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Some Initial thoughts on Mastodon

Why even bother writing this post

I have been active on Mastodon for a few months now and I have some things to say. I hope this post reminds (or teaches) some history, helps people understand Mastodon a bit more, and explains why I think you should join the network.

Let me rephrase that last sentence a bit. I don’t think all Twitter users should switch to Mastodon. Definitely not now, and for some users, they never should. This isn’t because some people are better than others. The “not now” is based on product maturity compared to what they experience on Twitter. The “never” is because Mastodon isn’t trying to be Twitter (and some people really want Twitter).

Let’s get this out of the way right now – I don’t think people staying on Twitter are dumb, sheep, lacking in morals, or cowards. There are many reasons and factors that go into choosing a social network and so what is right or important for some people may not matter to other people at all.

That said I advocate for my more tech and social media savvy friends to come join us. Not because I think they are bad for staying on Twitter but because I think their presence will be good for Mastodon. Not only do I want to see their content, I think their presence would be helpful for the evolution of Mastodon.

All open social media platforms evolve over time – there is no stopping that. I just hope to bring good people to steer the evolution towards good.

Let’s talk some history

First let me get an onion on my belt and get ready to yell at some clouds.

I joined Twitter almost 16 years ago about a year and a half after it publicly launched. At the same time there were several other competing social networking platforms (Facebook went public at about the same time).

There was a lot of innovation happening among all these new “social media” companies. And almost all the sites had lower user numbers, the users were primarily technology savvy and connected to the technology world, and almost all of the products were really primitive compared to the Twitter we see today.

Discoverability was atrocious and building out your network took a lot of trial and error. Hashtags were not an innovation from the product team but actually came from a user, Chris Messina. Heck, we couldn’t even do line breaks until 2013, with quoting tweets coming 2 YEARS LATER.

The way you built a community back then was you actually had to be involved and contribute. You had to read other people’s content, come up with your own thoughtful reply, maybe write a blog post about it and then share it back. It was a place where people were mainly sharing ideas, discussing current topics, engaging in interesting discussions… It was a glorious and exciting time.

Then, Twitter really started to take off. More people joined, many of them less tech savvy, it started to become a place where you could turn for news alerts, it was used for organizing, the discussions became more impersonal and wider ranging. Twitter follower counts became important enough that you could pay for followers. It was not really bad, just different than how it had started.

So, where is Mastodon?

Right now, Mastodon reminds me of the early exciting days of Twitter, except it has launched with more features and not being controlled by a single company. I am thoroughly enjoying being there, with the thoughtful discussions and the need to produce to get attention is invigorating. Moving to Mastodon was a large part of why I wanted to blog again. Everything doesn’t have to be summed up in 280 characters. I feel like people are engaging with each other and there is more thoughtful discussion.

That said, there are still a bunch of usability issues compared to current day Twitter. Some of these “issues” are by design but some are waiting on innovation. In my next post, I will cover some of these issues in more depth.

The main point is:

These are the early days of Mastodon – I am enjoying the joy of learning and helping to build a new social network. Sure it’s rough, but so are most things in the beginning. A year or two from now Mastodon will have grown features and communities.

I like putting the work in at the beginning and seeing where it goes; of being in this synergistic relationship with a world-wide network of people.

This time, the APIs won’t be shut off, the content will be mine, usability or community won’t be sacrificed to create value for shareholders.

Should you join?

If you like respectful communities, you are willing to live with jankiness for a while, if you are ok with putting in work to get followers, if you are willing to accept that Mastodon is similar to Twitter, but not Twitter – then I would love it if you come join us. If you want a social network built on open community derived protocols, where you have more agency over your data, then Mastodon is a good fit for you.

If you want the social graph, the megaphone, and the polished UI and features of Twitter, then I would ask you to hold off a bit. If you like having a clear entity you can point to as the owner, you won’t find that here. I think it would be better to wait until it’s farther along than join now, be turned off, and forever write it off.

Another important caveat is that Mastodon had over a million users in 2018 and you are joining existing communities. While I haven’t experienced it yet, there are definitely longer tenure members who want to tone police people. I understand their desire to keep things as is, but I find that untenable for an open platform. Especially for one that makes ignoring people who don’t meet your tone standards quite easy. Tone is culturally and situationally dependent, therefore, in a federated system, their opinion is just that, their opinion.

If you want your Mastodon server to be listed in the service picker, then you agree to a covenant. Other than that, because Mastodon is federated, there is no way to be “kicked off” the platform. Servers or individuals may block your feed or server, but that is the limit of their power. I recommend blocking or ignoring people who pull ‘tone police’ cards on you (as long as you are pretty sure you are not being an asshole 😀).

I want to add one more huge, disappointing caveat. Many Black members (or former members) of Mastodon are finding the current moderation policies and responses to incidents as damaging. They have brought a lot of receipts. Many in the Mastodon have heard them and are trying to make things better. There are still some in the community who put the ideals of “trust” and openness above the health of the users in the community. If you are someone who is easily identifiable as a minority or don’t feel like putting up with that bullshit, then I would either:

  1. Pick your Mastodon server very carefully making sure it is moderated by people who take this problem seriously
  2. Wait to join until this problem gets addressed in a more holistic manner.

Learning of this problem after I had already written much of this blog post certainly put a dent in my “this is a great place, come join us”. Not finding a long term improvement to this problem will likely make me leave Mastodon. I know Mastodon can not prevent people from being assholes/evil – but it should live true to the #1 item in its covenant and reduce the occurrence and extent of this damage as much as possible.

Even if it somehow causes a “reduced” user experience for the community, I think that protecting members of the community is more important than features or ideals. Mastodon doesn’t want everyone in their community and I am glad they feel that way. I value having Black, Native American, Queer, Trans, Latino, Bahai, Muslim… people in my community. Being Jewish, I also want to feel safe in this community.

Missing out on some news items or a few errors in blocking servers that shouldn’t be blocked is a minor cost if it reduces the number and impact of bigots.

A quick aside about BlueSky

BlueSky is another social network that is gaining popularity right now. I am glad there are multiple technologies arising out of the ashes of the Twitter dumpster fire. The religious wars have already begun between Mastodon/ActivityPub and BlueSky/AT Protocol. I am not interested in that drama. That said, I currently have one I trust more and would like to see growing a large social graph. Let’s get this out of the way. I generally lean towards

    1. Underdogs
    2. Open standards
    3. Open source, meaning open as in free and as in libre
  1. I am suspicious of things that
    1. Originate out of Silicon Valley, especially from tech bros
    2. Derived by one company
    3. Anything touched by the big assholes – Musk, Dorsey, Zuckerberg, Ellison…
    4. VCs and private companies that say they are doing things for the “betterment of society” i.e. OpenAI

BlueSky checks a lot of boxes on things that make me hesitant. I have not played with it and I am not really interested in playing with it for now. I trust some of the people I see working there and there seems to be the right words spoken by leadership. But for me, before I move to BlueSky, it has a lot of work to do to prove I can feel comfortable using it. Until I start seeing a lot of independent AT Protocol servers with different clients and open APIs, I am going to remain suspicious.

Notice I have not used the word competitor, I don’t think the users of Mastodon really care about competition. They are not a company and they are not competing to capture users for profit. They are what they are and if that doesn’t work for you, that’s ok – many current users are happy with the current community.

Things I didn’t cover and may cover in the future

Here is a list of important things that I didn’t cover but are still important to understand. Some of these are important enough that I plan to write more about them. Others are an exercise left to the reader:

  1. How to wrap your head around Mastodon
  2. How to get started with Mastodon
  3. The difference between ActivityPub and Mastodon
  4. Some of the overriding design goals with Mastodon and ActivityPub
  5. The importance of tags and other differences from Twitter
  6. The impact of picking a Mastodon client on your user experience.

Wrap up

I hope this post has helped you get a better sense of the state of Mastodon and if that feels right for you. Again, I want people to join because I think it’s great over here – not because you are bad for being over there. If you have any questions or further comments, I would love to talk with you more. Find me at https://data-folks.masto.host/@TheSteve0