By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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A lawsuit aims to let Facebook users turn off the News Feed

Mark Zuckerberg, defender of the algorithm. Photo (cc) 2016 by Alessio Jacona.

Imagine that you could log onto Facebook and not be exposed to that infernal, endlessly scrolling News Feed. Imagine, instead, that you could visit your friends and groups as you wished, without any algorithms to determine what you get exposed to. That’s what Facebook was like in the early days — and it’s what it could be like again if a lawsuit filed by longtime internet activist and researcher Ethan Zuckerman succeeds.

Zuckerman has developed a tool called Unfollow Everything 2.0, which would allow users to unfollow their friends, groups and pages. This wouldn’t change who you’re friends with, which means that you’d have no problem checking in with them manually; you can, of course, do that now as well. No longer, though, would everything be served up to you automatically, non-chronologically and bogged down with a ton of crap you didn’t ask for.

So why is Zuckerman suing? Because, several years ago, a Brit named Louis Barclay developed the original Unfollow Everything. Mark Zuckerberg and company threatened to sue him if he didn’t take it down and permanently threw him off Facebook and Instagram. Barclay wrote about his experience on Slate:

I still remember the feeling of unfollowing everything for the first time. It was near-miraculous. I had lost nothing, since I could still see my favorite friends and groups by going to them directly. But I had gained a staggering amount of control. I was no longer tempted to scroll down an infinite feed of content. The time I spent on Facebook decreased dramatically. Overnight, my Facebook addiction became manageable.

Zuckerman is claiming that Section 230, a federal law that’s normally used to protect internet publishers like Meta from legal liability with regard to the content their users post, also protects developers of third-party tools such as Unfollow Everything.

“I’m suing Facebook to make it better,” Zuckerman, an associate professor at UMass Amherst, said in a press release. “The major social media companies have too much control over what content their users see and don’t see. We’re bringing this lawsuit to give people more control over their social media experience and data and to expand knowledge about how platforms shape public discourse.”

Zuckerman is being represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

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The real problem with Facebook; or, taking a stroll down Indian Dick Road

Facebook now allows you to post a link to a story in the Kansas Reflector that was critical of Facebook. I tested it a little while ago. As I wrote the other day, I assumed it was initially blocked not because of the actual content of the story. I offered one data point — a Johnny Cash lyric I posted a few years ago that got me in trouble, apparently because it makes reference to guns and murder. Here are two more.

First, the Reflector story that got blocked is about a climate-mitigation program called Hot Times in the Heartland. Whoa! Sounds like some kinky stuff going on in the wheat fields.

Second, one of the worst stories about Facebook censorship I’ve heard involved The Mendocino Voice. I wrote about it in our book, “What Works in Community News.” It seems that the Voice had used Facebook to pass along an important announcement from the sheriff’s office about a wildfire evacuation route. It got taken down, though it was quickly restored when the Voice howled. No explanation was ever offered, but Adrian Fernandez Baumann, the Voice’s co-founder, observed that the post included a reference to Indian Dick Road.

The real problem with Facebook — and other Meta products, like Instagram and Threads — is that Mark Zuckerberg and company refuse to invest a single penny beyond what is absolutely necessary to create a better product. Everything is automated, robo-censors control our lives, and complaining is only occasionally successful.

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Bluesky makes its long-awaited public debut just as Threads skepticism sets in

Photo (cc) 2021 by joey zanotti

Is Bluesky about to have its moment?

Since the fall of 2022, when Elon Musk acquired Twitter and proceeded to take a wrecking ball to it, those of us who are heavy users of short-form, text-based social media have been looking for a new platform. I bet heavily on Mastodon, but though I find it to be a pleasant environment most of the time, with a lot of activity and high engagement, it has not been adopted by more than a handful of news organizations, journalism think tanks, the Massachusetts political community and ordinary people. Those folks have, for the most part, remain firmly planted on Twitter/X.

Threads is a different matter. Since it debuted last summer, the platform has largely fulfilled its promise of becoming a better version of Twitter, a place to have conversations about news, journalism and other topics with less sociopathy than you encounter in Musk’s hellhole. Threads reportedly has about 130 million active monthly users, compared to 500 million on Twitter, which is pretty impressive for a service that’s less than a year old and is still rolling out features.

Unfortunately, it appears that Threads will not fulfill the hopes of its most news-obsessed users. On Friday, Mark Zuckberg’s Meta, which owns Threads, repeated previous statements that it has no intention of becoming a platform that is heavily focused on politics. Posts that the almighty algorithm deems political will not show up in the “For You” listing, which is what you see when you first log on and which is determined by software that thinks it knows what you’re interested in. Any accounts you’re already following will continue to show up, but discovering new accounts will become more difficult. The change also applies to Instagram.

According to Adam Mosseri, who runs Threads and Instagram, “we’re not talking about all of news, but rather more focused on political news or social commentary.” But as Taylor Lorenz and Naomi Nix report for The Washington Post (free link), who’s to say what’s political? They quote Ashton Pittman, news editor of the Mississippi Free Press, who tells them:

If I post about LGBTQ rights, or about being a gay man, is that political? If I post about Taylor Swift, is that political because bad actors are making everything political? Everything is political if we’re honest with ourselves — it’s just about who’s defining what’s political and who gets to define that and what does it mean?

Which brings me back to Bluesky. Unlike Threads, the platform is not fully for-profit; unlike Mastodon, it’s not a nonprofit. Rather, it’s a public benefit corporation, which means that it’s a for-profit company that must serve the public interest in some way and that reinvests any profits it makes back in the operation. Of the three major Twitter alternatives, Bluesky has garnered the most skepticism. For one thing, among Bluesky’s founders is former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who thought selling out to Musk was just fine. For another, Bluesky’s rollout has been painfully slow. Until last week, you couldn’t join without an invitation, which is why it has just 3.2 million users, far behind Threads and Twitter.

After Bluesky finally opened itself up to the public, though, the influential tech writer Mike Masnick wrote an enthusiastic post at Techdirt saying he was “pretty excited” about where the platform is heading. What has Masnick most excited is Bluesky’s roll-your-own approach to content moderation. He writes:

For example, the company has added some (still early) features that give users much more control over their experience: composable moderation and algorithmic choice. Composable moderation lets users set some of their own preferences for what they want to encounter on social media, rather than leaving it entirely up to a central provider. Some people are more willing to see sexual content, for example.

But, the algorithmic choice is perhaps even more powerful. Currently, people talk a lot about “the algorithm” and now most social networks give you one single algorithm of what they think you’ll want to see. There is often a debate among people about “what’s better: a chronological feed or the algorithmically generated feed” from the company. But that’s always been thinking too small.

With Bluesky’s algorithmic choice, anyone can make or share their own algorithms and users can choose what algorithms they want to use. In my Bluesky, for example, I have a few different algorithms that I can choose to recommend interesting stuff to me. One of them, developed by an outside developer (i.e., not Bluesky), Skygaze, is a “For You” feed that … is actually good? Unlike centralized social media, Skygaze’s goal with its feed is not to improve engagement numbers for Bluesky.

For some time now, I’ve been using Threads, Mastodon and Bluesky more or less equally on the theory that we’re a long way from knowing which platform, if any, will emerge as the main alternative to Twitter. (I’m also still on Twitter, mainly for professional purposes, though I’ve locked my account and post less frequently there than on the other platforms.) Even though I have far fewer followers on Bluesky than elsewhere, I’ve found the engagement to be quite good and the content consistently interesting — more so than on Mastodon, and with less crap than on Threads.

We will never go back to the days when there was one platform where everyone gathered, for better or worse. But Bluesky seems like a worthy entry into the social media wars now that it’s (finally) open to the public.

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Threads may be a better place (for now) than X/Twitter, but let’s not get too excited

These days I do most of my microblogging (now there’s a blast from the past) at Threads, the Meta-owned Twitter alternative that is moving ahead of Bluesky and Mastodon, if not ahead of Twitter itself. Threads is filled with self-congratulatory posts about how nice everyone is along with occasional criticism of people for not walking away completely from Elon Musk, who has transformed X/Twitter from the hellsite it already was into something even worse.

Well, lest we forget, here’s the top to Brian Fung’s CNN story on the latest in a lawsuit brought against Meta by Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell:

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has personally and repeatedly thwarted initiatives meant to improve the well-being of teens on Facebook and Instagram, at times directly overruling some of his most senior lieutenants, according to internal communications made public as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the company.

The newly unsealed communications in the lawsuit — filed originally by Massachusetts last month in a state court — allegedly show how Zuckerberg ignored or shut down top executives, including Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri and President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg, who had asked Zuckerberg to do more to protect the more than 30 million teens who use Instagram in the United States.

Mosseri, in case you don’t know, is the guy who’s in charge of Threads. As for the great Threads versus Twitter debate, well, pick your favorite evil billionaire. At least Zuckerberg and Mosseri seem to want Threads to be a well-run platform that makes money rather than a plaything for a right-wing sociopath — which is what Twitter has devolved into.

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One year later, calculating the damage Elon Musk has done to Twitter

Elon Musk. Photo (cc) 2017 by Steve Jurvetson

This past Friday marked one year since Elon Musk purchased X/Twitter and took a wrecking ball to it. Twitter was far from perfect — we all called it “the hellsite” long before he arrived. But he’s done everything he could to drive it into the ground, empowering trolls, restoring extreme-right and neo-Nazi accounts, and enabling disinformation on a widespread scale.

Musk took specific actions to degrade the experience as well. He ended a modest paid-subscription service that allowed you to edit your tweets. He got rid of the blue checks for verified accounts and replaced them with blue checks for anyone who was willing to pay, thus greatly amplifying hate and falsehoods. He blocked access for anyone who didn’t have a Twitter account, which blew up embedded news feeds. And he proved that he himself was among the most sociopathic users of the service he’d purchased, engaging in such behavior as amplifying an online wilding campaign against a young journalist and putting her life in danger.

The results for Twitter as a business have been devastating. The Washington Post reports (free link):

The number of people actively tweeting has dropped by more than 30 percent, according to previously unreported data obtained by The Washington Post, and the company — which the entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX has renamed X — is hemorrhaging advertisers and revenue, interviews show.

The Post also reports that Musk has succeeded in moving Twitter far to the right. My own experience is that a number of conservatives who I’d like to follow on one of the new platforms that have sprung up or grown in response to Musk’s actions have stayed put, almost as a sign of tribal loyalty. Not everyone — certainly a lot of the Never Trump conservatives have moved elsewhere. But it’s enough that the old sense you had on Twitter that everyone was there has fractured, probably forever.

After Musk bought Twitter, I went all-in at Mastodon, which had already been around for several years. But though I was able to build a decent list of followers and have found engagement to be quite good, most news organizations and prominent people are missing. Bluesky, co-founded by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, seems like the closest thing to a direct Twitter replacement, but it’s falling behind because of its incredibly aggravating invitation-only scheme.

Which leaves us with Threads, part of the Zuckerborg. It’s definitely the fastest-growing of the alternatives, and it’s where I spend most of my social-media time these days. It’s also adding features quickly in an attempt to catch up. Threads got off to a fast start when it was launched during the summer, lagged, and now seems to be taking off again. Mark Zuckerberg said last week that Threads now has 100 million monthly users — no doubt well behind Twitter (Musk took the company private, so he’s free to lie about metrics), but impressive nevertheless.

Yet I find that there are three buckets of Twitter users that I need to connect with who aren’t going anywhere: friends who are not extremely online; Massachusetts politics folks; and people and organizations involved in the future of local news. For some reason, they’re still firmly planted on Twitter.

Twitter was far from perfect — very far indeed. It had become a frequently ugly place, and a lot of us were already using it differently compared to, say, 10 years ago. But Musk has made it much worse.

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X/Twitter may be terrible, but it’s still the go-to place for certain types of conversations

Walt Mossberg, right, has had it with Elon Musk, but he apparently has no problem with Mark Zuckerberg, left. That’s Kara Swisher in the middle. Photo (cc) 2012 by Joe Hall.

On Thursday, I posted an opinion about the newly enacted Massachusetts tax cut on X/Twitter and its three main competitors — Mastodon, Threads and Bluesky. I did it in part simply because I wanted to make a comment, but I also was experimenting. Here’s the post on Threads:

Why are our local media united in referring to the Mass. tax cuts as “tax relief”? It’s an unnecessary package, mainly skewed toward the rich, that will offset the ballot question we just passed to try to meet some real needs in schools, transportation and social services.

Twitter and Mastodon support hashtags, so on those platforms I changed Massachusetts to #MaPoli in the hopes that it would get picked up in those communities. And here’s what I found: As of this morning, I’ve gotten 11 likes and three replies on Threads; 10 likes, four reposts and one reply on Bluesky; eight likes, six reposts and one reply on Mastodon; and 213 likes, 60 reposts and 20 replies on Twitter, including a worthwhile back-and-forth with Matt Szafranski, a lawyer who’s the editor-in-chief of Western Mass Politics & Insight, on whether state officials will be able to grab revenues from the new millionaire’s tax to fund needs other than education and transportation, as the law specifies.

Now, you might say, what’s the big deal? Aren’t we past worrying about engagement on social media? Well, yes and no. Performative tweeting has gotten many people in trouble, including me. But in this case I wanted to express an opinion that would be seen by people in the Massachusetts media and political community, and I knew Twitter would be the best outlet.

Ever since Elon Musk bought Twitter a year ago and took a wrecking ball to it, there’s been a lot of what you might call Twitter-shaming — castigating anyone who continues to use Twitter on the grounds that by doing so you’re enabling Musk and his sociopathic attacks on transgender people and anyone else with the misfortune to cross his radar. For instance, he recently amplified hateful attacks on a reporter for the Las Vegas because he literally had no idea what had really happened, as Angela Fu recently reported for Poynter Online.

I went completely silent on Twitter for several months after Musk bought it and invested quite a bit of time in Mastodon, which is a lovely little community whose members include few of the political, media and local news accounts I need to follow for my professional and academic work. I find more of a political and media presence on Threads and Bluesky but very little of the #MaPoli crowd and virtually none of the people and organizations that are tracking the future of community journalism.

The Twitter-shaming, though, continues. Retired Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walt Mossberg, who only left Twitter a month ago, posted this on Threads Friday:

The reason to quit Twitter (X) isn’t that it’s apparently collapsing financially, or killing important features. It’s a moral and ethical issue. Not only are Nazis, racists, antisemites, misogynists, liars and conspiracy theorists being welcomed back, but the owner seems to be actively supporting this. I gave up a 16-year account with over 800,000 followers because I couldn’t associate myself with this haven for hate and lies. You should too.

Well, good for you, Walt. By the way, you posted that on a platform controlled by Mark Zuckerberg, who has not exactly covered himself in glory with regard to clamping down on election disinformation and enabling genocide. There are also those who criticize anyone who publishes on Substack because that platform has become a home to some sleazy right-wingers (let’s not forget that the great Heather Cox Richardson writes her newsletter on Substack) or who uses Bluesky because Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who has his own issues, is a member of the board.

I’m actively rooting for Musk to drive Twitter into the ground and kill it off once and for all. Until he does, though, I’m going to use it — not as much as I used to, and more carefully than I did in the past. But though Musk is the worst of the worst, the reality is that most of our tech platforms are controlled by dubious characters, and there’s not much we can do about it.

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Threads hits a speed bump

Mark Zuckerberg may soon have reason to regret pushing Threads out the door before it was ready. Lindsey Choo reports for The Wall Street Journal (free link, I think; apologies if it doesn’t work) that user engagement has fallen by 70% since its July 7 peak.

No doubt Zuckerberg wanted to take advantage of Elon Musk’s Fourth of July weekend freakout, when he limited the number of posts you could read on Twitter (especially if you weren’t a paid subscriber), cut off access to individual tweets for non-members (thus blowing up our news feed at What Works), and killed off classic TweetDeck in favor of a new, lesser update.

But Threads is frustrating to use. The biggest problem is that you can only access it on a mobile device. Also missing: a reverse-chrono tab of accounts you follow, thus clogging up your feed with brands and celebrities you don’t care about, as well as no lists and no hashtags.

Mastodon has been my first stop since Musk took over Twitter last fall, but its decentralized nature presents problems of its own. It’s difficult to find what you’re looking for, there are parts of the unfortunately named Fediverse that are invisible to you, and most of the people and accounts I need to follow just aren’t there. Bluesky is still invitation-only and has had problems of its own.

I realize this is of little interest to most people, but for those of us whose work depends on social media to some degree, it’s been an interesting — and frustrating — nine months.

A few more thoughts about Threads

Although Mastodon is my preferred Twitter alternative, there’s every indication that Threads is going to emerge as the closest thing we get to a true Twitter replacement. It’s missing a lot — browser access, a reverse-chronological feed of your followers, and lists, to name just a few. I can really do without the celebrities and brands that Threads is pushing. But it’s already got mass appeal, a precious commodity that it’s not likely to relinquish.

There are reports that Mark Zuckerberg and company rushed this out the door before it was ready in order to take advantage of Elon Musk’s meltdown last weekend. Musk rewarded Zuckerberg by sending him a cease-and-desist order — precious publicity for an app that is taking off. As I said yesterday, you only get one chance to make a good first impression, but I suspect users will give Zuckerberg some time to get it right.

In addition to Twitter, I suspect the big loser in this may be Bluesky, started by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. I finally scored an invitation earlier this week and have been playing around. I like it. But Dorsey has got to regret the leisurely pace he’s taken.

For now, I’m posting mainly to Mastodon because I want to, Twitter because I have to, and Bluesky and Threads because I’m checking them out. I’ve given up on Post. (If you’re reading this on the Media Nation website, my social media feeds are in the right-hand rail.) But it wouldn’t surprise me if this quickly devolves into a war between Twitter and Threads, with everyone else reduced to spectator status.

The unimpressive, trying-too-hard debut of Threads

Photo (cc) 2011 by J E Theriot

They say you only get one chance to make a good first impression. If that’s true, then Mark Zuckerberg missed that chance with the debut of Threads. There’s no browser access, so you’re stuck using your phone. You can’t switch to a reverse-chronological non-algorithmic feed of accounts you follow. Even Elon Musk still lets you do that at Twitter. No lists.

The whole thing, teeming with brands and celebrities you’re not interested in, feels very commercial in a forced-joviality, trying-too-hard way. These things can be fixed unless Zuck thinks they’re features rather than bugs. For now, though … not great.

Musk’s latest moves call into question the future of short-form social media

Elon Musk isn’t laughing with us. He’s laughing at us. Photo (cc) 2022 by Steve Jurvetson.

Update: Ivan Mehta of TechCrunch reports that Twitter may have already reversed itself on requiring log-ins to view tweets. I’ll test it later and think about whether I want to go to the trouble of restoring our Twitter timeline to What Works.

Today I want to return to a topic that I write about from time to time: the ongoing travails of Twitter under Elon Musk and the future of what I’ll call short-form interactive social media, which some people still refer to as “microblogging.” It’s something that’s of no interest to the vast majority of people (and if I’m describing you, then you have my congratulations and admiration) but of tremendous interest to a few of us.

You may have heard that a number of changes hit Twitter over the weekend, some deliberate, some perhaps accidental. They cut back on the number of posts you could read before encountering a “rate limit” of 600 per day for non-subscribers and 6,000 a day for those who pay $8 a month. Those limits were later raised. Now, very few people are paying $8 for those blue check marks and extra privileges, and you can reach 600 (or 800, or 1,000, or whatever it is at the moment) pretty quickly if you’re zipping through your timeline. It was and is a bizarre limitation, since it means that users will spend less time on the site and will see fewer of Twitter’s declining inventory of ads.

Twitter also got rid of its classic TweetDeck application, which lets you set up columns for lists, notifications and the like, and switched everyone over to a new, inferior version — and then announced that TweetDeck will soon be restricted to those $8-a-month customers.

Finally, and of the greatest significance to me and my work, you can no longer view a tweet unless you’re actually logged in to Twitter. We’ve all become accustomed to news outlets embedding tweets in stories. I do it myself sometimes. Well, now that has stopped working. Maybe it’s not that big a deal. After all, you can take a screenshot and/or quote from it, just as you can from any source. But it’s an extra hassle for both publishers and readers.

The problem

Moreover, this had a significant negative effect on What Works, the website about the future of local news that Ellen Clegg and I host. Just recently, I decide to add a news feed of updates and brief items to the right-hand rail, powered by Twitter. It was a convenient way of informing our readers regardless of whether they were Twitter users. And on Monday, it disappeared. What I’ve come up with to replace it is a half-solution: A box that links to our Mastodon account, which can still be read by Mastodon nonusers and users alike. But it’s an extra step. In order to add an actual Mastodon news feed we would either need to pay more or switch to a hosting service and put up with the attendant technical challenges.

What is Musk up to? I can’t imagine that he’s literally trying to destroy Twitter; but if he were, he’d be doing exactly what he’s doing. It’s strange. Twitter is now being inundated with competitors, the largest of which is Mastodon, a decentralized system that runs mainly on volunteer labor. But Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey is slowly unveiling a very Twitter-like service called Bluesky (still in beta, and, for the moment, invitation-only), and, this Thursday, Facebook (I refuse to call it Meta) will debut Threads. If Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t screw it up, I think Threads, which is tied to Instagram, might prove to be a formidable challenger.

Still, what made Twitter compelling was that it was essentially the sole platform for short-form interactive social media. The breakdown of that audience into various niches makes it harder for any one service to benefit from the network effect. I’ve currently got conversations going on in three different places, and when I want to share links to my work, I now have to go to Twitter, Mastodon and Bluesky (which I just joined), not to mention Facebook and LinkedIn.

The solution

And speaking of the network effect: Twitter may be shrinking, but, with 330 million active monthly users, it’s still by far the largest of the three short-form platforms. Mastodon was up to 10 million registered users as of March (that number grows in spurts every time Musk indulges his inner sociopath), and Bluesky has just 100,000 — although another 2 million or so are on the wait list. What that means for my work is that just a handful of the media thought leaders I need to follow and interact with are on Mastodon or Bluesky, and, from what I can tell, none (as in zero) of the people and organizations that track developments in local news have budged from Twitter.

It will likely turn out that the social media era was brief and its demise unlamented. In the meantime, what’s going on is weird and — for those of us who depend on this stuff — aggravating. In some ways, I would like to see one-stop short-form social media continue. My money is on Threads, although I suspect that Zuckerberg’s greed will prevent it from realizing its full potential.

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