Posts about twitter

On joining Mastodon

An academic friend asked for help joining Mastodon. I wrote a detailed email in response that I thought it might be useful to others. I’m also going to teach a master class in Mastodon at my school on Dec. 5 — much interest, I’m told — so here is my preparation on the practical stuff. (I will also talk that day about the implications of federation on journalism and of affordances on communities such as Black Twitter.) Keep in mind that I am a newbie, so please correct me where where I stray.

It will be a pleasure to welcome you to the new neighborhood. I’m quite liking it already. Once you arrive, you’ll find it familiar enough: You have a home timeline, a feed of just the people you follow, but with no algorithmic promotion, no ads. You can write posts (the verb to “toot” has, mercifully, become to “publish”) and boost others’ posts (AKA retweet) and reply to posts. You will receive notifications when people respond to you, boost your posts, and follow you.

You cannot quote-tweet posts as of now because of the founder’s belief that this affordance leads to performative over conversational behavior. That contention is being contested by people from Black Twitter, who use quote tweets for their call-and-response culture. Dr. Johnathan Flowers is forceful and instructive on the topic. Lately, Eugen Rochko, (@gargron), Mastodon’s founder, has softened and said he open to discussion. Developers are making suggestions for how to make QTs work (which is the beauty of this open-source project; change is emergent).

The two things that befuddle people getting started are how to pick an instance or server to join and then how to find folks. Mastodon is actually a few thousand servers — or instances, in the parlance — that each run versions of the same software and are all connected or federated in what is called the Fediverse, using an open-source protocol called ActivityPub. Every instance is independently run but can connect to any or all of the other instances, allowing you to connect with anyone on them. Not all of them are Mastodon; there are, for example, other servers for a photo-based social network called Pixelfed. No one owns this; no one can. That is the value of open source and federation. (Here is a post I wrote that examines and explains some of the implications and opportunities of federation.)

It doesn’t greatly matter what server you join as in this federated ecosystem, you can follow and converse with anyone on any server (except those that your host blocks; for example, the far-right, noxious Gab is blocked by most). Each server has its own rules. I am on, which is the biggest and is run by Eugen (@gargron).

If you prefer to be among academics, you might look to join for humanities scholars (though it is temporarily closed to new members until they catch up to the flood) or for arts and humanities, where I see lots of smart folks, or perhaps Here’s a list of alternatives from the Humanities commons and here is very good reference that lists academic servers. You can go to any server address and add explore — e.g., — to learn more about the server: who runs it, what its rules are. For journalists, we at Tow-Knight are supporting Adam Davidson as he launches There’s another called Note that various news organizations — including Rest of World, Texas Observer, and San Francisco Standard — are starting their own servers for their own newsrooms.My fellow geeks might want to join Leo Laporte’s; to manage the onslaught he is now restricting it to members of his club.

Don’t stress about the choice; just pick one and go with it.

The only real implications of joining a particular server are (1) that you can view a “local” timeline populated with the posts of all the people from that server and you might find that useful , and (2) you want a responsible host who is going to block the bad guys and moderate wisely. If once on Mastodon you find the grass greener on someone else’s server, you can take your identity and your followers and go there — that portability and interoperability is a key benefit and differentiation of the federated vs. the corporate and centralized internet. Keep in mind that the content you create on your first server stays there.

OK, to get started. Go to one of the addresses above, say Click sign up and you’ll be shown the rules of the house, and then pick your name and such. You’re in.

strongly recommend that you first take the time to fill in your profile with information about you, with your photo, for as soon as you start following people, they will want to know who you are and follow you back if relevant. I find it frustrating to have folks following me without letting me know who they are. It is also recommended that you write an introduction post and pin that to the top of your profile. (If you have a blog or site of your own, you can connect the two so that readers can know you are who you say ou are by using the rel=“me” markup, but that’s a graduate-level course I’ll leave that for another day.)

You will start using the web interface for Mastodon. It’s good, though I have a few key recommendations. Go to the settings (the little gear icon on top left) and under preferences/appearance I strongly suggest selecting advanced web interface. This will look like Tweetdeck. I happen to hate dark mode in all instances, but on Mastodon, it’s particularly hard to adjust to, so I urge you to try light mode.

Now to the next challenge: following people, for until you find folks to follow, you will hear only silence. One way to start is to search for folks you know are on Mastodon and see whom they follow.

Mastodon provides another fantastic way to get a starter kit: Under settings, import and export, click on import and here you can upload lists of folks to follow. For my friend to whom I wrote a version of this email, a book historian, I provided a list of book historians someone has compiled and a list of folks from my Book History Wonks Twitter list. Here is a wonderful list of lists of academics by discipline. Here is an incredibly long list of more than a thousand journalists on Mastodon (unless a masochist for hot takes, I would not suggest uploading them all).

Some of these provide a ready-made CSV to import. If not, copy just the column of Mastodon addresses into a new spreadsheet and save as a CSV. Upload the CSV file into Mastodon under settings/upload (you want to check the merge option). Voilà, you have new friends.

If you wish, you can use debirdify or fedifinder to check your own followers on Twitter for accounts that have Mastodon addresses. Click “search followed accounts” and it will produce a list and a CSV file. Since more and more folks are doing this, you will probably want to go back to your Twitter profile and add your new, forwarding address. My address, for example, is

By the way, Mastodon does not have a good, full-text search — on purpose (for they also believe that that enables trolls to find their targets). But you can search for names, Mastodon addresses, and hashtags.

Now let’s explore the advanced web interface for Mastodon.

The second column from the left is the most important: your home timeline. This, again, is just the people you follow in reverse-chronological order; no algo, no ads.

The third column is notifications. Once you get your sea legs, click on the settings icon on the top right of the column (the three lines) and you’ll find a plethora of choices for what notifications to receive or not: new followers, posts that mention you, replies to you, and so on. While you’re here, I recommend turning OFF sound on each one; the blips can be quite annoying. Note the subtle blue bar on the left; this is just what is new since you last read the column. (You can click the check atop the column to mark all as read.)**

Now to the first column. Here you can search for names. You can also search for hashtags; that is how people gather around topics and conversations on Mastodon. I have to get back into the habit of using hashtags in my posts. If you find a hashtag very useful, you can pin it as a column that will always appear.

Click the icon with a head and many arms and you will get your “local” timeline in another column. This is just people on your server, whether you follow them or not. Depending on the server you choose, it can seem useful or random. In the setting for this column, you can choose to pin and always show it, or not. The globe icon will open a new column called the “federated” timeline, which is a collection of everything from everyone that all the folks on your server boost on other servers. It can be a firehose. You may also choose to pin or not pin this. Thus far, I don’t use the local or federated timelines much but you might like them as a way to discover serendipitous conversations and people.

Now click on the hamburger menu on the upper left of the first column. If it is not already open, this will open the “getting started” menu with lots of offerings: direct messages to you (with the caution that direct messages are not encrypted so don’t go sharing your innermost secrets here); posts you have bookmarked (I find this handy), posts you have favorited (“liked” in Twitter parlance), lists you create, follow requests (NB this is *just* the follow requests Mastodon thinks might be suspicious; you will find all your follow requests in the notifications column). Note also that you can create lists of accounts you want to read regularly — I use that feature frequently on Twitter — but unfortunately, they are private and cannot be shared. Instead, there are groups. See some examples on the academic on mastodon page.

Click #Explore and you see four nice features: Posts are posts that are popular from across the fediverse. Hashtags are stats on the trending hashtags. News is an ok list of media stories getting links. And for you are recommendations for folks to follow; I find it of limited utility.

Now, finally, to the important part: writing. In that first column, you’ll find the box for that purpose. On most Mastodon instances, the character limit is 500 — generous next to Twitter’s 140 then 280. Some servers up that to 1,000; I have so far resisted the temptation to migrate there.

Here you can add a poll and mark the post’s language. By the way, translation works pretty well; I follow people in many languages as a result.

Mastodon has many norms built up since 2016. Norms being norms, these are likely to evolve as new people arrive wanting change and veterans resist that change; such is society.

One strong norm is that when you upload an image (with the paperclip in the posting box) you are expected to click “edit” and add alt text for accessibility. I was scolded once for not doing so and now I do it.

Another set of norms revolve around the content warning. When posting, click on the CW in the creation box and you can write a small headline others will see with the option to reveal the rest of your post — or not. This was intended to mask triggering or offensive content, important because Mastodon from its start has served vulnerable communities. However, some have extended this norm to contend that the content warning should be used for political posts. Others — especially people of color — insist (rightly, I think) that we should not hide the realities of life behind this veil. How you use it or not is up to you.

Some folks prefer other interfaces for Mastodon on the web and mobile. I’m odd — Chrome OS and Android — so I can’t speak to those for Mac and Windows and IOS.

The ethos of Mastodon, I find, is friendly, polite, curious, open, caring, decent. There will be bad apples in any orchard. Block them. Report them if they’re bad enough. There are more than enough smart people here with whom to have enjoyable, informative, and provocative conversations without the trolls Elon is nurturing in the Other Place.

Keep in mind that nearly everything you do on Mastodon is thanks to the volunteers who run servers and moderate activity there. They are humans, not algorithms. They, like algorithms, will make mistakes. Give them a break.

And give them money. Every server is likely to have a link to a place to give money to the host to pay for very real technology bills. You have left the land of corporatized, centralized, controlled conversation. It’s a new and exciting world. Help support it.

**New tip, thanks to my new Mastodon friend, Maxi5X, who pointed me to the notifications setting for the quick filter bar. That’s the menu bar atop the column. Set the second choice to display all categories…

And this is what appears: 

That way, you can get notifications just for mentions, favorites, boosts, poll results, and new followers. 

That little house icon takes you to another feature I didn’t mention: When you follow someone, next to the follow button is a bell. Click on that and you will be notified whenever that person posts. Thus I see whenever Eugen and my son — and Mike Masnick — post. Cool. 

Hope for a post-Musk net

Maybe we’ll look back and see that Elon Musk did us, the civilized citizens of the net, a favor by forcing us off our cozy if centralized, corporatized, and corrupted internet to find and build an alternative future grounded in the founding principles and dreams of this networked age. How’s that for looking on the bright side? 

Well, optimist to a fault that I am, I see a better future. Come along…

Twitter will fail — for all the reasons Nilay Patel’s mic-drop foretells — ending up in the sewer where journalists claim it has been all along, in bankruptcy, in the hands of Saudi princes, or — who knows — in Yahoo!, where all good things have gone to die. I’m not leaving Twitter, I’m still on Facebook, and I’m enjoying TikTok’s honeymoon. But I am packing my go-bag to travel to an internet built on protocols over platforms. Here, I’ll explore some of the opportunities afforded by the likes of Bluesky, Scuttlebutt, the Fediverse, and Indieweb — not to mention good, old, reliable RSS. Nowhere better to start getting one’s head around this distributed vision than with Mike Masnick’s epic explainer, Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech.

To start with the present, I am on Mastodon and already enjoying it. Come on in; the water’s fine. For me, it is already reaching critical mass — not mass media, mind you; let us leave scale and its debasements behind — with folks I know from Twitter and new and interesting conversants, particularly academics and journalists. Don’t let unhelpful reporters dissuade you with their arm-waving about complexity; you are smarter than they think you are. 

It’s really quite simple: Join any server, set up your profile (say who you are, please), and start looking for folks to follow: search for friends and follow whom they follow, or click on the local (your server) or federated (every server) timeline to see who’s strolling by the front porch, then follow hashtags to interesting conversations and people. A few tips from my vast experience of days: Go to the settings and switch to light mode (really, it makes a difference; it’s not just my dark-mode phobia) and enable the advanced web interface (it’s like Tweetdeck). Boost posts you like (no quote tweets here). Use the verb “to toot” at your option. If it slows down for a bit, just remember Twitter’s Fail Whale of yore, know that your server is run by volunteers (led by the amazing Eugen Rochko), and chill; it’ll speed up speedily.  

There are more than 3,000 Mastodon servers, all built on and connected via the ActivityPub protocol. There are also related services you can connect to (e.g., Pixelfed, an Instagram that doesn’t Zuck). You may follow folks from any server, so where you start isn’t all that important. Later, if you want, you can move yourself to another server (you’ll keep your followers but lose your posts).

Here’s the most important thing about this open architecture: No one owns it. Musk can’t buy it (not that he can afford to buy a bagel anymore). I predict this will give censorious and authoritarian governments fits when they realize that a federated, distributed conversation is impossible to control (just as the printing press was; I have a book about that coming out soon). That immunity from control is a reason to love it — and also to be concerned, for there is no central authority to verify identity or kill bad accounts. 

Which leads us to the next most important thing about this Fediverse: It’s adaptable. Look how already academics are gathering to create groups and lists of folks you can import and follow all at once. I’d like to see journalists and COVID experts and my beloved book-history wonks do likewise. See also Dan Hon’s excellent suggestion for news organizations— or universities, companies, or any organization or institution — to set up their own Mastodon servers to verify and control their users. Say The Guardian set up a server and created accounts for all its journalists, then when you see someone coming from that server, you know for certain who she is. That is a new blue check of verification (now that Twitter’s blue check becomes the mark of the $8 shmuck). Again, if someone leaves the paper, she can take her identity and social graph with her elsewhere. Because it’s open and federated. 

I want news organizations to not only set up their own servers but also to start adding share-on-Mastodon buttons to story pages. That will send a message to Elon et al, endorsing an alternative. 

With me so far? Now is where it gets exciting. In an open, federated, distributed, and/or peer-to-peer ecosystem, folks can come and build services atop it. As both Masnick and Daphne Keller explain — see also Cory Doctorow and Jonathan Zittrain — this might allow you to pick the level of algorithmic and human curation and moderation you want as companies or organizations offer such services. Say you want the Disneyfied social feed, cleansed of all nastiness and filled with unicorns; Disney could provide that and charge for it. Ditto a Guardian liberal feel; you could donate to help them. Or, yes, you could get your crazy Uncle Al’s feed of nothing but conspiracies from Q’s Pizza Parlor. That’d be up to you.

In this distributed future, other services can be offered. Institutions, entrepreneurs, or individuals could provide services including curation and recommendation (of users and content), verification (of users), and authentication (of content). See also our founding webmaster, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for data vaults that would allow you to hold and control your information; he’s building a service called Inrupt based on the protocol he proposes, Solid. We will see new means to help pay for and support the services and creativity we want. I anticipate new kinds of clubhouses where folks of like interest, need, or circumstance can gather to connect or collaborate.

Then no longer are we caught in an endless, hopeless game of Whac-a-Mole against the bad shit on the net. Now, at last, we can concentrate instead on finding the good shit — and get help doing so. This is precisely what happened when print emerged. See the story of Nicolo Perotti asking the Pope to censor the press in 1470, when what he really wished for was the establishment of the new institutions of editing and publishing: to find, improve, support, recommend, verify, and authenticate the good shit. 

What institutions need we create now, in this new reality? Note that I did not say what new technologies. We have lots of technologies; more than enough, thank you. What we need are human standards, norms, and means to discover and support quality and credibility, talent and utility.

This is not to say that there is not more technological work to be done. It is underway. I have long been enthusiastic about the prospects for Bluesky, a protocol for an open, distributed social ecosystem proposed by Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey and now run by Jay Graber. Bluesky is funded independently of Twitter and Musk (thank God and Jack). They just released the first version of their protocol and an app will follow soon. Here are Bluesky’s principles:

Account portability. A person’s online identity should not be owned by corporations with no accountability to their users. With the AT Protocol, you can move your account from one provider to another without losing any of your data or social graph.

Algorithmic choice. Algorithms dictate what we see and who we can reach. We must have control over our algorithms if we’re going to trust in our online spaces. The AT Protocol includes an open algorithms mode so users have more control over their experience.

Interoperation. The world needs a diverse market of connected services to ensure healthy competition. Interoperation needs to feel like second nature to the Web. The AT Protocol includes a schema-based interoperation framework called Lexicon to help solve coordination challenges.

Performance. A lot of novel protocols throw performance out of the window, resulting in long loading times before you can see your timeline. We don’t see performance as optional, so we’ve made it a priority to build for fast loading at large scales.

My fondest hope is that @jack, who still owns his chunk of Twitter — thus saving Musk $1 billion! — might convince Elon to open Twitter to Bluesky. Imagine if we could control our identities and social graphs and take them wherever we want, choosing the curation we desire, and interacting with folks on many other services. That might just save Twitter and Musk’s own hide, for then his users would not feel so trapped there. 

I’m also excited by the work of rabble, an early employee at Twitter, on the Scuttlebutt protocol. Leo Laporte and I had an enlightening conversation with him about the app he is building, Planetary, and about his fascinating collaboration with the Maori of New Zealand, learning from their social structures and enabling peer-to-peer communication off the grid. I’ll let him explain (the conversation begins with Twitter tales, then gets to the meet of Scuttlebutt, and Rabble returns at the end for more):

And lest we make the mistake of once again being dazzled by only the new, shiny things, also follow the ongoing work of pioneers including Dave Winer ☮, a creator of RSS (and podcasting atop it) and a pioneering blogger. Blogging is a model for the conversation we want and we can still have it there. See also Kevin Marks, a champion of the Indieweb. See also our This Week in Google conversation with Matt Mullenweg about the virtues of open source. The things that work online, that give you choice and some measure of control, are the things built on open protocols: the net itself (TCP/IP), the web, email, and next those explored here. 

Mind you, this is not a net without corporations and capitalism; they can use the protocols, too, and I’m glad Google gives us usable email and spam protection. But it need no longer be a net corrupted by the business model of mass media imported online: the attention economy. And it need no longer be a net under sole corporate control — and thus, potentially, the influence of malign actors, whether Musk or his pals Putin or Trump. 

If we gain this promising future, if we return to the net’s founding principles, keep one thing clearly in mind: It won’t be so easy to blame the bad shit on the corporations and nasty nerd boys anymore. The net will be ours along with the responsibility to build and enforce the expectations and standards we wish for. The net is us, or it can be at last.

*Image from

<a rel=”me” href=”https://your.server/@your_username”>Mastodon</a>


Concede defeat to bad speech

What if we concede that the battle against “bad speech” is lost? Disinformation and lies will exist no matter what we do. Those who want such speech will always be able to say it and find it. Murdoch and Musk win. That is just realism. 

Then what? Then we turn our attention to finding, amplifying, and supporting quality speech.

A big problem with concentrating so much attention and resource on “bad speech,” especially these last five years, is that it allows — no, encourages — the bad speakers to set the public agenda, which is precisely what they want. They feed on attention. They win. Even when they lose — when they get moderated, or in their terms “censored” and “canceled,” allowing them to play victim — they win. Haven’t we yet learned that?

Another problem is that all speech becomes tarred with the bad speakers’ brush. The internet and its freedoms for all are being tainted, regulated, and rejected in a grandly futile game of Whac-A-Mole against the few, the loud, the stupid. Media’s moral panic against its new competitor, the net, is blaming all our ills on technology (so media accept none of the responsibility for where we are). I hear journalists, regulators, and even academics begin to ask whether there is “too much speech.” What an abhorrent question in an enlightened society. 

But the real problem with concentrating on “bad speech” is that no resource is going to good speech: supporting speech that is informed, authoritative, expert, constructive, relevant, useful, creative, artful. Good speech is being ignored, even starved. Then the bad speakers win once more.

What does it mean to concentrate on good speech? At the dawn of print and its new abundance of speech, new institutions were needed to nurture it. In my upcoming book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis (out early next year from Bloomsbury Academic), I tell the story of the first recorded attempt to impose censorship on print, coming only 15 years after Gutenberg’s Bible.

In 1470, Latin grammarian Niccolò Perotti begged Pope Paul II to impose Vatican control on the printing of books. It was a new translation of Pliny that set him off. In his litany of complaint to the pope, he pointed to 22 grammatical errors, which much offended him. Mind you, Perotti had been an optimist about printing. He “hoped that there would soon be such an abundance of books that everyone, however poor and wretched, would have whatever was desired,” wrote John Monfasani. But the first tech backlash was not long in coming, for Perotti’s “hopes have been thoroughly dashed. The printers are turning out so much dross.” 

Perotti had a solution. He called upon Pope Paul to appoint a censor. “The easiest arrangement is to have someone or other charged by papal authority to oversee the work, who would both prescribe to the printers regulations governing the printing of books and would appoint some moderately learned man to examine and emend individual formes before printing,” Perotti wrote. “The task calls for intelligence, singular erudition, incredible zeal, and the highest vigilance.”

Note well that what Perotti was asking for was not a censor at all. Instead, he was envisioning the roles of the editor and the publishing house as means to assure and support quality in print. Indeed, the institutions of editor, publisher, critic, and journal were born to do just that. It worked pretty well for a half a millennium. 

Come the mechanization and industrialization of print with steam-powered pressed and typesetting machines — the subject of future books I’m working on — the problem arose again. There was plenty of proper complaint about the penny press and yellow press and just crappy press. But at that same time, early in this transformation in 1850, a new institution was born: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. See its mission in the first page of its first issue:

Rather than trying to eradicate all the new and bad speech suddenly appearing, Harper’s saw the need to support the good, “to place within the reach of the great mass of the American people the unbounded treasures of the Periodical Literature of the present day.”

Magazines — which Ben Franklin and Noah Webster had tried and failed to publish — flourished with new technology, new audiences, and new economics as good speech begat more good speech. 

I am not suggesting for a second that we stop moderating content on platforms. Platforms have the right and responsibility to create positive, safe, pleasing, productive — and, yes, profitable — environments for their users. 

But it is futile to stay up at night because — in the example of the legendary XKCD cartoon — someone is wrong, stupid, or mean on the internet. People who want to say stupid shit will find their place to do it. Acknowledge that. Stop paying heed to them. Attention is their feed, their fuel, their currency. Starve them of it.

I also am not suggesting that supporting good speech means supporting the incumbent institutions that have failed us. Most are simply not built to purpose for the new abundance of speech; there aren’t enough editors, publishers, and printing presses to cope. 

Some of these legacy institutions are outright abrogating their responsibility: See The New York Times believing that the defense of democracy is partisan advocacy. Says the new editor of The Times: “I honestly think that if we become a partisan organization exclusively focused on threats to democracy, and we give up our coverage of the issues, the social, political, and cultural divides that are animating participation in politics in America, we will lose the battle to be independent.” No one is suggesting this as either/or. I give up. 

Instead, supporting good speech means finding the speech that has always been there but unheard and unrepresented in the incumbent institutions of mass media. Until and unless Musk actually buys and ruins Twitter, it is a wealth of communities and creativity, of lived perspectives, of expertise, of deliberative dialogue — you just have to be willing to see it. Read André Brock, Jr.’s Distributed Blackness to see what is possible and worth fighting for. 

Supporting good speech means helping speakers with education, not to aspire to what came before but to use the tools of language, technology, collaboration, and art to express themselves and create in new ways, to invent new forms and genres. 

Supporting good speech means bringing attention to their work. This is why I keep pointing to Jack Dorsey’s Blue Sky as a framework to acknowledge that the speech layer of the net is already commodified and that the opportunity lies in building services to discover and share good speech: a new Harper’s for a new age built to scale and purpose. I hope for editors and entrepreneurs who will build services to find for me the people worth hearing. 

Supporting good speech means investing in it. Millions have been poured into tamping down disinformation and good. I helped redirect some of those funds. We needed to learn. I don’t regret or criticize those efforts. But now we need to shift resources to nurturing quality and invention. As one small example, see how Reddit is going to fund experiments by its users. 

We need to understand “bad speech” as the new spam and treat it with similar disdain, tools, and dismissal. There’ll always be spam and I’m grateful that Google, et al, invest in trying to stay no more than one foot behind them. We need to do likewise with those who would manipulate the public conversation for more than greedy ends: to spread their hate and bile and authoritarian racism and bigotry. Yes, stay vigilant. Yes, moderate their shit. Yes, thwart them at every turn. But also take them off the stage. Turn off the spotlight on them. 

Turn the spotlight onto the countless smart, informed, creative people dying to be seen and heard. Support good speech. 

A conversation with Steak-umm’s Twitter voice, Nathan Allebach

I just had a delightful conversation with the voice behind Steak-umm’s Twitter, Nathan Allebach, who — from the platform of a frozen meat brand — has brought sanity, rationality, and empathy to the discussion online in the midst of this pandemic.

I did this mainly for journalism students and journalists, for there is much to learn from Nathan about listening, about bringing value to conversation, about community, about empathy, and about authenticity and transparency. In the end, when I ask him whether he would think of being a journalist, he said he might be too radical in his view of journalism and marketing; I told him he’s made for our Social Journalism program at the Newmark J-School.

Nathan talks about how he approaches communities on Twitter, how he built trust between himself and his client and their brand and the public, how he has to navigate the delicate line between being himself and being the voice of a brand, and a little about himself as an autodidact nerd and musician.

Hot Trump. Cool @aoc.

I’ve been rereading a lot of Marshall McLuhan lately and I’m as confounded as ever by his conception of hot vs. cool media. And so I decided to try to test my thinking by comparing the phenomena of Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at this millennial media wendepunkt, as text and television give way to the net and whatever it becomes. I’ll also try to address the question: Why is @aoc driving the GOP mad?

McLuhan said that text and radio were hot media in that they were high-definition; they monopolized a sense (text the eye, radio the ear); they filled in all the blanks for the reader/listener and required or brooked no real interaction; they created — as we see with newspapers and journalism — a separation of creator from consumer. Television, he said, was a cool medium for it was low-definition across multiple senses, requiring the viewer to interact by filling in the blanks, starting quite literally with the blanks between the raster lines on the cathode-ray screen. “Low-definition invites participation,” explains McLuhan’s recently departed son Eric. (Thanks to Eric’s son, Andrew McLuhan, for sending me to this delightful video:)

Given that McLuhan formulated his theory at the fuzzy, black-and-white, rabbit-ears genesis of television, I wonder how much the label would be readjusted with 4K video and huge, wrap-around screens and surround sound. Eric McLuhan answers that hot v. cool is a continuum. I also wonder — as does every McLuhan follower — what the master would say about the internet. That presumes we can yet call the internet a thing unto itself and define it, which we can’t; it’s too early. So I’ll narrow the question to social media today.

And that brings us to Trump v. Ocasio-Cortez. Recall that McLuhan said that Richard Nixon lost his debate with John F. Kennedy because Nixon was too hot for the cool medium of TV. He told Playboy:

Kennedy was the first TV president because he was the first prominent American politician to ever understand the dynamics and lines of force of the television iconoscope. As I’ve explained, TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness and indifference to power, bred of personal wealth, which allowed him to adapt fully to TV. Any political candidate who doesn’t have such cool, low-definition qualities, which allow the viewer to fill in the gaps with his own personal identification, simply electrocutes himself on television — as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy in the 1960 campaign. Nixon was essentially hot; he presented a high-definition, sharply-defined image and action on the TV screen that contributed to his reputation as a phony — the “Tricky Dicky” syndrome that has dogged his footsteps for years. “Would you buy a used car from this man?” the political cartoon asked — and the answer was no, because he didn’t project the cool aura of disinterest and objectivity that Kennedy emanated so effortlessly and engagingly.

As TV became hotter — as it became high-definition — it found its man in Trump, who is as hot and unsubtle as a thermonuclear blast. Trump burns himself out with every appearance before crowds and cameras, never able to go far enough past his last performance — and it is a performance — to find a destination. He is destruction personified and that’s why he won, because his voters and believers yearn to destroy the institutions they do not trust, which is every institution we have today. Trump then represents the destruction of television itself. He’s so hot, he blew it up, ruining it for any candidate to follow, who cannot possibly top him on it. Kennedy was the first cool television politician. Obama was the last cool TV politician. Trump is the hot politician, the one who then took the medium’s every weakness and nuked it. TV amused itself to death.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not a candidate of television or radio or text because media — that is, journalists — completely missed her presence and success, didn’t cover her, and had to trip over each other to discover her long after voters had. How did voters discover her? How did she succeed? Social media: TwitterFacebookInstagramYouTube….

I think McLuhan’s analysis here would be straightforward: Social media are cool. Twitter in particular is cool because it provides such low-fidelity and requires the world to fill in so much, not only in interpretation and empathy but also in distribution (sharing). And Ocasio-Cortez herself is cool in every definition.

She handles her opponents brilliantly on social media, always flying above, never taking flack from them. Some people say she’s trolling the Republicans but I disagree. Trolling’s sole purpose is to get a rise out of an opponent, to make them angry and force them to react. She does not do that. She consistently states her positions and policies with confidence; let the haters hate. Yes, she shoots at her opponents, but like a sniper, always from her position, her platform.

She uses the net not only to make pronouncements but to build a community, a constituency that is larger than her district.


And her constituents respond.


Now I know some of you will argue that Trump is also a genius at Twitter because, after all, he governs by it. But I disagree. Trump’s tweets get the impact they get only because they are amplified by big, old media making stories in print and TV every single time he hits the big, blue button. Trump treats cool Twitter like he treats cool TV: with a flamethrower. On Twitter, he doesn’t win anything he hasn’t already won. Indeed, in his desperation to outdo himself, I think (or hope), it is by Twitter that he destroys himself through revealing too much of his ignorance and hate. That’s not cool.

Trump and his allies don’t know how to tweet but Ocasio-Cortez does — and that’s what so disturbs and confounds the GOP about @aoc. They think it should be so simple: just tweet your press releases — your “social media statements,” as their leader recently said — plus your best lines from speeches that get the loudest, hottest applause and rack up the most followers like the highest TV ratings and you will win. No. Twitter, Facebook, et al are not means to make a mass, like TV was. They are means to develop relationships and trust and to gather people around not just a person but also an idea, a cause, a common goal. That’s how Ocasio-Cortez uses them.

I want to be careful not to diminish Ocasio-Cortez as merely a social-media phenom, nor to build her up into some omniscient political demigod who will not stumble; she will. She is a talented, insightful politician who has the courage of her progressive and socialist convictions. Even when old media tries to goad a fight — because old media feed on the fight — over Ocasio-Cortez’ college dancing video, she still manages to bring the discussion back to her stands, her agenda. That is what drives them nuts.


And then:


Everyone ends up dancing to her tune. But they don’t talk about the dancing. They talk about the policy — her foes and her allies alike. She suggests a 70% tax rate for the richest and here come her enemies and then some experts, who have her back:


So what lessons do we learn from the early days of @aoc as possibly the first true, native politician of social media, not old media?

I think the GOP will eventually learn that anger is a flame that runs out of fuel. Anger stands against everything, for nothing. Anger builds nothing, not even a wall. Oh, anger is easy to exploit and media will help you exploit it, but that takes you nowhere. Lots of people might want to scream with the screamy guy, but who wants to invite him home for dinner? Trump is the angry celebrity and you end up knowing everything you want to know about him by watching him; there is nothing to fill in because he is so hot. “If somebody starts screaming at you, you don’t move in closer, you back up a little. And if they get a little rowdy and scream a little louder, you back up a little more. You don’t move in closer and start hugging,” Eric McLuhan explains in the video above. “A really hot situation like that… doesn’t require or even invite involvement.”

@aoc is a little mysterious, someone you want to know better; she is cool. The GOP has no cool politicians. The Democrats do not need their Trump, their celebrity, their hot personality. They should be grateful they have someone like Ocasio-Cortez to teach them how to be cool, if they are smart enough to watch and learn.

Media, too, have much to learn. We in journalism must see that our old, hot media — text and TV — are of the past. They won’t go away but they probablywon’t be trusted again. If we journalists have any hope of meeting our mission of informing the public, we have to use our new tools of the net to build relationships of authenticity and trust as humans, not institutions. We need to measure our success not based on mass but instead based on value and trust. Then we have to find a place to stand — on the platform of facts would be a lovely spot — and stay there, relying on principle and not on a mushy foundation built of fake balance or fleeting popularity or our own savvy. This is social journalism.

Oh, and we also need to learn that the next politician worth paying attention to won’t come to us with press releases and press people trying to get them on TV as that won’t matter to them. They are already out there building relationships with their constituents on social media and we need new means to listen to what is happening there.

There is one more confounding McLuhan lesson to grapple with here: that the medium is the message, that content is meaningless but it’s the medium itself that models a way to see the world. McLuhan argued that linear, bounded text by its very form taught us to how to think. The line, he said — and this sentence is an example — became our organizing principle. Books have borders and so do nations. This, I’ll argue, is why Trump wants to build his wall: a last, desperate border as all borders crumble.

McLuhan said electricity broke that linearity and he saw the beginnings of what could happen to our worldviews with the impact of television upon us. But that was only the beginning. Imagine what he would say about Twitter, Facebook, et al. I think he would tell us to pay attention not to the content — see: fake news! — but instead to learn from the form. What does social media teach us to do? What does the net itself teach us to do? To connect.