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Bumps, Slumps and the Killer Hype Cycle

Ok, you all probably remember last fall, when the Muskening happened. When Mastodon saw a massive influx of new members. When Mastodon admins were struggling to keep up with the influx but ultimately showed that the network can, in fact, scale up. It was, in my view, the biggest stress on the ActivityPub protocol – and ActivityPub kicked ass. Millions of people signed up for Mastodon.

That’s the titular Mastodon “bump.”

Since I’ve published academic articles on Mastodon, during that Eternal Muskvember, I was approached by a lot of journalists (here, here, and here, for example) to talk about Mastodon, answering questions ranging from “what is it?” to “will it replace Twitter?” It was an exciting and sometimes exasperating time. I basically told myself, “Self, this sort of media attention is rare. Enjoy it, but know that it won’t last.” And indeed, a few weeks later, the story died down.

I also told myself to expect the inevitable follow-up. That’s what I’m writing about here.

As many readers of this blog are likely aware, after the new year, Mastodon’s active user base dropped off. As with every wave of social media movement from platform to platform, some percentage of people just don’t stick with the new site.

There’s the titular Mastodon “slump.”

Last week, I got an interview request from WIRED’s Amanda Hoover, who was working on a story about how Mastodon’s drop in active users signaled that it had failed in its mission to replace Twitter.

Now, before I go any further I will say Hoover’s reporting on Mastodon has been excellent. She asks great questions, and she does more than just interview Eugen Rochko – she talks to instance admins, lawyers, and academics like myself. And, in fact, the article I’m going to critique is quite good.

But I am going to use her latest WIRED article to illustrate an all-too-common trope in reporting on alternative social media: it’s what I call “The Killer Hype Cycle.”

The Killer Hype Cycle

So, here’s the Killer Hype Cycle, as a couple colleagues and I describe it in a New Media and Society article:

Killer Hype Cycles are often seen in tech reporting on alternatives to mainstream social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. The Cycle goes like this: first, a journalist notices a fledgling alternative social media system. Looking for a click-worthy angle, the journalist declares it the next ‘Facebook Killer’ or ‘Twitter Killer,’ arguing that within months, the corporate social media giant will be ‘killed’ because its users will leave en masse for the new alternative. Later, when someone notices that Facebook or Twitter is still active despite the presence of the ‘Killer,’ another journalist (or even the original journalist) will declare the alternative a ‘failure’ or simply ‘dead,’ mainly because it did not attract hundreds of millions of new users in a matter of weeks. The cycle appears to end—that is, until another alternative is noticed by a tech reporter, and the cycle is repeated.

Our New Media and Society article provides citations, but here I’ll quickly cover some examples:

  • In 2010, when diaspora* was getting attention, journalists declared it to be a “Facebook killer,” and soon after, declared it to be a failure.
  • In 2014, ello was dubbed a Facebook killer, and then weeks later it was called a failure.
  • And in 2017, the same happened to… Mastodon, which was dubbed a “Twitter Killer” only to be written off for dead that same year.

We can see the same thing over the past few months with Mastodon coverage. In the fall, journalists asked me if Mastodon will replace Twitter. My typical reply was something like this:

I’ve seen massive discontent over corporate social media many times (e.g., Emotional Contagion, Cambridge Analytica) and somehow people keep using Facebook and Twitter et al. So, probably not, although if Twitter went away, I’d be fine with it. Regardless, what Mastodon and its kin offer is an alternative to corporate social media for those of us concerned about surveillance, disinformation, and harassment.

But, no matter what I said, the very emphasis on “will it replace Twitter?” is not too far off of “will it kill Twitter?”.

Fast forward to last week, and WIRED’s Hoover asked me if I was concerned about the dropoff in Mastodon active users. I didn’t write down my exact reply, but I said something like this:

No, because these waves come and go, and while some percentage of new users might stop using Mastodon, Mastodon’s overall membership has gone up.

I also stressed the fact that the real lesson of the Fall of 2022 was that ActivityPub succeeded in scaling up.

Like I said, the resulting article is actually quite good. I commend Hoover for the article because it covered things like emerging questions about legal liability and the fact that the network did scale and because she interviewed a Mastodon admin.

But it does however imply that Mastodon is somehow failing because of the “slump.” It implies that Mastodon is dying.

And I know this because just a day after it came out, another reporter called to ask about Mastodon’s impending demise – and that reporter cited Hoover’s WIRED article. That second reporter was working on a story about… new and emerging alternatives to corporate social media. And they were starting with the premise that Mastodon failed and it was time to find something new.

In other words, that reporter was looking for the next Killer Hype Cycle.

What to do about this trope?

I’d recommend to tech journalists covering alternative social media to push past the “Killer” trope and consider each alternative on its own terms, rather than strictly in opposition to a corporate counterpart. Yes, some comparison is inevitable – after all, we understand “alternative” in relation to a “mainstream.” But these are not 1:1 replacements – they have their own logics and cultures.

For example, part of the appeal of the alternatives is the refusal of the growth logics of corporate social media. Mastodon admins, for example, don’t really want to run instances on the scale of Twitter. They want small instances that are more easily moderated at a human scale. Because of this, growth of Mastodon as a whole depends on the establishment of many new instances, which takes time and effort. As I say over and over, it’s not a matter of signing up at a central site, like Twitter.com. This is purposeful building of democratic social media, and growth is not always the best thing.

Reporting in this space needs to focus on these nuances and eliminate the oversimplification “growth always equals good.” That’s hard to do when we’re conditioned by 20 years of corporate, venture capital, Silicon Valley thinking, but there is a world beyond the Valley.

As for the rest of us in Mastodon and across the fediverse, I probably don’t need to say this, but I will, anyway: don’t be fazed. Keep on doing what you’re doing.

La lucha sigue.

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