“Glad to talk more on that, if you’re interested,” Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce, wrote to Elon Musk last spring. He continued opaquely: “Twitter’s conversational OS is the town square for your digital life.” This is how billionaires communicate: through slogans, brand identities, and random large sums. Everyone else needs to find out the details.
“Well, I don’t own it yet,” Musk replied. (To be fair, he was texting a lot at the time.) But then he really owned it, and by winter, the Twitter takeover had turned into a gigantic and thorny public mess. Whatever magical spell was holding people together on the platform, it seemed to be broken. It was like a plot Encanto without a happy ending: “The graveyard of your digital life.”
Twitter’s troubles aren’t just about Musk, who appears to shoot himself in the foot and cauterize the wound with his own brand of flamethrower. No, Musk is just a vehicle. The real reason Twitter is in ruins is because it was an abomination before God. It was the Tower of Babel.
People usually interpret Genesis 11:1–9 as a mythological explanation for why we have so many tribes, so many languages. The story goes that the descendants of Noah lived in Shinar, all spoke the same language, and decided to build a skyscraper that would allow them to go straight to heaven. God has gone Not in my backyard! and scattered the people, confounding their language. I like to think that God also personally destroyed the tower, but this story is apocryphal (Jubilees 10:26).
God often gets angry in the Old Testament, punishing people who defy divine authority. In this light it makes sense to read the history of Babylon. But having lived through the last couple of decades of the Internet, I believe this story holds a different lesson. I’m an atheist, so take this theory with a pinch of salt, or maybe even with some skepticism: God didn’t keep us from heaven by punishing us for our arrogance. God protected us from ourselves.
Every five or six minutes, someone in the social sciences posts a PDF with a headline like “People are 95 percent happier in small towns, waving to neighbors and eating sandwiches.” When we gather in groups of more than, say, eight people, it’s a disaster. And yet there is something fundamental in our nature that desperately wants to bring everyone together in one big room to “solve the problem.” Our smarter, wealthier people (in Babylonian times the king was called Nimrod) often preach the idea of a town square, a marketplace of ideas, a centralized center of discourse and entertainment—and we listen. But when I go back and read Genesis, I hear God say, “My children, I designed your brain to scale to 150 stable relationships. Anything beyond that is overclocking. You should all try Mastodon.
So people millions are fleeing the tower or at least buying property elsewhere – Discord, TikTok, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, WeChat, Weibo, Moj. And some find their tribes on Fediverse, a set of decentralized web applications that includes Mastodon.
Fediverse is thousands of servers in many languages. They are cheap to operate, at least for small groups, and relatively easy to manage. You can chat between your servers – or blogs, or podcasts, or share images and videos – and connect to servers in the outside world. All Fediverse apps are built on a set of rules called the ActivityPub standard, which is a bit like HTML having sex with a calendar invite. This is a content polycule. The questions it raises are the same as with any polycule: what are the rules? How big can it get? Who will draw up the work plan?
The true beauty of Mastodon and similar services is that they are designed to destroy. If you want to leave the server, you can take all your followers and followers with you. If the server goes down, you can find another one. It’s not just one guy. He admits that as we centralize and discuss, we dissolve, which is why he comes with a giant sticker that says: Babylon is built in!
How will these small groups of happier people be monetized? This is a difficult question for billionaires. Happy people who eat sandwiches together are boring. They don’t buy much. Their smartphones are six versions behind and have badly cracked screens. They fix bikes, then they talk about fixing bikes, then they show their friend who just showed up how they fixed the bike, and his friend says, “Wow, well done,” and they make tea. It seems that this is not enough to build a city square.
But someone will understand the details. The reason Babylonian history matters is not because it happened once, but because it repeats itself over and over again: we babylonize and de-Babelize. The Internet is the engine of both processes. Eventually, brands will find their way into the stony ground of the mastodon and increase engagement. Billionaires will order the construction of new marketplaces of ideas. Everything is centralized again, and it will seem eternal, as if the tower will never fall. For now, let’s enjoy the scattering.