the vicinity still had a fax machine in the basement that one could commandeer in exchange for coin. She gave me a map to the hidden treasure, and off I went to send a copy of my power-of-attorney to the doctors on the other side, feeling a little like I had just managed to throw the ring into the fires of Mordor. 


The experience played but a small part in the vast collection of reasons that ultimately persuaded me to move back to Germany in the first place. Doing what I had to do for my mum from the UK was hard, and became only harder during the first year of the pandemic. And the absence of digitalisation in Germany was a major factor in that.


Computer says no…!


Equally, the first year after my return went ok mostly because digitalisation of everything back in the UK was fairly advanced and like most people there, I had long managed to “online do” most things. So running a bank account, credit cards, checking up on my pension and complying with my Uni’s rare requests from 1500 miles away all worked fine. And in Germany I had the postal service at my disposal as well as free access to fax machines. Which only goes to show that as long as you live inside of a culture and work within its norms, things will be fine, right?


Well, they were more or less fine until earlier this year, when my mum’s situation got worse and I ended up giving up the job I had taken on over here to be her full-time carer. The (really rather wonderful) German social security system entitled me to an amount of unemployment benefit that (unlike in the UK) a human being can actually afford to live on for a while. However, in order to get that I had to register as unemployed in the town where I was registered to live. And that was in Bavaria, while I was currently 500km up the road, looking after my mother. 


Despite the fact that the German job centre has a very complex and multi-functional website, I was not able to use it for my purposes because of my inability to verify my identity. 


To to use most online government services as a foreigner in Germany most of us need a so-called eID card, which – you guessed it – you can only get by applying for it in the Bürgerbüro of the town where you are registered. So a couple of weeks went by until I had found a respite care place for my mum, which in turn enabled me to drive South to get my own affairs in order. I lost out on a week’s worth of  

unemployment benefit that I had to cover from my savings. Which I was lucky enough to be able to do, but I am keenly aware that not everybody will be in the same situation.


Rules, rules, rules… and exceptions


Time went on and I am now my mum’s official guardian. Which, in practice, means that I have a lot of dealings with the local court that supervises my activities as well as the benefits agency that will likely pay for most of the cost of the care home she is now in (because another wonderful thing about this country is that, unlike the UK, it actually has an extremely good system for financing social care).


In practice, “a lot of dealings” once again translates into “needing to provide a lot of documents” and here is where I obviously have learned nothing from my travels, because I still haven’t bought myself a printer. In my defence, my life has been a bit if a dumpster fire these last few months, so this was not necessarily a priority. But I will not get away without one because reliance on the postal service still rules the world over here and neither the court nor the benefits agency have an online system where I can safely upload the hundreds of pieces of paper that they want from me. 


The Court informed me that guardianship matters are once again even exempt from the right to send documents by email because of their sensitivity. The benefits agency allows email, but the sheer amount of paperwork they need means that with email attachment storage limits being what they are, this forces me to either send endless numbers of emails. 

I once tried to cheat the system by shouting down my inner infosec critic and uploading them to a private cloud provider, sharing the link with the agency. But all that did was to introduce a massive amount of delay into the process because infosec on the other end meant that the employee responsible for my case couldn’t download them and had to get her IT department involved. So now I’m shopping for a printer/scanner.


Non of this is I surmountable, but given how “normal” it used to be for me to just upload stuff to secure (?) government servers, I increasingly resent the energy it costs me. Particularly since non of the options available to me seem in any way more secure and are in most cases more expensive. That has to make a difference to other people too, who do not enjoy my level of economic privilege.


Never knowingly undersold…


My final experience is not actually with a public body but with a credit card provider, but I’m adding it here for entertainment purposes.


I’m a “victim” of the recent decision by the John Lewis Partnership to change the provider that underwrites its credit card. If you are reading this from the UK, you will likely have heard that this meant that they terminated everyone’s contract and required them to apply afresh with the new provider. So, as I am currently sans credit card (which is harder than you think when you live my kind of life), and because I will live here for a while longer, I decided to get a German one.


Fool that I was!


Applying for a card online was easy enough. It is once you are accepted that the fun starts. 


First you need to identify yourself. You do this by downloading an app onto your phone that will hopefully not infect it with spyware and that allows you to upload a picture of yourself together with a picture of your passport into the ether, where it will hopefully be received by the actual credit card provider and not some scammer hell-bent on identity theft (did I mention, I have trust issues?). And then you wait…


In my case it worked and only a few days later I held in my hand a shiny new credit card and the PIN to use it. Easypeasy you will say. But wait! There’s more!


With the shiny new credit card came an “activation form”. A peace of paper that I had to sign and return to the provider in either the pre-paid envelope or by email. The card will not work without being manually activated by the provider after checking that the signature on the form is the same as the signature on your passport (just imagine that being your job).


Reader, I chose email. Sent it off on the same day and then I waited some more. For an acknowledgement that they had received said email, for a confirmation that activation had been successful. Hell, at this point I’d settle for an out of office reply by their chief engineer telling me that he’s currently on holiday in the South of France and he’ll get back to me on his return!


But bupkes! 10 days on now, and my shiny new credit card is still very much both shiny and new, because I have still not been able to use it anywhere. 10 days and counting for something that back in the UK took the time of a phone call to a robot ( and ok, the less said about that, the better. But still!). 

Which is again a very privileged thing to be annoyed about, but l’m mentioning it anyway because it just seems so unnecessary to me to use such a convoluted process for something that could be done in a much more user-friendly way. 



Maybe I’m wrong (won’t you tell me, if I’m coming on too strong?)

Maybe all of these inconveniences are actually worth the security they provide. Maybe the slowness of the German system to adapt to the modern world will ultimately be rewarded because the demanding regulatory framework will stop it from doing things that might turn out to be dangerous mistakes or from creating dependencies that we might all regret. I am genuinely open to that possibility. But could we have both? Security and convenience?


Because what I do know now, is that in many cases the inconvenience that is caused by an absence of digitalisation can affect people’s life nearly as much as badly implemented digitalisation. And I also know that nearly every attempt at digitalisation that I have so far experienced in Germany makes the system somewhere between difficult and impossible to use for either foreigners or anyone with a disability or who is over the age of fifty doesn’t work in tech or tech adjacent. And this matters.


When my mum’s ability to use online banking was all but thwarted by her bank’s clumsy implementation of the new 2FA requirement a few years ago, this meant something to her. Her ability to still look after her own finances despite being all but housebound and cognitively impaired was important for her self-image and her confidence. That one design change by her bank that badly implemented the good intentions of the regulator caused real emotional and psychological harm to at least one elderly lady. She essentially gave up on the internet that day and on everything that that connection to the world had meant to her.


And if the way digitalisation is implemented (or not) has that effect on the likes of her or me, then even without being experts we can surely assume that it has much worse effect on those with a lot less privilege and power. And even for us privileged ones, and even if you are kind of person who doesn’t care about others, there is a good chance that one day, we will all be in a position of less privilege or power, either because we’re getting old, or because we lose our income or because we have to deal with ill health or disability. And that will likely be the day when we will surely regret not resisting design choices that may not disadvantage us now (and that may even benefit us) but that may affect us in the future.


So I agree with Domscheit-Berg. Germany HAS to do better on this. And soon. Because like it or not, technology moves on and there will come a time when the last fax machine has given up the ghost and the last person who knows how to fix it is dead.


I applaud the country for wanting to do this in a super-secure and considered way – if that is indeed what it is trying to do - that (hopefully) secures individual rights of privacy and data protection. But I also see a lot of unwillingness on the part of the old guard to change their ways. And as in the UK, where digitalisation does progress, I also see a lot of systems emerging that are designed to prioritise cost savings rather than secure the rights and improve the experience of both the individuals tasked with delivering public services and those using them.


Tl:dr: when you get to the point where individuals’ rights are equally affected by the absence of digitalisation and by bad design, it’s time for a rethink. Technology should work for us. Not the other way around.

Sunday 13 November 2022

Follow the yellow-brick road: Mastodon and community-focused communication

As those who follow me may have noticed, I have recently moved my social media activity from Twitter to Mastodon. It’s been an interesting process and one that I will probably reflect on pretty continuously over the next few weeks. What strikes me most about the whole thing is how fascinated I am by the way in which the structural decisions that Mastodon’s founders made long ago quite organically shape my own and others’ behaviour over there. 

For me personally, one of the first, rather unexpected, side effects of those structural decisions is my own resolution to use this blog more in the future.


Mastodon, you see, has no functionality for “Quote Tweets”. This is by design, I understand, because on Twitter, it is often those QTs that cause the massive pile-ons that turn into the fights and conflicts that have made the site such a negative, doom-scrolling environment. 


But as someone, who as often used the QT function to start off longer threads on certain topics, it leaves me a little stranded. Mastodon has a thread function,  but if, like me, you also decide to use its CW feature (content warning/content wrapper), threads with a lot of CWs make for a cumbersome reading experience on other people’s feed.  So, I’m trying to instigate a new rule that whenever I find my brain taking off on what would have become a multi-post journey on Twitter, I will try and turn that into a blog post instead. We’ll see, if that works.

The relationship between design and behaviour


What got me started today was this post by Kevin Beaumont, where he highlighted the implications of Mastodon’s decision not to allow plain text search. 

In the absence of that function you must use hashtags to make sure that you post on a certain topic is found by those, who do not follow you. All very 2008 Twitter, some will say (and many have said!). But as with the QTs there is a “sociopolitical” reason behind that feature just as there was behind Twitter’s decision to enable plain-text search. It preserves the privacy of your posts and prevents them from being easily scraped for content.

Which is something I love, but can see that journalists and researchers have an immediate problem with.

But that feature also has a second, and for me more interesting side-effect.


Combined with the fact that Mastodon does not use self-reinforcing algorithms to push already popular posts (or posts by already popular users) in front of users that don’t already follow you by curating their feed, the absence of plain-text search means that users with big followings have no structural advantage – beyond the fact that they already have a lot of followers – that ensures the fast(er) and wide(r) contribution of their posts.


Engagement with your post is therefore earned (by its quality) not driven (by structural features).


Which ultimately means that unlike Twitter, those structural features emphasise bi- and pluryilateral community-building posting strategies over unilateral attention-courting broadcasting ones. By design! Who’d have thunk?


Which, on a personal level, really works for me because that’s how I always tried to use Twitter. 

Brainwave: I used to “mastodon” Twitter

I joined the birdsite in 2009 for the community of academic lawyers that was developing there, and I stayed all these years because of that community. Through ups and downs in my private and work life I mostly used the site to for exchanges with friends and colleagues and the occasional comment on law, politics and who got voted off Strictly Come Dancing. 


I made a decision early on to keep my community small, which meant that I kept the number of people I followed low, meaning that after 13 years, I still followed only 200 accounts. I participated under a pseudonym, meaning that I could never use the site to promote my real-world activities. And I used every feature at my disposal that might defy Twitter’s algorithm: a shortcut some kind soul developed and posted ensured that I could see everyone else’s posts in chronological order and without ads, and my refusal to use hashtags meant that my post were never put in front of anyone, who did not already follow me unless it was retweeted by someone else. 

One consequence of that approach was that I never managed to acquire large follower numbers. But I was good with that. It wasn’t what I was there for.


I ended my Twitter life with just over 1000 followers - with nearly all of whom I had had, at one point or another, a personal exchange. On the upside, I almost never was the target of trolls or caused or was involved in pile-ons despite the fact that I often tweeted about highly controversial topics like trans rights. Pre-Elon Musk, it worked for me.


What I realise now is that I went to some length to create the experience on Twitter that Mastodon gives me by default, simply through its fundamental design. And I wonder why it took me so long to move.

It’s the people, stupid!


And of course the answer to that is easy. Nobody really joins a social media site for the structural features in the first instance. You join for the people. And all my people were on Twitter, so that’s where I went. 

Conversely, what made moving easy these last few weeks, is that a really rather large number of the people I followed on Twitter moved over to Mastodon with me. All of a sudden, the network effect was shifting. So much so that I now feel almost no difference in the experience of using the two sites. 


But at the same time I wonder how the structural differences will affect the “migration decision” of those Twitter users, who use it or have come to use it for promotion of any kind. That includes big name academics, which in turn, includes some of my friends over there, who use Twitter to promote their books or their research more generally. I don’t think many of them started out using Twitter for that purpose, but if I have learned anything these past few weeks, it’s how much the structure of an environment shapes us as people and our own behaviour. 

Community- building v chasing attention


It seems to me that the design of Mastodon, it’s decision not to use algorithms to push content, to use a chronological timeline and to disable plain-text search, means that it tries to create a community-building environment where interactions between people primarily come from the context of what is being discussed. What you say is supposed to be more important than who you are. 


It is specifically trying to put brakes on a development where an individual accounts gets to be a louder voice in the public square by default once they have crossed a certain threshold. You can become that louder voice as you “earn” yourself more followers. But the system itself won’t help you by privileging your posts in any other way.

And this is where, in my view, a move to Mastodon will not only require getting used to a new technical environment. For many Twitter users, it will require in change in their mindset, their attitude and, maybe, their reasons for using social media in the first place.

Barriers to migration for “big name” accounts: some thoughts


So will someone with 20k+ followers, who is used to their tweets being seen by 50k or more people because of algorithmic preferencing, be willing to move to a place where, not only, will they have to re-build their networks from scratch, but where, going forward, they lose their existing privilege of preferenced distribution?


I image it depends on how you define what social media means to you.  I have seen posts by some people with large follower numbers on Twitter, who managed to re-build sizeable networks quite quickly. However, even though their follower numbers are large in terms of what is “normal” on Mastodon, those numbers still fall far short of those they used to have on Twitter.


This includes, for example, legal blogger David Allen Green (20,000 Mastodon followers compared to 237,000 followers on his Twitter account), actor Stephen Fry (48,000/12.5 million), and author Neil Gaiman (36,358/3 million). So, purely on the size of your audience, this is quite a drop-off.


Yet, interestingly, some larger accounts have also reported that despite the decrease in follower number, “engagement” with their posts – in terms for boosts (“RTs”) and favourites (“Likes”) is actually up. This may be because many Mastodon users do nit yet follow as many people on their as they did on Twitter, so the chance of them being exposed to your post may be bigger. Meaning that this may change as Mastodon grows.

However, many, like me, also actively enjoy the (so far) more cooperative spirit of their new home, not to mention the fact that they, to varying extents, want to remove themselves from the kind of Twitter that Musk is clearly trying to create. 


Still, despite all the pioneer spirit that is currently around, it has to be a punch right in the ego to have to start again from scratch. And of course, some big accounts are still also using Twitter - either as their main platform or as a redirect through cross-posting – because they aren’t yet quite ready to leave their follower numbers or their communities behind.

The future is…?

We will see how this develops. My own approach has been that I still check Twitter occasionally for stuff that Mastodon does not (yet) provide me with but that I make a concerted effort not to post there anymore unless it is about the migration to Mastodon. I expect that, if my tribe sticks with Mastodon, over time, Twitter will become an irrelevance in my life. But for the reasons already mentioned above, I also know that this was easier for me than for many others.


What fascinates me at this stage, is simply the way in which so many people reflect on their own reasons for using social media in the first place, and the way in which we all slowly recognise how much the structure of Twitter has shaped who or what we have become on there.


To see so many people unravel that for themselves, and to see so many attempt to get back to another version of themselves is, for me, Mastodon’s most attractive feature at this point.

Thursday 15 September 2022

The Queen is dead, and as I start writing this, scores of people are sacrificing hours of their precious life to stand in an Edinburgh queue that goes up the Royal Mile, across George IV Bridge, past Old College and around the Meadows to see her dead body lying in state in St Giles’ Cathedral. And I am sitting here, a thousand miles away, thinking that the mention of those places around the Scottish capital evoke more of a nostalgic feeling in me than the Queen’s passing ever did. What is wrong with me, I wonder? 

I admit that I felt a pang of something when I first heard the news. On the side of human emotion it was a sadness for the passing of an elderly woman, who, as many people pointed out, had evolved into “the nation’s granny”. Having been close to my own grandmother, I have a soft spot for grannies. And the picture of the Queen as the nice old lady with the marmalade sandwich in her handbag is certainly comforting of sorts. So, sadness-by-proxy? 

But the more persistent feeling I got when hearing about her passing was more similar to how I felt when I first watched footage of planes flying into the Twin Towers all those years ago. I can still remember that among all the shock and horror and sorrow for those, who lost their lives that day, was one clear thought that I just could not shake off – try as I might - as part of me desperately sought to join others in the lived experience of their grief. And that thought was 

“Oh my God, what are they going to get away with on the back of this?” 

I can't help it. It's the part of me that will forever be something of a “Cassandra” that informs my own personal threat model. And that meant that, for me, the existential fear that enveloped me that day was not the fear of Islamic terror, which – while an undeniable reality – I felt was still highly unlikely to ever affect me in real life unless I was truly unlucky. My predominant fear was the fear of the US government’s reaction to the attack. Because the place from which that reaction would come was the real centre of power. Power over people like me, that is, and over those more vulnerable than me. And that power, if it could be unchained from the constraints of accepted standards and conventions, was more frightening to me than the idea of being caught, at some point, in a burning building or a bombed out underground station. And there is nothing like a "constitutional moment" to do the unchaining.

Now, I know that quite a few people, who read this, will find this way of looking at things highly offensive because it violates what they perceive as a common standard of decency. Just as the US customs officer did when - having initially thanked us for still visiting the US when we arrived in San Francisco a few days after the attack - took offence when we reassured him that as (then) Londoners, we would not be deterred from living our lives by a terrorist attack. It was the term "terrorist attack" that set him off. Because for him, this was not “just” a terrorist attack, this was act of war against the US itself and all that it stood for. And we learned pretty quickly that minimising that sentiment while on US soil would place us firmly on the side of the “enemy”. 

In much in the same way, it seems, people are currently offended by those, who do not mourn the Queen in the way they feel is necessary and appropriate. But I stand by what I said in a recent Twitter rant: my own threat model is not the end of the stability that the Queen provided or or the fact that thing may now change from the "the way they have always been in my lifetime”. It is instead – again - the fear of what they may possibly be able to get away with on the back of this”.

The exploitation of grief for political aims

Certainly, the authoritarian response to, say protesters in Edinburgh, Oxford and London, does not bode well for the future of a country that faces the kind of problems the UK currently faces. 

But more than that, it is the exploitation of grief – whether real or manufactured - as a means for self-policing, as a means to make dissent “inappropriate”, that I fear. It’s the prospect of that grief subtly being channelled into the kind of numbing "patriotism" that allows governments to get away with literal murder, while they keep their populace in a trance of comforting satisfaction with its own self-image. Britain has form in this, as Nasrine Malike highlights in this Guardian piece much better than I ever could. 

But unlike Nasrine, I cannot muster the confidence that the Queen’s death will force the country and its people to face the “imperfections” of its national psyche. Judging from everything I am observing so far, I fear the opposite will happen. Specifically, I fear that – just as happened with the US in 2001 - we will be faced with a Britain that embraces the idea of its own exceptionalism with even more quasi-religious fervour than before. 

Because that’s what we are encouraged to do by every news story in every media outlet that requires us to pledge allegiance to an idea of Britain that no longer exists, if indeed it ever really existed. It is, as historian Dan Snow hinted at in this interview, likely one of the reasons why so much is made in the British media of the sheer number of people currently queuing in London, to see the Queen's body. "Look!", they will say, "look at the outpouring of grief among the people. They love her, so whatever she stood for must have been right to engender such love." But what did she actually stand for but the pomp and circumstance that protects an establishment that has been desperate to protect its position as "ruler" in the face of an increasing unwillingness of the ruled to grant them that power?

Be afraid! Be very afraid!

So rather than feeling sadness at the Queen's passing, it scares the bejesus out of me that criticism of that establishment is now portrayed as disrespect for "a little old lady, who never did anyone any harm" (didn't she?). 

I am scared when I watch people standing by when police “protect the peace” by arresting those, who exercise their right to dissent. 

I am scared when I see snipers being placed on the roof of the Scottish parliament in a show of force. 

I am scared when even countries like my own get in on the action with wall-to-wall coverage about how much the British loved their bejewelled nana, and isn’t it just lovely and wouldn’t it be nice, if we could all be like that? 

I am scared when, for several days, my Twitter feed mostly consists of weepy statements by otherwise clear-thinking regime critics of "how much this has affected them" (insert surprise at own depth of feeling) and who all of a sudden think nothing of retweeting puff pieces about the Queen’s noble spirit, her sense of humour, her love for her dogs and her family (in that order, it seems), and her ability to hold the country together. It scares me because I know in my bones that what her job really entailed was the protection and reinforcement of a British (English?) self-image as basically a good, kind and generous people that want to get along with their neighbours (if only said neighbours weren’t so goddamn obnoxious or so childlike that they constantly needed saving from themselves). 

Using grief as intellectual curare

And I particularly feel that fear when even a liberal commentator like Ian Dunt tweets that he unfollowed people, presumably for showing support for US academic Uju Anja’s right to free speech when she in turn tweeted that she wished the Queen an “excruciatingly painful death” for her role in the colonisation and enslavement of people in Trinidad and Nigeria, her parents’ countries of origin. 

You can think whatever you want about that tweet. Agreed, it wasn't a particularly nice thing to say. But personally, I disagree with Ian Dunt when he says that it doesn’t make a difference if you’re on the side of the marginalised when you tweet something like that. I think it makes a great deal of difference, but that’s another blog post entirely and maybe not even one that I, as a white woman, should be writing. 

But the fact that, as a self-proclaimed liberal, you unfollow people you yourself rate as “decent campaigners and academics” for expressing this kind of support for the right of a marginalised person to speak her own pain, scares me more than I can say, because it is so symptomatic of the kind of intellectual curare that we are currently being injected with, just so that we can cling on to that picture of ourselves as empathic human beings, who want to feel kind and generous at all cost. But kind and generous to whom? 

It always starts with the flag

I expect that I feel this fear primarily because, as a German of a certain age, who was trained in "Vergangenheitsbewältigungalmost from the moment I left the womb, I will always be suspicious of this kind of exploitation of emotion. Equally, as a person of a certain age, who has lived through the period following 9/11, I have already spent years witnessing first-hand an entire country's grief being instrumentalised to shore up uncritical support for the human-rights violating actions of its war- and power-hungry government. 

Then, as in 1933, as now, it started with people wrapping themselves in the flag like it was a form of adult comfort blanky. And not just that. This "personal act" comes with an expectation that everyone else is not just ok with you doing that, but that they have to respect and salute salute you for it, even as that flag had been and would be used to justify untold atrocities.  

All of which reminds me of an article US author Barbara Kingsolver published just after 9/11, in which she tried to reclaim her flag from those "patriots" who claim to stand for US values but who oppose “the lone representative of democracy, who was brave enough to vote her conscience [with regard to the PATRIOT ACT] instead of following an angry mob.” In that article, which came across to me at the time as a clear-sighted analysis in another sea of critical minds gone AWOL, she specifically criticises the kind of patriotism that “threatening free speech with death”. That kind of patriotism, she says, “is infuriated by thoughtful hesitation, constructive criticism of our leaders and pleas for peace”. And for those kind of "patriots “the American flag stands for intimidation, censorship, violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia and shoving the Constitution through a paper shredder”.

She was right, of course. 

(Re)capture the flag?

But reading the article again now, it occurs to me just how much she is, nevertheless, still attached to that flag even as she criticises what she sees as its misuse. So much so that she sees it as her own "patriotic" duty to “recapture [it] from the men now waving it in the name of censorship and jingoism.” And I just don’t know, if that is possible if you ever want to move forward. 

After 1945, Germany changed its flag from the old red, black and white to black, red and gold. It retained its national anthem but decided that, from then on, only the third verse would be sung. Both, the flag and the anthem predated the Nazi regime by several decades. But the decision was taken nonetheless, because it was felt that both had become powerful signifiers of the ideology of Arian supremacy that the Nazis used to justify the genocide that Germans had committed. Germany made a break with its national symbols because even though they had not been created with that supremacy and genocide in mind, they were now inextricably attached to it. 

So, in today's Germany, the people, who still insist on proudly flying the old flag or promoting the old insigniae are not just innocent history buffs. Just like those people flying the Confederate flag don't do so to celebrate Scarlett O-Hara being a Southern Belle with a lot of beaus. Their allegiance to those particular flags and symbols means something. 

Specifically, it means that they are unwilling to accept responsibility for the atrocities that were committed in the name of those insigniae. It means an unwillingness to see those atrocities (assuming they acknowledge the fact that they were atrocities) as a meaningful part of the history of the country they inhabit today. It means that they do not feel compelled, to learn from that history, to account or provide compensation for it. And most importantly, those who proudly demonstrate their continued attachment to those flags, clearly also still identify with current meaning for those that were harmed in its name  - namely a reflection of their own perceived supremacy and exceptionalism and of the continued subjection and unworthiness of others. 

Cannot the same be said about a – however fond, nostalgic and emotional attachment to the Crown and it’s insigniae? And shouldn’t the fact that, in the UK today, we are still not allowed to say it, bother us more? 

"At least I'm [insert exceptionalist concept of your choice]"

The UK is at the precipice of a dangerous period in its history. Scarcely protected by its unwritten gentlemen’s agreement of a Constitution at a time when there is a notable absence of gentlemen (and women) among its political and corporate class, their unchecked greed and contempt for those outside their own circles risks hurtling us all towards possible societal collapse. This is rarely good news for those whom “the law binds but does not protect”, but sometimes it is also not good news for their rulers. History has shown, after all, that a fair few “Let-them-eat-cakers” ended up losing their head. 

However, history has also shown that giving people something to not just feel good about but to feel “better than” about, can unite them in a way that stifles resistance to those actually causing them harm. It has also shown that providing a distraction at a dicey point in the proceedings can be a lifesaver for those in power, who might otherwise be called to account. 

If it is true that humans can only feel six emotions of which only one - “joy” - is a positive one (and hence one that leads to the affirmation of the status quo), and if it is also true that we are led by our emotions but are limited in the amount of emotion each of us can actually feel at any one time, then manipulating people's emotion for one's own benefit is a powerful tool to wield. So, if an otherwise ineffective and abusive government can orchestrate it so that people's sadness (over the Queen’s passing) replaces their anger (over said government’s lack of action in relation to the cost-of-living crisis), and if it can then gently turn that sadness into joy (over having a new King and because they are now once again assured of their own superior status as the citizen of a "Great" nation), then it will have pulled off a remarkable feat of manipulation that might just about allow that government to save its bacon even while it fries theirs. 

So ... what are they going to get away with on the back of this this time, I wonder? When we’re not looking because we’re distracted? When our natural empathy pre-disposes us to feel kindly also towards those that would harm and "other" us? When our defences are weakened purely because we are humans, who fear change and crave comfort and safety and familiarity? And when we are vulnerable to having those feelings exploited by those who seemingly have no scruples? 

I have no answer to this. But I just cannot get away from this Cassandra-like feeling that we’re being played here in a way that we will all come to regret.