Pacific Tides
My name is Thomas Sturm and I'm a programmer, photographer and writer.

Now go outside and look at the sky.

Stolen Time

It took me way too long to figure out that something about me had changed.

Back in the 2000s I had constantly a number of side projects that I kept up with concurrently - there was photography, random code experiments, learning new technologies, reading - a LOT of reading actually, other random hardware projects, some writing, blogging...

But I never felt overpowered by all of it - it all seemed to fit into the natural flow of the years.

Then social networks became a thing. While I never really got into Facebook, once I discovered how powerful Twitter could be to connect to other people with similar interests, I was smitten. And Twitter in the beginning didn't feel like it would fill out every empty nook and cranny of my life. Yet.

By about 2014-15 my Twitter habit started to change. Part of it is certainly that I became more proficient in finding interesting new people, but I also blame Twitter for this. The company started to introduce many small changes to make the timeline more sticky. Each new change was first derided by the users, but then usually accepted and often embraced.

Now these changes were carefully crafted. While the company was selling these changes as improvements of the user experience, each change was undoubtedly tested to improve the amount of tweets - and the number of ads - that a typical user would see on the site.

And I loved it. By 2016 I had made Twitter my main window to the world. First thing I opened in the morning, last thing I saw in the evening. Many tens of thousands of tweets sent, untold numbers seen.

It was so useful! News, local events, emergencies and emergency response, friends from all over the world, amazing direct access to experts of any field, cat pictures, weather, astronauts live-tweeting. All at my fingertips!

But what had slipped through my fingers was time. Time I could have spent doing things. Yes, I was still doing things, but everything had to somehow end up on my timeline - I did fun things, but they were even more fun if I could tweet about them! Whee!

So many of my hobbies actually fell by the wayside. And even if I was working on something, I flipped back to Twitter way too often just so see what was new. Everybody was always DOING THINGS! We all impressed each other with our cleverness, but every switch back to the timeline was another moment of not focussing on what I was actually working on.

And then the fascists discovered Twitter. And the next President of the US would focus on Twitter as his main outlet. It's like a plague ship had arrived in the harbor of our little town.

Twitter became ever more angry. The carefully honed mechanism of quote tweets with the virulence of the algorithmic timeline allowed for wave after wave of disgusting messages to flood through all our brains. And even if you didn't already follow the news outlets, there were the "Tweets you might like" and similar, always pushing things to the top that were guaranteed to make you react, retweet, respond, add a shallow thought with a quote-tweet.

The machine was churning out hooks so fast that we all got caught, bouncing the latest Presidential stupidity back and forward, with every click certain that we had done our part. This next tweet will SAVE THE WORLD!

Sometime in 2018 the glossy finish started to come off my personal timeline. What were all those witty one-liners in my quote-tweets actually doing? Also, why was it that Twitter seemed to be perfectly able to filter fascist propaganda in Germany, where there was a law about such things, but was seemingly completely and utterly unable to even understand the concept of fascism in the US?

And that really started to bother me. I was feeding content into the maw of this monster, giving it my time and energy, and what I got in return were reasons to hate the world. Yes, my friends are all there, too. But that was like saying my friends were with me on the Titanic.

And the captain of this specific ship didn't even seem to believe in the concept of icebergs.

I specifically remember what broke my back. Twitter's CEO had given an interview on August 15th 2018 to NBC News, and he said in many words that fascist hate speech was not a reason for a permanent ban, because at the end it's all just opinions.

On August 16th, I had a Mastodon account.

Now I did not immediately realize how different Mastodon would be. The timeline is actually... a timeline! There is no algorithm pushing and reshuffling toots. There are no quote tweets! These two changes alone make for a much less stressful social networking experience. Add to that a hands-on interest by instance owners in moderating their users and the connections to less desirable instances, and it is blissfully non-aggressive and fascist-free.

After a few weeks of experimenting with Mastodon, I realized something: I suddenly had time!

Instead of quote-tweeting political screeds into the morning hours, I could take a quick look at my timeline at midnight, and then just leave it all be and go to bed.

This was unsettling. It took me several months of self-reflection to understand what had happened, to accept that now things suddenly were different, and then carefully explore all of this amazing free time I had.

My overall mood has improved dramatically, too. Now you might call it ostrich-like head-in-the-sand behavior, but I don't actually need a daily reminder that fascists still exist and what they are capable of.

But if I really want to change the world I'm going to have to just make my own life the best it can be. Maybe my art or my writing will change one person's mind. That's the best anybody can hope for.

© 1998 - 2022 Thomas Sturm