“Happy to talk about it if this is interesting,” Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce, texted Elon Musk last spring. He continued, opaquely: “Twitter conversational OS—the townsquare for your digital life.” This is how billionaires communicate: in slogans, brand identities, and occasional large sums. It’s up to everyone else to figure out the details.
“Well I don’t own it yet,” Musk replied. (To be fair, he was fielding a lot of texts at that moment.) But then he did own it, and by winter the Twitter takeover was a giant, thorny public mess. Whatever magic spell kept people together on the platform seemed to have broken. It was like the plot of Encanto without the happy ending: “The graveyard for your digital life.”
Twitter’s troubles are due not just to Musk, who appears to be both shooting himself in the foot and cauterizing the wound with his own brand of flamethrower. No, Musk is merely the vehicle. The real reason Twitter lies in ruins is because it was an abomination before God. It was a Tower of Babel.
People usually interpret Genesis 11:1–9 as a mythological explanation of why we have so many tribes, so many languages. The story goes that the descendants of Noah were living in Shinar, all speaking one tongue, and decided to build a skyscraper that would let them walk straight into heaven. God went Not in my backyard! and scattered the people, confounding their language. I like to think that God also personally demolished the tower, but that story is apocryphal (Jubilees 10:26).
God does the wrath thing a lot in the Old Testament, punishing humans who would challenge divine authority. It makes sense to read the story of Babel in that light. But having lived through the past couple decades of the internet, I believe the story carries a different lesson. I’m an atheist, so take this theory with a grain of salt, or maybe even a pillar: God wasn’t keeping us out of heaven, smiting us for our arrogance. God was protecting us from ourselves.
Every five or six minutes, someone in the social sciences publishes a PDF with a title like “Humans 95 Percent Happier in Small Towns, Waving at Neighbors and Eating Sandwiches.” When we gather in groups of more than, say, eight, it’s a disaster. Yet there is something fundamental in our nature that desperately wants to get everyone together in one big room, to “solve it.” Our smarter, richer betters (in Babel times, the king’s name was Nimrod) often preach the idea of a town square, a marketplace of ideas, a centralized hub of discourse and entertainment—and we listen. But when I go back and read Genesis, I hear God saying: “My children, I designed your brains to scale to 150 stable relationships. Anything beyond that is overclocking. You should all try Mastodon.”
So people are fleeing the tower by the millions, or at least shopping the real estate elsewhere—Discord, TikTok, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, WeChat, Weibo, Moj. And some are finding their tribes in the Fediverse, the set of decentralized web apps that includes Mastodon.
The Fediverse is, by design, thousands of servers in many languages. They are cheap to run, at least for small groups, and relatively easy to administer. You can chat among your server kin—or blog, or podcast, or share images and videos—and connect with servers in the outside world. The Fediverse apps are all built on a set of rules called the ActivityPub standard, which is a little like HTML had sex with a calendar invite. It’s a content polycule. The questions it evokes are the same as with any polycule: What are the rules? How big can this get? Who will create the chore chart?
The true beauty of Mastodon and similar services is that they are designed to collapse. If you want to quit a server, you can take all your followers and follows with you. If a server shuts off, you can find another. It’s not one guy. It accepts that as we centralize and debate we melt down, and so it comes with a giant sticker that reads: Babel built in!
How will these smaller groups of happier people be monetized? This is a tough question for the billionaires. Happy people, the kind who eat sandwiches together, are boring. They don’t buy much. Their smartphones are six versions behind and have badly cracked screens. They fix bicycles, then they talk about fixing bicycles, then they show their friend, who just came over for no reason, how they fixed their bicycle, and their friend says, “Wow, good job,” and they make tea. That doesn’t seem like enough to build a town square on.
But someone will figure out the details. The reason the Babel story matters is not that it happened once but that it happens over and over: We Babelize and de-Babelize. The internet is an engine of both processes. Eventually, brands will find purchase in Mastodon’s rocky soil and grow engagement. Billionaires will order the construction of new marketplaces of ideas. Everything will centralize again, and it will seem eternal, as if the tower could never fall. For now, let’s enjoy the scattering.