Tools for the great Twitter migration

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter is providing a great large-scale natural experiment on a number of aspects of interoperability, as tens of thousands of users at least partially switch to alternative services, particularly in the interoperable Fediverse (notably the Mastodon microblogging service).

Fedi.Tips has some great resources explaining how to switch. Scott Feeney has a nice discussion of subtle differences between Twitter and Mastodon that make for a healthier conversation. Geeks of all persuasions might enjoy Simon Willison’s account of moving. Fellow Apple fans might like Mastonaut (macOS) and Mastodon’s own iOS/iPadOS app (friends have also recommended Toot!).

How Twitter’s API eases the transition

Twitter already has a pretty open Application Programming Interface (API), which lets alternative clients (such as Tweetbot and TweetShelf) compete with Twitter’s own website and apps while connected to its users, and tools (such as TweetDelete) offer complementary services. In competition jargon, these are respectively called horizontal and vertical interoperability.

The latter is often embraced by platforms (even Facebook), since it can add value to and entrench the platform, while the former is obviously less popular — so bravo to Twitter for at least partially enabling direct competition with its services (even though it imposes some restrictions such as rate limits for users/tweets).

Tools built using Twitter’s API are easing the transition to Mastodon, helping users copy part of their social graph (who they follow), and to cross-post tweets made on one service to the other. (This early-stage service to actively bridge the Twitter and Fediverse (ActivityPub) protocols looks very promising, although this server is massively saturated right now, and some instances block these bridges since they don’t work 100% with Mastodon.)

The API will also enable ongoing multi-homing (simultaneous use of services) while sharing some benefit from the network effects on each platform. (There is a lot more detail on all this in my 2020 report Interoperability as a Tool for Competition Regulation.) Imagine a field of mastodons peacefully grazing while tweeting birds circle overhead, alighting occasionally ?

@j2bryson tweets: “Please do not delete your twitter account. Go ahead and have fun with the new toys, maybe get better work done spending some focussed time talking to fewer people. But it took decades to establish the social networks and institutional understandings we have here. You want somewhere your friends, relatives, former students, and journalists who have learnt to trust you can find you, even if you come here less often to learn yourself. Also, some day soon you may want to be reading and learning here again, at least about events.” @StCyrThoughts adds: “Also, if you delete your account somebody can create a new account and pretend to be you! It also will inherit all references in other tweets to your handle. Definitely do not delete!”

Potential improvements

I can see more scope for helping people gradually switch and to maintain some level of presence on both services if they wish (UPDATE: some of these have already been suggested for the cross-poster tool — you can add your own too!) :

  1. Twitter lets users download their tweets. These could be seamlessly imported into a user’s new Mastodon profile (some code here), which could significantly increase the volume of user-generated content inside the Fediverse accessible without a Twitter account (but might therefore need improved content moderation tools). Also, can you migrate your toots when you switch instance?
  2. Existing clients/apps for Twitter and Mastodon could provide support for the other service, giving users more options about which posts go to which services, and easing interaction between users on the two services.
  3. European Twitter users have data portability rights under the General Data Protection Regulation (Article 20), including to have a data controller (such as Twitter) directly send their profile to another controller (such as a Mastodon instance) “where technically feasible”. This could be used to create even smoother switching tools.
  4. It would be useful to have tools to maintain shared global databases of users who have published their Mastodon address on their Twitter profile (and vice versa). This would allow tools synchronising posts between the services to translate addresses from one service to the other, easing interaction between users. It would also potentially enable better cross-service interaction (e.g. if a user on Mastodon replies to a toot which has been cross-posted from Twitter, and their sync tool is able to identify the original tweet, it could post the reply there too). @lexzard adds: “Would it not be better if I was able to find you by searching [for] you [on Mastodon], instead of coming to Twitter to find your handle?” And as Twitter users start tooting, their followers on Mastodon could automatically unfollow them on Twitter.
  5. Mastodon helpfully already includes the option for users to auto-delete toots. It would be helpful if there were mechanisms for such deletions to be automatically notified to other services which may have republished or indexed that content (this is also required by the GDPR’s Article 17(2) “taking account of available technology and the cost of implementation”).
  6. Mastodon already makes it easy for users to switch their profile to another instance, including who they follow — but I’m not clear how easy it is for people who follow them to automatically find their new home. Could this process be made easier (e.g. with auto-notifications when people move instance, and/or some form of address redirection for a period afterwards?) And also work with Twitter? UPDATE: @bendrath toots: “When you move to a new [Mastodon] instance, your followers automatically follow you there. I just tried it last night. Takes a bit, but works fine. (Didn’t work for those I follow, but there are export-import functions for that.)” @tnhh toots: “My followers migrated but not my followees. And once you have migrated, your old account is disabled so you can’t use the import/export tool. So don’t repeat my mistake and backup before you start!” @kik1 agrees: “Before you move, secure your profile pic and bio”.
  7. The decentralised nature of the Fediverse makes it (right now) slightly more tricky to interact with than the centralised sites people are used to. It would be great to have Web browser extensions to simplify Mastodon tasks like following people and boosting/favouriting posts on other instances, and sharing Web pages. Seen any yet, esp. Safari? (I like Mastonaut and the Mastodon iOS/iPadOS app but sometimes I come back to the Web UI, and that’s where many new users will start.) UPDATE: @mikarv and @nemobis suggest this for Firefox (needs updating for Mastodon 4.0). @rriemann found this old (for now, abandoned) attempt from Mastodon’s founder Eugen Rochko.
  8. It’s great to see many non-techies experimenting with setting up their up Mastodon instances/communities. It would be helpful if they had more user-friendly tools to collaborate on moderating content. There are already some great tools like liberapay for funding instance costs, and advice for building cooperative governance structures. Here’s how the (very techie ?) Kris Nóva is using the current tools. Evan Greer puts it beautifully in Time: “If we want a modern town square we can leave to our children and our children’s children, we need to build online spaces that can’t be owned or controlled by a single person, with tools to address harm, harassment, and injustice that give individuals and communities power”.

Please add ideas and tools you’ve come across in the comments to this post! I’ll also add suggestions from Mastodon and Twitter over time. Can we turn the migration into a stampede?

UPDATE: @NicholasBohm tweets: “I think we need one or more idiots’ guides with advice about e.g. differences between Mastodon instances, what tools to use to ease transition, and how to use them. (Or I do, anyway.)” The German information commissioner’s office has one (and a Mastodon account)!