Current thoughts on MastodonBy Kunal Mehta
The majority of posts on Mastodon right now are about how to get started, discussions about various features or making fun of the dumpster fire that is the birdsite. This is mostly unavoidable as new people sign up, but I've tried to keep using Mastodon as an actual social network by not posting about "meta" things unless necessary. That said, I have enough thoughts though that I should say something, so here it is.
I first wrote about Mastodon in February 2020 in "Twitter's tools help online harassers" (I was probably one of the first people to ever get their Mastodon handle in newsprint!), examining the flaws of Twitter that Mastodon has attempted to fix. I think this framing, "a better Twitter", is a good first introduction but misses the bigger picture.
In 2005, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales gave a talk in which he outlined 10 areas for us to free.
His final item was "Free the Communities!":
(His slide concludes by promoting Wikicities, later renamed Wikia, later renamed Fandom. Given that communities had to escape Wikia, I'd say that didn't end up freeing them. A topic for another day...)
I've been unable to find a working video of his talk, but the general point is clear: people should be in charge of their communities, not companies. We should dictate the terms of who we include and exclude, what we find acceptable for people to say in our spaces, and most importantly, how we make those decisions. We shouldn't need to report trolls to opaque content moderators who can't make correct decisions because they lack sufficient context; we should just boot them ourselves. It's incredibly empowering to be in communities that have agency to make these decisions for themselves.
(Tangent: this is a good time to plug Mako's 2018 LibrePlanet keynote, "How markets coopted free software’s most powerful weapon", discussing how companies monetized "peer production" features. In this case Twitter is monetizing our posts, thoughts, experiences, commentary, etc., relying on the masses for content and curation.)
Mastodon kind of gets us to running our own communities, though it's far from perfect. I think it's a much better representation of how online communities have historically worked, you have groups of people who are tied together by some common interest (some project, geographic location, etc.) but have open doors so you can easily be in multiple communities at the same time. Shoving everyone into one space... I don't think it really worked out that well.
It will take some time for people to unlearn the bad habits that Twitter continually reinforced. There's some meta discussion happening on how journalists should engage on Mastodon (some instances have already started blocking the new journa.host). I attribute this friction to switching from using social media to drive up engagement to the established culture on Mastodon to actually engage with people! I think it's entirely doable, in the past I reported on Googleville developments, Elsevier negotations, and a bunch of other things on Mastodon without getting a single complaint.
The hardest part of Mastodon is finding the "right" server (read: community) to join. There's probably a good chance the server doesn't even exist yet! Given that you hit this problem as you try to signup and don't actually know how anything works yet, the UX is baaaaaad. (No, I don't have any proposals to fix this, I just think it's important to acknowledge that this is a significant hurdle to onboard new people.)
Like most other community-based projects, I expect the UX will improve gradually over time through careful refinement and feedback from a large and diverse group of users. Getting through the poor UX now is merely an investment in the future. Many servers have also been struggling on the rapid increase in people signing up and posting, so some performance/scaling improvements are in order hopefully.
Is Mastodon ready for the masses? Probably not yet, but now is a great time to try.
It's very easy to bash on Twitter these days, but I will certainly miss it once it's gone. I have a lot of fun memories associated with conversations I had with people on the site (the time I got "expelled" from Debian) or cool things that I posted there (being featured in the Computer History Museum)! One of my heroes, Dr. Harry Edwards, once tweeted out an editorial I co-wrote. Oh and the time we reported on a Tesla hitting someone riding a Lime Scooter and it briefly went viral as "the most Silicon Valley thing ever". That said, these are all because of the people, not because of any unique feature of the platform.
Techdirt covered how Twitter previously had a very strong free speech stance, especially when it came to protecting users' anonymity. One of the downsides of having small community-run instances is that they have much less legal infrastructure and protection. How many Mastodon server administrators would have simply given in when faced with state demands for private user data? Or been able to assemble a legal team to put up a winning defense?
I sometimes forget how ingrained Twitter is in our current society and infrastructure. I went to look up the Caltrain timetable yesterday and to get service alerts if a train will be more than 5 minutes late you have to check @CaltrainAlerts on Twitter. Or get updates on whether you should evacuate because of a fire, you check Twitter.
Because of its federated nature, I don't think Mastodon can (currently) replace something that's so dependent on real-time updates. And I doubt most organizations/sites that are currently using Twitter can implement their own website or app or whatever to provide instant notifications in a manner that was as usable as Twitter.
Back to Mastodon
I'm very excited to see where Mastodon goes next. More than the software, I have thrived in free communities for years now and hope even more people can experience the liberation that comes from joining one.
I'm putting my money and time where my mouth is by co-adminning a Mastodon server for wiki enthusiasts. We're growing rather slowly (about 1 new account per day), which I hope will help build a real community instead of just importing one from somewhere else. If you need help, contact me by whatever means we normally use, I'm very happy to help.