Spheres within Spheres: Twitter, Mastodon, and the Cult of Personality
- Written by: Puffer
Another day, another milestone of new Mastodon users. Many, many of those users will be fleeing Twitter. And many of them will wind up disappointed or bored with Mastodon.
It’s not a mind-blowing thesis to say Mastodon will never fully supplant Twitter. Do a random web search and you'll hit dozens of hot takes opining more or less the same for one reason or another. A lot of these are about UX decisions, debated and remarked upon ad nauseam on Mastodon itself: lack of quote tweets, search discoverability, siloed comments. But one thing that really strikes me are some fairly significant differences in how the architecture of the platforms means different things for people who are famous and those for whom following, interacting with famous people is a draw on Twitter.
My thoughts here are mostly anecdotal so take them for what you will. I was not an exceptional Twitter user; nor have I been on Mastodon particularly long in the lifecycle of the software.
I joined Twitter in July 2007. And by the time I put the @digitallofi account into its final sleep in November 2022, I had roughly 380 followers; I followed about 295 to 310, 195(ish) of who were mutuals. Now I'm going to conservatively say that 1/3 of these mutuals were inactive. Maybe a dozen or so of the active ones had me muted. (Guessing on that, but speaks to a greater point I'll get to later.) So, while I was an active Twitter user, I rarely got beyond the reach of my mutuals, and never went viral.
I wasn't in the first wave that fled Twitter post-Elon, but by November I couldn't in good conscience continue using the site (I forget the exact tipping point; so much happened in a short amount of time). I gave in and went over to mastodon.social where I had already set up an account back in June 2018 that I had posted on exactly twice and decided there wasn't much going on. But since I was absolutely done with Twitter, I endeavored to give Mastodon a shake on its own terms and logged back on.
Of course, I'm all in on Mastodon and the Fediverse. I've had more meaningful interaction with a wider swath of people than I ever did on Twitter. More people have meaningfully listened to my music. Read my posts. Responded to conversations. The whole idea has me excited about the internet in a way I haven't been in probably more than a decade. It's not perfect, there are some real structural questions that are being debated–endlessly–but at its core, it's a very exciting endeavor.
But this involves interacting with Mastodon on its own terms1, and one thing I can't ever see Mastodon being able to replicate is the spheres of celebrity that Twitter facilitated and engendered.
So what do I mean by spheres? Broadly, there are two spheres of famous people on Twitter: *Famous* Famous people; Twitter Famous people.
But go a bit deeper and there are more spheres contained within these two spheres, and these spheres have washy borders whose edges bleed into each other.
Let’s delineate them:
- Famous Famous.
Think Taylor Swift, or Ben Afleck. But are they really "on" Twitter? Let's be honest, there is a publicist and/or management layer between these folks and their Twitter accounts. Twitter itself has little impact on their career in the grand scheme of things.
- Famous Famous who are also Twitter Famous.
Stephen King, George Takei, Patton Oswalt, et cetera. When these people are recognized in the airport it's not because they're on Twitter. And they get recognized a lot. So while they’re also active Twitter users and it most likely has some effect on their public profile, their careers are mostly independent of their Twitter usage.
- Not Famous Famous but like Mid-Level Famous, also Twitter Famous.
The average person isn’t likely to recognize them but they have an audience, fans, a career that has nothing to do with Twitter. However their beloved Twitter accounts have definitely helped raise and maintain their audience. e.g. John and Jon from The Mountain Goats, Margrett Attwood, Open Mike Eagle, James Adomian, that guy from Eve 6.
- Twitter Famous.
They're all over your timeline. Maybe they're funny, politically active, tech leaders, regional personalities. Often journalists, bloggers, YouTubers, smaller musicians. Or gimmick accounts. You'd most likely never heard of them before Twitter but you definitely know who they are once you’ve been on the site a while. They follow and interact with the other spheres of celebrity. The algorithm favored them. I could rattle off a list of monikers but the point is if you hadn't been around Twitter for a long time these names would mean almost nothing. Some of them had Verified badges, some did not.
- Twitter Famous who have parlayed it into some measure of a Mid-level Famous.
This is a pretty rarified sphere. Chapo Trap House springs readily to mind. But some comedians and writers have built to a larger mid-level fame from a beloved Twitter account. And that mid-level fame will probably persist beyond the demise of Twitter.
- High Follower Count but Not Quite Twitter Famous.
While they have follower counts in the mid-to-high thousands, they usually they don’t have verified blue checks. Still they get picked up by the algorithm frequently. They get retweeted by the greater spheres of fame. But outside of Twitter they are just some person. These could be podcasters, high-concept accounts, weird Twitter, or just some joker who writes clever tweets. They might eventually transition to being Twitter Famous but whatever notoriety they have eked out for themselves will mostly evaporate when they leave the platform.
- The Character of the Day.
It might be one of the above, or just some random person who just said some shit that got on someone's radar. And in a short while everyone has to know about them. Then 2 weeks later everyone is "hey remember that clown?!"2
As for the rest of us. We're either just tweeting our random thoughts, observations, mildly amusing jokes for the dozen or so people who might see the post when it scrolls across the timeline, hoping to get people to engage with our art, our lives, our humor, our outrage.
Or we were there to try to be famous or interact with famous people.
Myself, I have little use for celebrity. In all sincerity, I am not much impressed by fame. Even less so in the last 25 years. I have a couple dozen stories of encountering or meeting or spending time with people of various levels of fame including genuine movie stars. And I don't think I've told more than a few people some of those stories. When I do it's just because it's a pertinent detail about something else I'm talking about.3 Most of these "stories" aren't really all that interesting when you get down to it. So it just comes off as name dropping. I mean, there have been artists whose work meant so much to me that on the rare occasion that I met them I was genuinely star struck. But I've had friends with famous parents and that gives you a bit of perspective into what being famous must be like. And it’s not that interesting, they're just people.4
There was that time I sat one table over from Weird Al Yankovich in a LA nightclub, which is a pretty amusing momentary proximity to fame.
Mostly fame and celebrity are a blight on our culture. I have no problem with people being recognized for the work they do. I understand that artists and actors and writers with large audiences are going to have fans. Hell, there are famous people I hope are genuinely good, interesting people. But fan culture is a rot. And the era we're in where people are famous for being famous is tiresome and silly.
But this is not a widely held position. Just look at the replies on any celebrity's Twitter (or Instagram) post and you just see people thirsty to get noticed. If I post something like "Cheese toast is the pillow on which I lay my head" it's just a middling bit of random nonsense that no one pays a second thought to. But someone who is in one of the spheres? 300 to 10k likes | 150 to 15k retweets. Clout chasers quote tweeting it adding "so true." And replies. So many replies. None of them really have anything to add. More just “notice me!”
And in a pretty major way, this is/was5 Twitter's secret sauce. At least in the western world. To be sure, there are lots of pockets of community filled with people that interact with each other irrespective of their "status". Film Twitter, Black Twitter, trans Twitter, rightwingnut Twitter. But the spheres of fame have wide, erratic orbits, and no corner was left untouched by them. This is partially why it had become a dick measuring contest of follower counts. Twitter rewarded people who's follower count were greater than their "followee" count. And it was logarithmic, this reward. Like capital income, it increased with very little actual effort the larger that ratio became. How much of this was because of the algorithm and how much was just because of the social nature of fame I'll leave for others to debate. But it was definitely built into the structure of Twitter.
And few of these people are going to be happy on Mastodon.
The people who inhabit these spheres of fame are going to miss their algorithmically juiced audience. If one is used to receiving hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands tokens of validation (likes, reposts, comments) they’ll probably have a hard time starting anew on a site that is decidedly not programmed to reward the very act of receiving those tokens. They’re essentially starting from scratch on a decentralized platform whose mechanism for getting your "content" in front of people who don't follow you is pretty lo-tech compared to the years of data science behind the behemoth social media giants. Followers are scattered across dozens and dozens of servers/instances that only talk to each other in some murky way that doesn't promote attention in and of itself.
Moreover, even their audience is likely to find the experience off-putting. The normies who do nothing but lurk, or retweet and/or reply to famous people. They're going to what? Be happy looking at pictures of moss and cats, laugh at stupid puns, take in conversations about German culture, navel gazing about Mastodon itself? And beyond the people who just want to soak in the aura of someone more popular than themselves, the nature of Twitter fame created an ecosystem where parasocial relationships bloomed. e.g. one can listen to a record or read a book, think it's great, find the creator on Twitter, and tell them you dig their work. And they either give you a virtual high-five, or have a bit of a conversation. Occasionally they'd follow back. All these parasocial relationships, contracting, expanding.
Of all the spheres, The Twitter Famous people are the most likely to adapt6, especially if they are academics or tech savvy, bloggers, photographers, musicians. Many are already transitioning with what appears to be various degrees of enthusiasm and success. They are the true posters. They post because they can not because they want to be popular. They’ll find maybe not the same number of followers, but the same number of engaged followers. But I have a hard time seeing 50 Cent, or Jason Isbell, or Marc Maron setting up shop on mstdn.social or beige.party, at best “verified” through their “official” website, and really getting into the experience.7 And without that level of active famous users most ordinary people will wander away, lose interest, find a site/app that scratches that itch.
Me, I don’t care all that much whether these folks come over to Mastodon. I didn’t follow too many famous people on Twitter, instead relied on my mutuals to help elevate them to my ambient engagement. Sure I’ll miss some of these clever, funny, cool people from those spheres. I’ll miss the randomness with which these paths crossed. But you can’t separate that from the rest of the site, an engine of late-stage capitalism whose currency is popularity. Parasocial relationships that can be leveraged like reward tickets for the wealth of attention. It’s entertaining to have a mechanism that lets you interact with the cool, popular kids. But this gamification of our attention is never satisfied.
What Mastodon and the Fediverse offer is a way to rebuild the communities without the demands of The Feed, designed as it is to lure us in with the promise of access, perhaps even entry into these spheres of fame and the attendant rewards. Mastodon does not promise this because it cannot. It’s imperfectly fulfilling a promise the internet offered back before the enshitification began.
So what next? I wish I had some grand conclusion. This is obviously something I’m working out. I feel like I could parse this for many more paragraphs and footnotes8, but, like Twitter, it’s time to let it go.
1 I won't go into it here, but there are some very particular ways to interact with Mastodon that allow us modest users to get the most out of it. And it can take a bit of work.
2 I have never known of anyone who parlayed being The Character of the Day to being Twitter Famous. But plenty of the Twitter Famous have had their reputation, followings wrecked by becoming The Character of The Day.
3 For instance, how I came by an early copy of The Blair Witch Project ahead of its Sundance preview, on a blank video cassette that just had Blair Witch Project handwritten in marker on the label. Which I watched alone on a Saturday night at midnight, having no idea what it was. One of the most memorable movie watching experiences of my life. What's interesting to me is a personal cultural phenomenon, not the way I came by it.
4 Albeit rich people. Because being famous is often rewarded with the prizes of wealth. And rich people can be pretty strange.
5 The tense in this piece is messing with me. What I’m talking about is largely past tense for me. It may be Twitter is more or less the same–I'm not logging on to check this out. Since the Blue checkmark system has been all but dismantled the nature of Twitter fame is probably completely borked.
6 Interestingly, I think Just High Follower Count but Not Quite Twitter Famous people may have the hardest time adjusting, as their audience is not likely to translate. You see them occasionally on Mastodon asking for boosts so they can “find their audience”. It’s really off-putting.
7 These would be people who are coming from a platform built to allow them to have interaction with other famous people without having to bother with the commoners if they don’t want to, and now have to follow back hundreds of people and then use lists & filters to get anything out of the platform. That seems a tall ask for lots of people who are used to systems designed to cater to them.
8 I didn’t even get into trolling and dunking which is very much a part of the ecosystem.
The Return of the Blog
- Written by: Puffer
Ok... where were we?
It's time to re-own my content. Back in the early/mid-2000s I had what was primarily music technology & music process focused blog, residing at this same domain. I closed that down after a few of years because honestly I was spending more time writing about the gear, software, other people's music, and to a lesser extent my methods of working, than I did actually creating music. I wanted to release songs not blog posts.
A few years later I resurrected it as more general interest blog, some studio stuff, some just me interfacing with the world at large. Because while I've played music since I was a bored teen in rural NH, at one time I also aspired to be a writer. Alas this version of digitallofi.com v2.0 was short lived and not terribly interesting. This would've been the early 2010s and, frankly, at the time Twitter had a lot of my attention. (It was a fun time to be on Twitter.) Also, the CMS I was using was something a friend set up for me, because I didn't want to use Wordpress1 but in the end it wasn't a platform I wasn't all that interested learning or maintaining.
We'll see the actual of frequency with which I post, or what the nature of my writing will skew towards. But this is just a personal blog. There will be music tech most likely. Stuff about movies, especially horror & cult & retro cinema. Books. Nature I suppose. Life in Vermont. Nothing overtly political, especially partisan US politics; frankly, there are a lot of people who cover that stuff more passionately and better informed than myself. But life under capitalism is in its very nature political so to claim that I am not engaging is disingenuous at best.
I hope you add this to your RSS reader and let me know if there any I should add to mine.
1 As a webmaster2 I dislike like WordPress. I find it unwieldy, slow, a magnet for hackers, and the templating system a pita. But the first version of this blog had been built using WordPress and a custom theme.
2 The loss of the moniker "webmaster" is a minor shame for the independent web developer. One has to wear so many hats when working for small businesses & nonprofits that you're not just a web developer. You're a web & print designer, an SEO specialist, an email marketing manager, et cetera. A jack of all trades is a master of none, but often times better than a master of one.
3 Certainly that is top of my list for this website's tech road map. I'm sure this CMS will find way to integrate with activity pub. But in the meantime find me on my own Mastodon community server.