It's fascinating to watch this Tower of Babel moment, as different Twitter communities scatter — tech to Mastodon, media to Substack Notes, many punters to group chats old & new, and so on.

Twitter used to be where things happened, for good or for ill, because everyone was there. It was a bit like the old days of TV, where there was a reasonable chance of most people around the proverbial office water cooler having watched the same thing the previous evening. We are already looking back on Twitter as having once filled a similar role, as the place where things happened that we could all discuss together. Sure, some of the content was reshared from Tumblr, or latterly, TikTok, but that's the point: it broke big on Twitter.

Now, newsletter writers are having to figure out how to embed Mastodon posts, and meanwhile I'm having to rearrange my iPhone screen to allow for the sudden explosion of apps, where previously I could rely on Twitter in the dock and an RSS reader on the first screen.

Whether Twitter survives and in what form, it's obvious that its universality is gone. The clarity of being @brand — and not having to specify anything else! — was very valuable, and it was something that Facebook or Google, for all their ubiquity, could never deliver.

There is value in a single digital town square, and in being able to be part of a single global conversation. Twitter was a big part of how I kept up with goings-on in tech from my perch in provincial Italy. Timezones aside, Twitter meant that not being in Silicon Valley was not a major handicap, because I could catch up with everything that was begin discussed in my own time (in a way that would not have been possible if more real-time paradigms like Clubhouse had taken off).

Of course town squares also attract mad people and false prophets, for the exact same reason: because they can find an audience. This is why it is important for town squares to have rules of acceptable behaviour, enforced by some combination of ostracism and ejection.

Twitter under Musk appears to be opposed to any form of etiquette, or at least its enforcement. The reason people are streaming out of the square is that it is becoming overrun with rude people who want to shout at them, so they are looking for other places to meet and talk. There is nothing quite like the town square that was Twitter, so everyone is dispersing to cafes, private salons, and underground speakeasies, to continue the conversation with their particular friends and fans.

These days few of us go to a physical town square every day, even here in Italy where most of the population has access to one. They remain places where we meet, but the meeting is arranged elsewhere, using digital tools that the creators of those piazzas could not even have immagined.

As the Twitter diaspora continues, maybe more of us — me included! — should remember to go out to the town square, put the phone away, and be present with people in the same place for a little while.

Then, when we go back online — because of course we will go back online, that's where we live these days — we will have to be more intentional about who we talk to. Intentionality is sometimes presented as being purely positive, but it also requires effort. Where I used to have Twitter and Unread, now I have added Mastodon, Artifact, Substack, and Wavegraph, not to mention a reinvigorated LinkedIn, and probably more to come. There is friction to switching apps: if I have a moment to check in, which app do I turn to — and which app do I leave "for later"?

This is not going to be a purely negative development! As in all moments of change, new entrants will take advantage of the changed situation to rise above the noise threshold. Meanwhile, those who benefited from the previous paradigm will have to evolve with the times. At least this time, it's an actual organic change, rather than chasing the whims of an ad-maximising algorithm, let alone one immature meme-obsessed billionaire man-child.

🖼️ Photo by Inma Santiago on Unsplash