A.k.a: Mastodon, Twitter, “engagement”, and designing against addiction

The other day, former Twitter designer Jon Bell wrote this thread on the Fediverse, in which he lays out lessons learned from his time at Twitter, lessons that he thinks and hopes Mastodon and Fediverse generally will learn from. I think it’s worth engaging with seriously, but I also find myself disagreeing on some fundamental motivations.

Bell conflates “good for Twitter-the-business” and “good for Twitter users” in some particular ways. For me, nothing makes it clearer than the phrasing here:

It took THREE YEARS to turn users into “healthy users.” That’s bad.

As near as I can tell (Bell doesn’t define it), “healthy users” means “users who use the site more regularly than some minimum threshold”. That, I think, actually cuts across a very different axis than “healthy/unhealthy”, and to my mind speaks more to “addicted to the site/ not addicted to the site”.

When first I left Twitter, I had already been using Mastodon a bit. But I found that I just wasn’t checking it compulsively like I had been with Twitter. I realized, eventually, that this was good, at least for me. A site that I can choose to use because it offers me value is a lot better than one I compulsively use because someone is benefitting financially from me (and many others) being addicted.

Many others have said, more eloquently than I can, that Mastodon needn’t design entirely towards growth. I think that this is true. Mastodon likewise needn’t design towards addiction.

And yet. And… yet.

The same way we can’t look at an anarchist analysis of power and just say “no, thank you”, we can’t look at this analysis of attention, manipulation, addiction, and say “we don’t want that” without also realizing that mere virtue won’t keep people using the virtuous service, nor preclude other services from arising that, once again, reproduce systems of addiction.

So we can make a moral choice—maybe we should make a moral choice—but we have to recognize that this won’t, itself, win people over. It may in fact sacrifice uptake, leading to more people heading off to other networks, other addiction machines. But I think it will, over time, preserve the ethos that the Fediverse is by and for its users, whichever subset of the population that ends up being.

I think that the there’s incredible value in controlling your own attention and focus, and in keeping a network running that is not controlled by a single company, or even worse, a single individual. Even if we’re never “most of the social internet”, we’ll be there, and we’ll offer something valuable.