Magazine

Chaos on Twitter Leads a Group of Journalists to Start an Alternative

It’s one thing to hope for a better community online, and another, very different one, to build it. Just ask the users and administrators of journa.host, which was started by journalists concerned over the direction of Twitter.

“Come on in, the water’s confusing but fine — and more swimmable,” the journalist Virginia Heffernan wrote on journa.host on Nov. 6.

On Nov. 7 the MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan posted: “I feel like a new kid in a new school.”

The network is the brainchild of Adam Davidson, a journalist who helped found “Planet Money” and has worked at The New York Times and The New Yorker. He said the jump from Twitter to the new site reminded him of his family’s move to Vermont from New York City, a few years ago.

Journa.host is hosted by Mastodon, a vast network of thousands of servers that look and function much like Twitter. Over the past three weeks, hundreds of thousands of people, seeking an alternative to Twitter as Elon Musk took over, have signed up for Mastodon, according to Eugen Rochko, who created the software in 2016. Many of them are journalists.

But because so much news happens on Twitter — and because Twitter itself is such a news story — the social network symbolized by a tiny bird casts a very large shadow over the social network named after a giant prehistoric beast.

Shortly after Mr. Musk bought Twitter, he offered up the blue check mark verification to anyone willing to pay $8 a month. (The rollout has since been put on pause.) To Mr. Davidson, this was a crisis for journalists. If anyone could pass themselves off as, say, Adam Davidson, who could trust that Adam Davidson was Adam Davidson?

“It felt scary to imagine a world where false verification would reign,” Mr. Davidson said.

Indeed, a wave of verified impostors followed Mr. Musk’s decision, including a fake LeBron James account that tweeted a trade request and a fake Eli Lilly account that claimed the drugmaker would be providing insulin to the public for free.

On Nov. 4, Mr. Davidson started journa.host. To join, applicants have to prove that they are journalists, through a working professional email account, say, or recent clips.

The network currently has almost 2,000 members, and they include the hyperlocal and the national, weathermen and sports reporters. Jelani Cobb, the dean of Columbia Journalism School, is a member, as is Kassie Hunt, the CNN anchor.; some journalists from The Times are also members.

To manage the flood of applicants, Mr. Davidson has been joined by a part-time volunteer staff of nine journalists, who verify new members; Mr. Davidson said that a few applicants had been rejected because they work in public relations. Journa.host received $12,000 in funding the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, which has been used so far to pay server and domain registration fees.

For the many journalists who use Twitter, it serves several roles: assignment editor, ombudsperson, sourcing tool, clubhouse, hype machine, pillory, legitimizer.

Journa.host bills itself as “a reliable home for journalists,” and it has greater ambitions than just verifying journalists’ identities, though its rollout has not been without bumps.

Mr. Musk’s early run at Twitter has been chaotic, as he has slashed thousands of jobs and reinstated banned accounts. Many journalists have publicly criticized these and other moves, often on Twitter itself, and some have started, or joined, conversations about Twitter alternatives.

“The period in which Twitter served as a clubhouse for journalists was valuable for journalism as a profession,” said Steven I. Weiss, an investigative journalist who is one of the moderators of journa.host.

Mastodon is an idiosyncratic place, a so-called federation of nearly 8,000 servers, many with their own community norms. Users pick a server — such as journa.host — and can interact with other users throughout Mastodon, with exceptions. If this all sounds complicated, that’s because it is; links to guides and F.A.Q.s about the service are frequently “boosted” (similar to a retweet).

Journa.host users are figuring out almost everything about Mastodon on the fly, including, for starters, what to call Twitter. For many, it’s “the bird site.” For others, it’s “the bird app” or “the Bad Place.” For years, the Mastodon equivalent of “tweets” were “toots,” as from a trunk. On Nov. 14, as part of a software update, the service replaced “toot” with “publish.”

Using journa.host feels a little like crossing the border to a kinder, more rule-bound, less dynamic country. Susanne Althoff, a user and former magazine editor, compared journa.host to zine culture.

“The conversation is still very much a low murmur,” Mr. Weiss said.

Many journa.host members use the service no differently than they use Twitter, sometimes posting the same text simultaneously to each platform.

Indeed, at times, journa.host looks a lot like Twitter, just without all the non-journalists and most of the nastiness.

Frequent topics on journa.host include the deficiencies of Twitter (hate-filled, attention-addled, ruled by an impulsive billionaire), the deficiencies of Mastodon (hard to use, lacking a quote-retweet function, boring), and journalists’ ambivalence about the transition.

“I am having a hard time letting go of the birdsite but I was raised by an alcoholic so I understand what a trauma bond is,” the political journalist Ana Marie Cox wrote on journa.host on Nov. 20.

Mr. Davidson said that he had become concerned in recent years about what he called the “extreme emotional engagement” encouraged by Twitter. The slower pace and calmer rhythms of Mastodon have made him appreciate how a platform’s algorithms and options for, say, retweeting, shape the way its users interact, he said.

“I’m not sure the versions of me on these different platforms would like each other,” he said.

And some of the relative calm Mr. Davidson sees may also be a function of journa.host’s narrow user base. It’s a server just for journalists — or more accurately, the people the administrators of journa.host deem to be journalists. That has led to accusations (on Twitter, where else?) that the server is an attempt by the moderators to “gatekeep their peers.”

In response, Mr. Weiss said that being denied entry to journa.host doesn’t currently prevent access to journa.host content, which users of many other Mastodon servers can see.

Regardless, any attempt to turn journa.host into a walled garden, free from the issues of Twitter, is probably doomed to fail: The conflicts that have at times inflamed Twitter have already caused problems for Mr. Davidson and his team.

On Nov. 18, the journalist Mike Pesca, who hosts the popular news podcast “The Gist,” posted a link to a Times story about health concerns associated with the puberty-blocking drugs sometimes prescribed to transgender youths, writing, “This seemed like careful, thorough reporting.”

In response, Parker Molloy, a journalist who writes the Substack newsletter “The Present Age,” accused Mr. Pesca of anti-trans bigotry, and then posted angrily at Mr. Davidson for not removing the post.

“@adamdavidson’s decision not to take action on anti-trans content isn’t inspiring confidence and I totally understand why other places are doing instance-level blocking,” she wrote on journa.host. (Instance-level blocking refers to the ability, on Mastodon, for one server to block content from another.)

Zach Everson, one of the journa.host administrators, responded that he agreed with Ms. Molloy, then added, “Banning someone for posting a link to an NYT article sets a precedent that we really need to work through.”

On Saturday, journa.host suspended Mr. Pesca, who was informed via a text message from Mr. Davidson, a longtime friend. (The two are currently writing an exchange of letters hosted on Substack, about the nature of cancel culture.) According to Mr. Pesca, Mr. Davidson told him he had been suspended for referring to Ms. Molloy as an “activist,” which was dismissive. The suspension “seemed arbitrary and ad hoc,” Mr. Pesca said in an interview; Ms. Molloy didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.

“We want to be a place for passionate engaged discussion,” said Mr. Davidson, who recused himself from the decision because of his relationship with Mr. Pesca. “But we don’t want to be a place where people insult each other.”

Also on Saturday, Ms. Molloy appeared on a different Mastodon server, and announced that she, too, had been suspended from journa.host for her posts.

“Did it break their rules over there? Yes, so they were certainly in their rights to suspend me from there,” she wrote. And then, in a subsequent post she wrote, “I mostly just want to be left alone.” (Later, Ms. Molloy posted an apology to Mr. Pesca.)

The staff will have to confront issues that will be familiar to anyone who has used Twitter, including bots.

“So far no Nazis in my Mastodon feed,” Bill Grueskin, a Columbia Journalism School professor wrote in a post on to journa.host on Monday, referring to the widely held perception that Mr. Musk has relaxed restrictions against hate speech. “But these ladies have shown up.”

Mr. Grueksin attached a picture of a young woman who said her name was Emma, from another Mastodon server, who had tagged him in a post. She appeared to be a bot.

“Your pictures look so elegant,” it read. “I love meeting new people and learning by sharing with each other, I think it’s good for improving yourself too.”

For the volunteers who run journa.host, it has all been a brutal introduction to the no-easy-answers world of content moderation, one that might have engendered, if not exactly empathy, a better understanding of the challenges that big social media platforms face.

According to Kelly McBride, senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the nonprofit Poynter Institute, Poynter is in talks with the journa.host team about bringing the social network under its umbrella. For the overworked administrators of the server, it would come as a relief.

“We don’t have the time to be doing this,” Mr. Weiss said.

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