Episode 0004 · December 6, 2022

The podcast about what to do next.

Heading for the Exits

Twitter seems to be cooked (or is it). Where do we go now? We talk to Jason Goldman, former VP of Product at Twitter, and to each other, of course, and Paul admits that he really likes Mastodon.

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Paul Ford: Rich, what are you looking at on Twitter? It’s like some kind of animal with a long neck. Is it a llama? 

Rich Ziade: Alpaca. Don’t ever insult me like that again.

Paul Ford: What, what are you doing looking at alpacas?

Rich Ziade: I follow an alpaca farm on Twitter. Alright? Alright, don’t judge me. That’s what I do. They’re happy, they’re in a good mood always. They kind of bump into each other. It’s like, “Hey, Jim, I haven’t seen you in a while”. Like, they’re just chilling out. Why? You’re you– what, what?

Paul Ford: Why do you like to watch alpacas frolic on social media?

Rich Ziade: Let me tell you something. I’m scrolling through and everybody’s screaming at everybody. Some people are upset.

Some people are upset that you didn’t notice how upset they were. And then, an alpaca looks like, it just looks like a glass of lemonade just showed up on my Twitter feed and they’re just happy. And they have hairstyles that look like they’re out of the eighties and they run, they’re like in a synth pop band.

They’re just kind of ridiculous. And they’re, they’re just an absolute [00:01:00] innocence and purity to it in the middle of my feed, cause Twitter’s kind of a mess right now.

Rich Ziade: I keep lists. It’s a feature in Twitter. I’m into headphones, a bunch of different Twitter users talk about headphones and it’s just, uh, it’s still the last sane corner of Twitter to a large extent.

But recently, uh, one of the headphone people was like, “I’m outta here”. Now, I thought maybe someone had told him that dynamic driver headphones are better than planar magnetic, but that’s not why he was leaving… Paul [laughter]. Which is by the way, very controversial– which is better [laughter].

Paul Ford: We’ll come back to this in a future episode.

Rich Ziade: [laughter] He was leaving cause I think he was exhausted, [00:02:00] uh, with Twitter. It was kind of tiring. It was kind of boring a little bit. I, I’ve noticed also someone else is posting a hell of a lot less.

Paul Ford: This is true. I’ve, I’ve drifted off, I’ve drifted off before, but I, I’m not feeling it lately.

Rich Ziade: You– @ftrain, Twitter handle of Paul Ford,

Paul Ford: Yeah.

Rich Ziade: has kind of bailed a little bit. I noticed that, which is sur– I, I work with you. I see you a lot during your waking hours. You love Twitter.

Paul Ford: Look, I don’t need to explain what’s wrong with Twitter. There’s someone we know who was very early at Twitter. His name is Jason Goldman. I called him up and I, I just said, you know, “what’s going on here and what’s coming next, and where should people go”, because he’s got a lot of thoughts and feelings. And, uh, so let’s, let’s listen to him talk for a little bit.

Rich Ziade: That sounds great. 

Jason Goldman: I was at Twitter from early 2007 until the end of 2010,

Paul Ford: Okay.

Jason Goldman: and I was on the board of directors and I was head of product. One of the big things I believe to be true, I think you believe as well, is that if you give people an [00:03:00]interesting text box, unexpectedly delightful things can happen.

Often, terrible things, but unexpectedly delightful things can happen. Twitter was just a text box that people could do anything with, and all of a sudden, relatively early Japanese users were using the API to create synthetic cats that were talking to each other programmatically, um, you know, to such an extent that we had to like, you know, partition them onto a specific specific infrastructure to handle how much load the synthetic cats were sending at us from Japan. And so if you–

Paul Ford: Hold on. Let’s just, you know what, we have a minute [laughter]. What were the, synthe- what did they look like?

Jason Goldman: They were like anim-, they were like eight-bit. I think “neko” is the Japanese word for cat. The client was like called neko.JP, and all of a sudden like when you know there would be this diurnal effect. This is when the homepage of twitter.com was like the public timeline. It was just all of the tweets and all of a sudden when Japan would wake up, there’d be all of these eight bit cats just like, you know, or ASCII [00:04:00] cats, like talking to each other in Japanese. And we were like, “what? What is going on? ” And it became such a thing that we had to create, we had to create the “hide from public timeline flag” which was the original shadow ban, because it was like, all right, well we can’t show these people on the public timeline, and if we’re not gonna show the eight-bit anime cats, we’ll just apply that flag to anyone who’s like talking crazy on the public timeline or whatever.

And that was the original shadow ban. Um, but yeah, that was a, that was like a thing that happened relatively early. Cause again, people will do weird things.

All of the people who worked on, like all of the founders, like the people who helped build Twitter, Jack, Biz, Noah, those are three deeply weird people.

Paul Ford: Sure.

Jason Goldman: I mean, like, they, ,like, they all have deep idiosyncrasies and like, as a result, like the product came with this imbued oddness that inspired weirdness as well. But like, you know, the idea that you’re just gonna like, start over and like, you know, you’re, you’re just gonna start over on this journey and hopefully find the same things along the way just doesn’t seem as compelling to [00:05:00] me.

Paul Ford: Make something strange and work on it for years, and you might see an interesting result.

Jason Goldman: Yeah.

Paul Ford: Clone Twitter and you have a cover band.

Jason Goldman: Yeah, yeah. 

Paul Ford: So wait, okay, so I’m listening to this and I’m going, where should I go next?

Jason Goldman: Yeah.

Paul Ford: You, you were there early days. You like that cool energy. You helped create it.

Jason Goldman: Yeah.

Paul Ford: And now I, I don’t like the vibe. The vibe is is making me feel weird. What do you think I should do? 

Jason Goldman: So I do think like finding, I, I do think finding a Discord for something that you’re into is actually pretty interesting.

Paul Ford: Mm-hmm.

Jason Goldman: Like as a place to, as a place that you can have. It’s going to feel like a community in a way that actually Twitter really can’t. Because it’s open and public and you bump into all these other things. Twitter doesn’t have that feeling of community, a Discord that’s based around something that you have a shared affinity with does. So it’s very– and and you see how thirsty people are for that sense of home.

I, I’m in a bunch of these different discords for podcasts I like, and people [00:06:00] feel at home. They feel that they have found their people and that they’re able to talk about the stuff that they like in a place that isn’t going to be actively trolled or they’re not gonna be amplified to the part of the internet they didn’t wanna deal with.

And, and they’re grateful for that to exist. So, I think that’s, that that mode does exist. It just requires a bit of effort. And Discord’s hard to use too. Like it’s not, like, it’s not, it’s not like a trivial piece of software, it’s complicated. Um, but you know, you, there, there are options in places you can find homes.

Paul Ford: You started your career, your big web career at Blogger,

Jason Goldman: Yeah.

Paul Ford: is there a future for the longer form, more thoughtful stuff? Can we go in the other direction or is that moment sort of passed just given the architecture of, of the web and–

Jason Goldman: I don’t think so. I, and, and another thing I was thinking about was sort of the architectural similarity to having a podcast that you’re into and being in the Discord for that podcast and then there being a Substack author that you really like and some many Substack authors have Discords that are very active [00:07:00] that allow them to engage with their audience.

But of course, Substack itself also has community features that allows you to be a part of the community. That too is basically the– that that is the text version of the podcast based community idea. In both cases, what it’s doing, is it’s allowing people who are creators, who are willing to kind of put something out there as content to very easily sort of feel that they have a community around them.

And again, it’s scale free. If you have 50 people who are into the thing that you produce, it feels like you’re winning. It feels like you’re a success because you’ve got positive feedback from people who say, “I love this. I love having this in my ears when I take my dog out for a walk”. It doesn’t matter that you’re not gonna be Michael Barbaro or you’re not gonna be, you know, you’re not gonna be Casey Newton writing Platform or whatever.

You can have a audience that enjoys spending time with you, and the people in that audience will also enjoy being part of that community.

Paul Ford: Alright, Jason Goldman, I want to thank you for coming on Ziade and Ford Advisors.

Jason Goldman: This is a [00:08:00] privilege to be here. 

Paul Ford: So what happened to me is that I went on to Mastodon.

Rich Ziade: Oh boy… you set me up here.

Paul Ford: [Laughter].

Rich Ziade: I can tell.

Paul Ford: Ehhh, so Rich, I’m, I’m really, let me explain. Let me, let me hold you down and explain Mastodon to you [laughter].

Rich Ziade: Let me, let me give you a starting point and then you tell me where I’m off.

Paul Ford: Okay.

Rich Ziade: It’s a Twitter alternative. You post to Mastodon, it puts ’em on a server, and you follow other people. Right?

Paul Ford: Kind of. Okay. Yes, yes. It looks and feels a lot like Twitter.

Rich Ziade: Okayyy.

Paul Ford: But it’s different. Twitter had all the tweets, okay?

Rich Ziade: Okay. So when you post on Twitter,

Paul Ford: Yeah.

Rich Ziade: You tweet. It all goes to one place, Twitter.com.

Paul Ford: Twitter. Yup.

Rich Ziade: And then Twitter sees who follows you and spits your post back out onto other people’s feeds.

Paul Ford: It’s like one giant supercomputer that does all [00:09:00] the stuff.

Rich Ziade: It’s centralizing all the content in one place, policing it as best they can, and then spitting it back out.

Paul Ford: So there are a few clones that kind of work like that, but have a little, you know, a little twist, and then there’s Mastodon. Okay, so Mastodon is not one thing, and it’s not really, it’s not a Twitter clone. It’s a client that lets you talk to ActivityPub servers in the Fediverse. I can explain as much or as little of this as you want.  

Rich Ziade: This is you, this is you showing off now. Alright, stop me where this is, where I’m getting it wrong. When I post on Mastodon, it goes to the mastodon.com server.

Paul Ford: It does not.

Rich Ziade: Okay, where is it going? 

Paul Ford: It goes to– so Mastodon is not one server, but tens of thousands of individually operated servers, like franchises,

Rich Ziade: Ahhh…

Paul Ford: like there’s not–imagine McDonald’s, right? Like everybody sets up a Mastodon server at their own domain name.

Rich Ziade: I could set one up.

Paul Ford: You could set one up. We could set one up right now, and then you [00:10:00] decide who gets to come in.

Rich Ziade: Okay, so this is the Fediverse instead of one central place, it’s many servers that– so it’s like a BBS because I can invite my friends in and we can see each other’s posts.

Paul Ford: Except if you have an account on the BBS and someone else has another BBS…

Rich Ziade: Uh-huh, another server…

Paul Ford: You can follow them at that other account.

Rich Ziade: Ahhh, so these different servers are talking to each other?

Paul Ford: That’s correct.

Rich Ziade: Got it. So there’s a California is Great! server, and there is a Headphone Advice server, and it’s just people there. But I can follow people that are in a political party, in the headphone community and put them all into one feed. Is that, is that right?

Paul Ford: That’s right. And so they have longer addresses. It’s, I am @Ftrain@tilda.zone.

Rich Ziade: Got it.

Paul Ford: Cause I’m on that particular server.

Rich Ziade: Got it.

Paul Ford: So when you, the fact that the servers can talk to each other is called, that’s federation.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm.

Paul Ford: And that’s the Fediverse.

Rich Ziade: Got it.

Paul Ford: There is no [00:11:00] central repository. This is all about people finding each other.

Rich Ziade: Okay. Let me help you find my neo-Nazi server, Paul. I could set one. I have– you’re giving me total control here. I could, I could sign up for a hosting provider at a hosting provider and just set up neo-Nazi dot mastodon dot social, or whatever?

Paul Ford: You absolutely can do that. 

Rich Ziade: Okay, so then this sounds terrible.

Paul Ford: So just like you can go into Twitter and start running your mouth about your Nazi stuff, but then in theory people would block you or moderators, would shut you down, right?

Rich Ziade: Mm-hmm.

Paul Ford: The way it works here is different, which is you are, you start your Nazi server and you invite in lots of Nazi friends, right?

Rich Ziade: Mm-hmm.

Paul Ford: Well, what do Nazis do? They don’t like to actually just talk amongst themselves, they like to say racist or awful things to other people.

Rich Ziade: They like to yell at other people.

Paul Ford: Exactly.

Rich Ziade: They’re very frustrated.

Paul Ford: So what happens on Mastodon is you go, “Hey, wait a minute. It looks like that’s a [00:12:00] bunch of Nazis” and hey, you’re my admin, so there are blocking tools and so on. But you can say to the admin, “why don’t we just make it so that none of the Nazis can talk to any of our people?”.

Rich Ziade: Ahhh.

Paul Ford: And so of course what happens is being the internet, there’s lots of tools for loose coordination. So there are lists of, uh, instances to block. Places that talk about really bad stuff like Nazis, pedophilia, or all that stuff. 

Rich Ziade: I see, that’s interesting. So my entire server will be blocked out of a broader network. But if I find a, a sibling Nazi community based in Finland. Not to suggest that the Finnish, the fine Finnish people would ever do that. We could talk to each other.

Paul Ford: Correct.

Rich Ziade: Those two servers could talk to each other, but the rest of the world may say, no Nazis, we don’t want– you know, disgusting Nazi rhetoric, you’re blocked, the whole server.

Paul Ford: That seems accurate.

Rich Ziade: So if I’ve got thousands of people on there, nothing they post on that server will make it out to the, the [00:13:00] Fediverse.

Paul Ford: Correct.

Rich Ziade: Got it.

Paul Ford: And, and it helps you to avoid the, well, he’s just, there’s just one bad apple challenge,

Rich Ziade: Mm-hmm.

Paul Ford: where it’s like, oh, he’s a little noisy and he, you know, he has those swastikas, but the rest of us are pretty nice.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm, yeah.

Paul Ford: The, the way it goes is you just go– Nope, sorry all of you are off limits until you deal with your stuff.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, got it. Okay. So– alright, but let me, let me present a hairy situation for you.

Paul Ford: Okay, I like hairy situations.

Rich Ziade: I created, uh, the, um, Red, Red Wine Mastodon server, which is–

Paul Ford: Communist, or far right?

Rich Ziade: Far right.

Paul Ford: Okay.

Rich Ziade: Not too far right. I’m actually a pretty sensible admin Paul.

Paul Ford: Great.

Rich Ziade: Um, I believe the best, uh, outcomes happen when there is spirited discussion and debate in, in, in really, um, courteous contexts and–

Paul Ford: Would you call yourself fiscally conservative but socially liberal?

Rich Ziade: Don’t do that. Don’t do that. Don’t do that. Um, so, [00:14:00] and then I was like, you know what? People can come on. And, uh, I, I hooked up to, um, uh, Blue, uh, Blue Monday Mastodon server.

Paul Ford: It’s kind of a good name for like a Democrat.

Rich Ziade: Yeah [laughter].

Paul Ford: BlueMonday.zone [laughter].

Rich Ziade: Blue Monday server, and look, they’re left-leaning and I’ve got, you know, a lot of like, you know, free speech advocates and Second Amendment people on the, on my server, which is right-leaning. And they’re, they’re, they’re, you know, they’ve, they’ve had some, some throw down fights and, and now I’ve got my users telling me, can you please block that server?

And I’m like, no, I don’t wanna block that server. And then they said, you know what, if you don’t block that server we’re gonna leave to the, the other, like right-leaning server. And I, and I’m in a, I’m in a situation now where like they only want to hear, uh, you know, they, they want it to be a club. And I said, no, that’s, that’s not how we get to a good place.

That doesn’t sound good. That sounds like this is all kind of just a bunch of clubs where [00:15:00] everybody’s sort of sell, you know– echo chamber. Like what’s the deal?

Paul Ford: You are under no obligation as their admin to do anything.

Rich Ziade: But they threaten to leave.

Paul Ford: They can leave. That is a power tool here. They can pick up, they can say, I wanna move my account from here to,

Rich Ziade: Okay.

Paul Ford: you know, like January6.Zone,

Rich Ziade: Interesting, interesting.

Paul Ford: and just never, uh, talk to anyone who isn’t far right again.

Rich Ziade: Okay.

Paul Ford: It, it, there’s a straight up migration tool.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: You can just say, I’m gonna take my followers and my follow– the people I’m following,

Rich Ziade: Okay…

Paul Ford: and I’m gonna go over here.

Rich Ziade: Okay.

Paul Ford: And the other server goes, “Hey cool”.

Rich Ziade: Okay, so the user has the power to always take their list of follows and followers elsewhere.

Paul Ford: The entire strategy of this platform is to just let people take their toys and go home.

Rich Ziade: Got it. It strikes me as something that’s going to allow more sane connections to thrive and the more radical ones to self-isolate.

Rich Ziade: Look, [00:16:00] global figures, political figures, presidents… fine, does any individual deserve a million followers?

Paul Ford: Well, if they do,

Rich Ziade: [laughter].

Paul Ford: they need to be providing content that 20,000 different servers find interesting and engaging.

Rich Ziade: Right. Yeah.

Paul Ford: I don’t think you have that kind of– the thing with Twitter is because it’s one place, there’s kind of a compound interest aspect to audience.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm.

Paul Ford: People with more audience get more audience.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Paul Ford: There’ll be some of this here, but it is spread out. This is states rather than federal, right?

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm.

Paul Ford: And so you just, you’re, you’re, it, it favors a kind of local to, you’re gonna be the best climate scientist in your community.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: You’re gonna be the, the most interesting modular synth builder.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: You’re not going to be a Kardashian. It’s just not that.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: It’s not constructed to give you the kind sponsorship and impact that would, would force you to connect to this.

Rich Ziade: Which is what that’s, and that’s, that’s what people lovveee, right? They love that attention. And that’s not, and this [00:17:00] place is sort of, has mechanisms that’s sort of limited in a good way.

Which by the way also highlights how incredibly hard the job of moderation is at Twitter. Like how big of an endeavor it actually is, right? Um–

Paul Ford: Well, what this argues is that it’s not worth doing on a centralized platform.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm.

Paul Ford: It’s better to just spread the work out around thousands and thousands of people who are interested in taking care of a local community of journalists, professors, cobblers, headphone enthusiasts,

Rich Ziade: Yup, yup.

Paul Ford: as opposed to assuming that one company can moderate all human speech equitably.

Rich Ziade: Let me ask you this, when I’m deciding that a, um, that I’ve joined a particular server on Mastodon and I was like, you know what? Nobody here– like for some reason they blocked the gardening server,

Paul Ford: Correct.

Rich Ziade: but I like, I can’t follow them because I committed to [00:18:00] that server that blocked the gardening server. I can’t follow any people on the gardening server.

Paul Ford: Ahh, you might be able to get around that. I’m not quite sure.

Rich Ziade: Okay.

Paul Ford: I think you might like, I think that basically individual choice does tend to trump, but there is this, but at the same time, like that’s not easy.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: That’s not as simple as one click. 

Rich Ziade: Got it. Got it. Um, alright, Paul, this sounds complicated and not very user friendly. We’re both tech savvy.

You love servers, and I don’t mean that in the fine dining sense, I mean that as in like just a nerd, we’re nerds [chuckles].

Paul Ford: Yes.

Rich Ziade: This is rough, this is pretty rough. Like, is somebody gonna make this easy?

Paul Ford: You know when we talk to crypto people and they say, “Hey, it’s still early”.

Rich Ziade: Yes, yes. Yeah. Like I can’t buy stuff that easily, wallets are weird, it’s a ton of work. Yes.

Paul Ford: However, in this case I signed up for [00:19:00] a server, I got access to the web client.

Rich Ziade: It was actually easier.

Paul Ford: It was easy. I got a App called MetaText. That works just fine. It’s a lot like Twitter.

Rich Ziade: Okay.

Paul Ford: It works on my phone and I have 6,000 followers and I’m posting fun stuff from archive.org. 

Rich Ziade: Okay. So, yes, the barrier to entry is definitely higher, but not terrible. It takes a little bit of work. Are you enjoying it?

Paul Ford: The vibe is so good right now. I don’t know what can last,

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm [laughter].

Paul Ford: but I definitely, it reminds me, look, I think where we’re headed Rich, and I, I didn’t think this was possible, but I think we’re headed in this zone. Like do I think that this is gonna take over Facebook? No, not really. Do I think this will destroy Twitter? No, not really. I think Twitter was going to destroy itself. Um, but in this zone,

Rich Ziade: Mm-hmm.

Paul Ford: I think we’re headed back towards an almost blogging style [00:20:00] vibe because what you, what you see are the professors all getting together and what they’re gonna want to do is publish for each other.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm, mm-hm, people aren’t as wired to virality and attention and likes and, and et cetera, et cetera. It’s more about, it’s a little more sober, uh, I think is a way to put it.

Paul Ford: If I was getting a PhD right now.

Rich `Ziade: Yeah, yeah.

Paul Ford: Focused on human computer interaction,

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm.

Paul Ford: I would show how the architectural decisions at the Fediverse Activity Pub, pub level,

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm.

Paul Ford: versus those of Twitter at the API level lead to radically different products. They kind of look the– same.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm. Sure, sure, sure.

Paul Ford: We should also point out, cause it makes everyone upset that Mastodon is but one Fediverse application. It’s the most successful by far, but there are also tools for classic blogging and there are also tools–

Rich Ziade: Of course.

Paul Ford: So, so a whole new world is coming into being.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: Um, and it’s exciting. It’s interesting.

Rich Ziade: There’s good stuff out there and [00:21:00] there’s, and it’s growing pretty quickly. Mastodon is not new, it’s worth sharing that with the world.

Paul Ford: It’s been around for many years.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, and, and now there’s interest because I think people are feeling a bit of a sense of control, uh, over the experience. And also, you know, the trust around what Twitter’s gonna be has kind of gone down. I think that’s real. Um, alright– uh, Paul, can people follow us on, uh, I don’t know, ZiadeandFord@mastodon.social dot something?

Paul Ford: We’re not there yet. The relationship between Mastodon and brands is something that the culture is working out.

Rich Ziade: Ohh [groans].

Paul Ford: I know, in theory we could sign up at one of the big providers. I’m giving it a minute, we’ll figure that out. 

Rich Ziade: Fine, fine. Um, I think we just put out the best 101 on Mastodon. We, I mean, this was the ultimate Advisory podcast, bro.

Paul Ford: What we didn’t do is explain exactly how to sign up. We’ll put some links in to other resources. We don’t need to, to rehash that.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: I, I think people need to get out there and [00:22:00] try it.

Rich Ziade: I think they should try it.

Rich Ziade: Um, we are Ziade and Ford Advisors. Paul, follow us on Twitter @ZiadeFord. It’s still there. It’s okay.

Paul Ford: Still there. Hello@ZiadeFord.com. The person who wrote and said, “Hey, that email isn’t working”. Thank you for that, we fixed that. I fixed that, Dan, thank you Dan.

Rich Ziade: Thanks Dan. Um, hit us up with podcast ideas, things you’d like advice about. We love getting emails. Um, and, uh, follow us on all the usual places where podcasts thrive. Uh–

Paul Ford: Except for Mastodon right now.

Rich Ziade: Except for Mastodon, right at this very moment [laughter]. Paul, uh, you’ve kind of won me over a little bit. I’m gonna go check it out. I have not checked it out as of this recording.

Paul Ford: It’s time.

Rich Ziade: Let’s do it. Have a great week, everyone. 

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