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Life after Twitter: has the next major internet shift begun?

Decentralized social networking for Marketing and PR pros

We are, once again, living through weird times.

For the past decade, the blue checkmark on Twitter (the platform) served as a reliable badge of verification and authenticity. Twitter (the company) was the arbiter of these virtues, doling out checkmarks to celebrities, creators, politicians, athletes, brands, and journalists. While the process of verification was opaque, journalists from reputable publications were routinely promoted to verified status.

For many in social media marketing and public relations, verification was also shorthand for “influence” – a symbol of being worth listened to. I’ve set up dozens of social listening programs for the likes of Walmart, Nintendo, Samsung, Dell, PepsiCo, Unilever, McDonald’s and even the Pope. Every one of them included some extra priority in responding to tweets from verified users.

But now anybody with eight bucks can buy a blue checkmark. This has been a nightmare for the PR and social media teams at companies who were impersonated by verified accounts with similar names, including Eli Lilly, PepsiCo, Nestle, Nintendo, McDonald’s, Lockheed Martin and even Tesla. It doesn’t take a trust barometer to know people’s trust in Twitter (the company and the platform) has fallen dramatically since Elon Musk’s purchase. Our counsel to AxiCom clients aligns with the reported guidance from every major holding company: Twitter is not currently a brand-safe platform. We recommend indefinitely pausing paid campaigns, organic 1:many posts, and proactive 1:1 engagement, while continuing with reactive 1:1 community management and customer service. A platform that was once part of the foundation of brand social, along with Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, is no longer – at least for now.

How did we reach the point where a single eccentric billionaire can severely damage one of the most impactful communications technologies in history?

We got here by centralizing control of the Internet within a handful of companies:

  • Twitter decides who’s important by verifying users
  • Google decides what we find when we search by ranking web pages and YouTube videos
  • Facebook decides what finds us through the algorithmic newsfeed

We freely handed over this control because these companies made it easier to find, use and consume information – and connect with each other – over the Internet. We trusted them because they created order from the chaos of the earlier version of the web. We no longer had to type “https://” or learn the complicated machinations of Internet Relay Chat. The tradeoffs for simplicity were privacy (we users are not the customer – the companies advertising on these platforms are) and experiencing the internet through the lens of these companies – they decide who’s important, what we find, and what finds us. Today’s Internet of walled garden apps is more like AOL than the World Wide Web.

But technology trends have forever been a pendulum between open and closed systems, and I think the next swing is coming soon.

Open Systems

Decentralized: Anyone who follows the spec (i.e. W3C) can add themselves to the network (i.e. build a website) by setting up their own server

Interconnected: Each server operator can decide if the community they host is connected to others or not

Owned land: The person, brand or organization who operates the server gets to decide who its users are, if they charge a fee, etc.
Closed Systems

Centralized: A service provider decides who is and isn’t allowed to add themselves to the network

Closed off: Many social media sites are full of screenshots of other social media sites because there’s no way to easily share posts between platforms

Rented land: Users (people, brands, news outlets) are only able to use the system if and when the service provider allows them.

70s-90s: swing open

Online culture started in a meaningful way via independently operated dialup bulletin board systems (BBS) first launched way back in 1978. The software was mostly free, open-sourced or widely pirated. As a middle-schooler, I briefly ran a BBS from my home computer on the second home phone line my parents leased because I was “on the computer too much.” My BBS was able to serve one dialed in user, plus me, at a time.

80s-90s: swing open to closed

By the early 90s, the BBS scene had mostly died out in favor of the massive online service known as America Online, launched in 1985. At one point, AOL used the entire world’s compact disc production capacity for several weeks to make its ubiquitous free trial CDs.

90s-00s: swing closed to open

By 1997, half of US homes with Internet access had it through a dial-up AOL account. Then home broadband came along, and people decided they no longer cared about the walled garden experience of AOL and ditched it for high-speed access to the open Internet.

00s-10s: swing open to closed

Many attempted to organize the Internet through human editorial processes, such as Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web, launched in 1994 and later rebranded as Yahoo! Google disrupted and dominated the space through its innovative automated web crawling and page ranking technologies. Today, more than 90% of Internet searches start with Google, and increasingly, Google displays third-party data directly within its search results instead of linking out, keeping users within its walled garden, much to the chagrin of website operators like Yelp.

10s-20s: swing closed to… even more closed

When the Apple iPhone popularized apps for mobile phones over websites, the walls of the walled gardens got higher. Instead of a broad Google search, shopping might start directly within the Amazon app. Smart home appliances put up their own walls. If you want to listen to your own collection of music files (not from a streaming service), it’s highly complicated to setup for one device and impossible for whole-home audio because Amazon won’t provide the same API access to companies like Plex they do to companies like Spotify. They protect the walled garden.

Now: swinging closed to open?

Tech brought us here, and tech may have already developed a way out – or several. Twitter (the platform) is a microblogging and social networking service that has transformed how news is covered, how politicians campaign, and, perhaps most importantly, how we as a nation come together to watch “The Bachelor.” For all its warts, Twitter delivered a lot of value over the past 6,000+ days since its launch.

Enter the Mastodon

While I eagerly await Dorsey’s play, the platform that’s caught my eye most has been Mastodon – precisely because it delivers much of what I understand to be Dorsey’s future vision for a Twitter-like service today.

Since Musk purchased Twitter, hundreds of thousands have joined, including many journalists and academics. Mastodon is not a service company like Twitter, but is instead a piece of free, open-source software that anyone can use to host and run its own self-contained microblogging and social networking service. Remember the BBS mentioned above? From the 70s-90s? Yeah, it’s kind of like that.

Each Mastodon server can stand alone or join the federated network of Mastodon servers called the Fediverse. I can’t help thinking of Kevin Federline every time I see that phrase, but that may say more about me than you or it. The Fediverse is like a version of Twitter (the platform) that runs over a huge, distributed network of independent service providers instead of being run by Twitter (the company).

When you sign up to use Mastodon, you don’t “sign up for Mastodon,” you sign up to join a specific server. It’s a little like registering an email address in that you pick your provider. It even looks like an email address, but with an extra @ in front of the username, just to be fancy. The format is @username@provider. So just like I’m [email protected] for email, I’m @[email protected] for Mastodon. My colleague Lisa Sullivan is @[email protected]. But we can still reply to each other’s posts and direct message each other between servers over the Fediverse. I cringe again typing Fediverse. But it’s all automatic. You don’t even have to say the word Fediverse ever.

I don’t know if Mastodon will be successful. Today, it feels like learning a new language, and the signup process isn’t easy. The UX is not as slick on web or mobile as Twitter or other apps with billions of VC dollars to invest in top-tier professional designers. Announced in October 2016, Mastodon was created by Eugen Rochko and is a registered nonprofit organization. Its development is crowdfunded through corporate sponsorships and Patreon. Most Mastodon servers are run by volunteers or relatively small companies, though former president Trump’s Truth Social in fact runs on Mastodon software (and got in a bit of trouble for not releasing its source code until pressured with a lawsuit threat).

Multiple approaches to community and verification

As described above, the Twitter verification process was almost completely opaque before it was offered up for sale at $8 per month. Like using Mastodon, getting verified on Mastodon today is a little techie for most people. To verify that you are who you say you are, Mastodon requires you to place a small amount of code on a website that you own linking to your Mastodon profile page. The link to your website then shows up on your profile in green highlight with a checkmark next to it. So, for example, if you trust that my personal website brianpatricksnyder.com is mine, you can then trust that my @[email protected] account is me. The danger in this is that a bad actor could set up a fake website like brian-snyder.net and place code on it to “verify” a fake account like @[email protected]. Self-verification sounds good in theory, but it has some challenges that a centralized authority like Twitter (the company) does not.

Some organizations are sprouting up as potential successors to Twitter (the company) in verifying users. JournaHost is a volunteer group of journalists who manage the journa.host Mastodon server with financial backing from the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, CUNY. The organization is seeking 501(c)3 status.

More than 2,400 journalists, including college football reporter Nicole Auerbach @[email protected], MSNBC host Medhi Hasan @[email protected] and Columbia Journalism School dean Jelani Cobb @[email protected] are all on Mastodon via JournaHost.

The New York Times reports “Planet Money” podcast founder Adam Davidson developed the community as a “reliable home for journalists.” Davidson serves as a moderator along with nine volunteers who verify new members. “To verify journalists are who they say they are, we are developing a set of protocols that allow journalists to confirm their identity, so that admission to journa.host signals that members are, indeed, verified journalists” according to the JournaHost “about” page.

Notably, a few PR pros have been rejected by JournaHost for working in public relations. No, I wasn’t one of them. But in these rejections, we can find opportunity.  

I could see a future where every organization/company runs its own Mastodon server as a way to verify the identities of its members/employees. Just like I’m [email protected] for work email, I could be @[email protected] or even @[email protected] on Mastodon if our agency’s parent, WPP, were to open a server at the holding company level. That way, if you see a post from me on Mastodon, you know that my identity has been verified by my employer.

A brand BUILDING opportunity

Pun intended with that header. An old adage from digital marketers goes like this: “don’t build on rented land.” Remember how many brands invested in building social followings (FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK) only to see their “free” organic reach shrink to nothing?

When you start an account on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Tiktok, etc, you’re on rented land. Those companies can take away your organic reach, your verified badge or your entire account at any time. The open-source nature of Mastodon makes starting your own social network an act of building on your own land. Once you start a Mastodon server, you can do whatever you want with it. You decide what content is allowed and not allowed. You decide who can and cannot have an account. You decide if your social network connects to others via the Fediverse or not. You even control to what servers in the Fediverse your server connects. When servers cater to extreme and/or illegal communities, their members are sometimes banned from connecting with other servers in the Fediverse. With the great power of operating a Mastodon server comes the great responsibility of moderating its content. If you let your users run amok, your server will be blocked from others and find itself an island in the Fediverse.

Brands like eBay, Microsoft and Dave Matthews Band already host and moderate their own forums on software like Khoros, but those forums aren’t interoperable, and your identity doesn’t follow you from one to another. Brands like Gucci have opened their own Discord “servers,” but Discord is also rented land. Even the phrase “Discord server” is a misnomer because Discord is, like Facebook or Twitter, both a platform and a company. Discord makes the rules and can change them at any time. Mastodon solves the problems of interoperability, identity and independence through its decentralized network design.

While we’ve been talking about Mastodon as a potential Twitter successor, the opportunity is much broader. The technology powering Mastodon and the Fediverse also serves as the foundation for other decentralized social networks. Pixelfed is a decentralized reimagining of Instagram, PeerTube a decentralized YouTube, and so on. None of these platforms have yet attracted anything close to a critical mass of users, but all are worth keeping an eye on if you’re a creative technologist or social media marketer.

Web3: The Next Big Thing™️

Ethereum cofounder Gavin Wood coined the phrase “Web3” in 2014 shortly after launching the Ethereum cryptocurrency because he needed to describe a solution to Web 2.0’s problem of trust. For Web 2.0 (today’s read-write web of social networking and content sharing) to function, users need to place great trust into the hands of a few “Big Tech” companies. Trust to keep our usage data safe and private. Trust to not start charging for what was previously free. Trust to responsibly shield the public from misinformation. That’s a lot of trust to put in a small handful of profit-motivated companies with demanding shareholders. As we’ve seen with backlash to Elon Musk’s Twitter, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook/Instagram, and myriad customer data hacks and leaks, trust in Big Tech has eroded significantly.

Decentralization solves Web 2.0’s trust problem by taking control away from Big Tech and redistributing it among builders and users across an open network. If I see a journalist on Mastodon with an @journa.host address, I will trust that JournaHost verified them. I won’t have to trust the company selling blue checkmarks to anyone at $8 a pop.

You’ve probably heard the term “decentralization” closely associated with other web3 concepts like blockchain, cryptocurrency and NFTs. But a decentralized web3 concept does not necessarily require blockchain, cryptocurrency or NFTs. Mastodon and other Fediverse-connected independent, autonomous networks running on free, open-source software are prime examples of how web3 can change the Internet for the better going forward.

Much like the concept of the metaverse, we are at the very early stages of Internet decentralization. Mastodon and other Fediverse services are difficult to join and use. The user experience on the web and across mobile apps isn’t as slick or usable as the for-profit platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. In those UX issues lies opportunity for innovative companies, brands, users and creators to build valuable services on this technology.

What’s in it for me as a marketer?

Many early takes on Mastodon say the platform is not yet suited for brands to reach audiences because:

  • It’s difficult to use. This is 100% true, but as the initial audience was developers and web3 enthusiasts, Mastodon today has a “by geeks for geeks” feel to it. That could change over time if/when brands and companies identify opportunities to create valuable experiences for non-geeks on the platform.
  • It’s not a like-for-like Twitter clone. I don’t think this is the issue others make it out to be. Even in its current form, Mastodon makes some major improvements on Twitter from an end-user perspective. For example, Mastodon provides an easy way to mark a post or media as sensitive, presenting viewers with a descriptive content warning and choice about what they see.
  • Discoverability is limited. Another end-user benefit that some feel hampers brands is the lack of an algorithmic feed. All posts are presented in reverse-chronological order. Posts receiving more engagement are neither boosted nor marked as such. That makes the emphasis more on real conversation versus engagement-bating. Same goes for Mastodon’s lack of full-text search. Sure, this limits brand social listening relative to Twitter, but it also prevents some trolling. Hashtags reclaim their relevance as the primary discovery methodology. 
  • There’s no paid amplification. Because Mastodon is fully decentralized, there’s no profit-driven company at its center, and therefore no paid advertising at all. While interruption advertisers and media buyers may see this as a shortcoming, from a PR perspective, an all-organic social media platform is full of opportunities.

Brand Opportunities on Mastodon

All the classic organic Twitter marketing techniques could be as or more effective on Mastodon if/when the userbase reaches critical mass:

  • Create and publish brand content that people actually want to see
  • Engage like a real person, not a nameless faceless corporation
  • Follow relevant hashtags and participate in a way that adds value to the conversation
  • Host contests and competitions
  • Cover events relevant to your target audience using event hashtags
  • Partner with creators and influencers to co-create authentically useful brand content

Google appears to be the first brand on Mastodon in a meaningful way, and while they haven’t yet done much, they are taking a very people-first approach to the platform with search liaison Danny Sullivan extending his 150K follower @searchliaison Twitter account to Mastodon, where @[email protected] has nearly 4K followers as of this writing.

If you’re interested in launching a brand presence on Mastodon, I’d love to chat. You can find me on Mastodon @[email protected], and my @bsniz Twitter account, active since April 2007, will be there until the platform shuts down, if it ever does.

What’s most important is for creative technologists and brand leaders to not put all our eggs in one basket. Remember Second Life? Many brands and agencies thought that would change the world, and some invested a fortune before finding themselves chasing a technology that never caught on. We will have many false starts and course corrections as the next phase of the Internet takes shape. As creative technologists and modern marketers, it’s on us to keep pushing and exploring decentralized social networking alongside other web3 innovations to seek new, effective and efficient ways to earn our clients’ place in business and culture.

Written December 4, 2022 by