Joining a New Social Media Platform Does Not Make Sense

Mastodon is what’s happening in India right now. Indian Twitter users are moving to the platform and have taken to using hashtags such as #CasteistTwitter and #cancelallBlueTicksinIndia. A key reason for this to transpire is that Twitter has been, to put it mildly, less than perfect, in moderating content in India. There is the incident with lawyer Sanjay Hegde that caused this to blow up, along with accusations that Twitter had been blocking hundreds and thousands of tweets in India since 2017 with a focus on accounts from Kashmir.

Enter Mastodon. The platform, developed by developer Eugen Rochko, is opensourced, so no one entity gets to decide what content belongs on the communities there. Also, the data on Mastodon is not owned by one single corporation, so you know that your behavior on there is not being quantified and being sold to people who would use that to profile and target you.

Plus, each server (community) has a relatively small size with a separate admin, moderator, and by extension, code of conduct. All of this sounds wonderful. The character count is also 500 words as opposed to 280 (if that is the sort of thing you consider to be an advantage).

Mastodon is moving the needle forward by a significant increment when it comes to social networking. The idea is for us to move towards a future where user data isn’t monetised and people can host their own servers instead. As a tech enthusiast, that sounds wonderful and I honestly wish that this is what Twitter should have been.

Keeping all of that in mind, I don’t think I will be joining Mastodon. Hear me out. A large part of it is not because Mastodon does not have its own problems, let’s set that aside for now and move on to the attention economy. Much like how goods and services compete for a share of your wallet, social media has for the longest time been competing for attention and mind-space. Because the more time you spend on the platform, the more ads you will see and the more money they will make. No wonder it is so hard to quit Instagram and Facebook.

Joining a new platform for social media today is an investment that does not make sense unless the other one shuts down. There is a high chance of people initially quitting Twitter, only to come back to it while being addicted to another platform. The more platforms you are on, the thinner your attention is stretched. That is objectively bad for anyone who thinks they spend a lot of time on their phone.

If you’re lucky to be one of the few people who do not suffer from that and are indifferent to the dopamine that notifications induce in your brain, this one doesn’t apply to you. Then there is the network effect and inertia. I for one, am for moving the needle forward little by little. But here, there is little to gain right now, with more to lose.

Network effects are when products (in this case, platforms), gain value when more people use them. So, it makes sense for you to use WhatsApp and not Signal, as all your friends are on WhatsApp. Similarly, it makes sense for you to be on Twitter as your favorite celebs and news outlets are on there. Mastodon does not have the network effect advantage, so most people who do not specifically have their network on Mastodon, do not get a lot of value out of using it.

In addition, there is inertia. Remember when we set aside Mastodon’s problems earlier, here is where they fit in. Mastodon is not as intuitive as using Twitter or Facebook. That makes it a deal-breaker for people of certain ages and also happens to be a significant con for people who don’t want to spend a non-trivial chunk of their time learning about servers, instances, toots, and so on.

There also isn’t an official Mastodon app, however, there are a bunch of client apps that can be used instead, most popular among them is Tusky, but reviews will tell you that it is fairly buggy and that is to be expected. There is so much right with Mastodon. It is a great working example of the democratisation of social media. It also happens to exist in an age where it would be near impossible to get funding for or to start a new social media platform. The problem is that for people who don’t explicitly feel the need or see the value in joining Mastodon, are unlikely to split their attention further by joining a new platform. The switching costs, network effects, and inertia are simply too high.

Rohan is a policy analyst at The Takshashila Institution and the co-author of Data Localization in a Globalized World: An Indian Perspective.

This article was first published in Deccan Chronicle.