Risks of Mastodon for Journalists
Or why Stephen Bush of the FT has two newsletters, but does not know it
Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News, a UK news broadcaster, asks on Twitter:
Ok…Mastodon…erm…which server to use?
The responses are a combination of mutual confusion and assurances that it does not matter and that she can correct any mistake later. What all of the responses fail to mention is that she might not have a choice at all. In at least one possible future where some version of the fediverse prevails, her Mastadon handle will be:
This has potentially major implications for Newman's future relationships with both with her audiences and her employers.
Nearly every journalist is invested in what happens to Twitter. It is often their first port of call when communicating with their audiences - more so than the newspaper, magazine, website, podcast, etc... that they call their employer. Having a large following on Twitter is valuable not only to employers to drive traffic but to journalists as a means of marketing themselves on the jobs market. From the point of view of an employer, hiring a prominent journalist is a way of acquiring a new audience. The list of Twitter followers of their new hire figures into that hiring decision.
It is only natural that in an environment where Twitter's new ownership is causing at least a sense of chaos and raising reasonable questions about its financial viability that journalists are looking at alternatives such as Mastodon.
A key difference between Twitter and Mastadon is that no single entity is responsible for the entire thing. Mastodon is made up of multiple service providers in much the same way that Gmail or Microsoft Outlook provides email services. Or most pertinently, how your employer can provide email services under their own domain. You and your followers can communicate between those services without friction in much the same way as you can email someone at a different email domain. It is easy for a business such as a newspaper to manage its own Mastodon server.
On Mastodon, your followers follow you at your service provider's domain in roughly the same way as people subscribe to say an email newsletter. Unlike an email newsletter it is possible for you to easily move to another server and have an automated system update all of your followers to follow you on your new service provider without your followers even noticing it happened, but only if the service provider is cooperative:
Moving your account is the same as redirecting your account, but it will also irreversibly force everyone to unfollow your current account and follow your new account, if their software supports the Move activity. Your toots will not be moved, due to technical limitations. There is also a very heavy cooldown period in which you cannot migrate again, so be very careful before using this option! - Mastadon - 2022-11-07
Let us imagine a scenario based on real events in the last year.
Stephen Bush is a political editor at the New
Statesman. He maintains a daily morning email newsletter that gets sent from his
work email account,
firstname.lastname@example.org. Later, Bush is
interviewing for a role as a political editor at the Financial Times, a role he
desires for the larger dining expense budget. He explains that he could write a
newsletter for the FT to help drive subscriptions. While his current employer
owns the list of email newsletter subscribers at the New Statesman, he controls
a Twitter account,
@stephenkb, with 140k followers that likely strongly
overlaps with both his current employer's newsletter and general readership.
Stephen argues that he can drive new subscriptions to both the FT and this
new newsletter by soliciting his followers on Twitter. Along with other
qualities, Bush secures the job and eats well at
St John on Marylebone.
Except, Bush does not have a Twitter account, as Twitter collapsed years ago.
Instead Bush has a Mastadon account that he uses for work,
email@example.com, and which he is obligated to use for work
purposes. It does not quite have as many followers (roughly 90k) as his
imaginary Twitter account because his previous employer at the Telegraph did not
allow him to move his followers when he changed jobs. He lost control over that
work account at the end of his previous employment.
When Bush interviews for the FT he argues that he could drive more subscriptions, but without being able to credibly say he can solicit all of his followers at the New Statesman his interviewer finds this argument less credible. The FT still offers Bush a job, but with less generous terms. So Stephen decides to stay at the New Statesman and cries into an overcooked English Breakfast at a nearby greasy spoon at the next Labour Party conference.
Stephen Bush's work Mastadon account is as transferable and under his control as his work email account is - not at all.
If something like Mastadon ends up taking the place of Twitter a best case scenario for maintaining the status quo is that each journalist self-hosts their own server or some independent and reliable operator(s) for journalists arises to take Twitter's place. I think a more likely future is that given the opportunity by publishers to take back control over... publishing, they will reach for control as quickly as they can to rein in their employees.