s13e18: Mastodon, or What Happens When Your Software Has Opinions And Now You Have Choices
0.0 Context Setting
I started this on 31 October, 2022 in Portland, Oregon, when it was a wet, windy, autumnal day that couldn’t tell whether it wants to be a sort of more-than-lazy drizzle, but definitely knew it didn’t want to be a driving rain.
This means the kids are in raingear and halloween costumes for school today. (Halloween! One of potentially the most inoffensive, non-denominational, non-religious festivals that may or may not be celebrated in a public school!)
I’m finishing this on 1 November, 2022 at 35,000 feet and a ground speed of 488mph.
1.0 Some Things That Caught My Attention
1.1 Mastodon, or What Happens When Your Software Has Opinions And Now You Have Choices
Last episode, I thought-aloud about how news organizations should have their own Mastodon instances[^s13e017] to provide verifiable accounts for journalists and staff.
I made a bunch of omissions in that last episode which I’d like to correct first:
- My good friend Blaine Cook is the principal author of WebFinger, which I referenced in the last episode. Blaine also co-authored OAuth, which you probably use. WebFinger allows you to discover information about people via a URI (e.g. you’d GET danhon.com/.well-known/webfinger?resource=acct%3Adan%40edanhon.com and you’d get a bunch of links back for resources to me, like a vcard for you to IrDA to someone over your Palm Pilot, or a link to my LinkedIn profile, or even to my FOAF profile. Shout out to the internet olds there.
- Darius Kazemi is maintainer of the excellent resource Run your own social. It’s ridiculously well-writen, covers why you’d want to run your own small social networking site (small! I love it.) The design of the site is just chef’s kiss as well as the sidenotes. Wonderful.
First, some good news!
Two governments already do this. You may be able to guess which governmental organization they are!
EU Voice provides EU institutions, bodies and agencies with privacy-friendly microblogging accounts that they typically use for the purposes of press and public relations activities. Institutional accounts can be requested from firstname.lastname@example.org.
So I feel great, because this means I had an idea someone smarter than me had, and they had it a while back.
Germany! Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information has its own BFDI Mastodon instance3 for its own press and PR work, and lets other federal authorities use it, too. Just like EU Voice, public registration is closed and accounts must be requested via email to the BFDI.
Some Thoughts About How And What Mastodon Is
Okay, this is a bit of a grab bag.
One thing was a conversation I had on Twitter about why news organizations on Mastodon might be a bad idea4. One strong opinion that the ActivityPub protocol (and thus Mastodon) has is the lack of quote tweeting, that practice where you take what someone has just said and yell AND ANOTHER THING…
There’s the view5 that most of the time quote tweets are used to propagate outrage and it is perfectly appropriate to want a social space where that behavior is normed out.
I don’t… really have a problem with QTs not existing? It requires some getting used to, because you’ve been in a frame of “oh, someone said something, and I have something I want to say about it”.
There’s no fast way of doing that anymore, other than copying the link to the post and using that in your own post. I think this is intentional design for friction - it’s not impossible to post about another post, there’s just some extra steps to, I think, encourage you to be more intentional about it. The other default way of interacting with a post woudl be to a) “boost” it, i.e. repost it to your followers, or to b) reply to it.
There was another view that felt strange to me, which was that there’s little to zero utility for Mastodon network users because it would rapidly devolve to the behavior associated with celebrity accounts, i.e. adding noise to the network that wouldn’t benefit anyone.
The difference with Mastodon though is that the instance on which your account sits then has the option to de-federate (i.e. block) the instances that the rowdy journalists might be posting from if they’re indeed confined to that particular instance.
This makes sense, but opens up another issue inherent to how a federated network works. If media outlets were (mostly) confined to their own instances, then:
You’d have follow.theguardian.com, a closed instance where Guardian staffers and journalists would have accounts. You’d be able to follow specific topics published by the Guardian, or an individual journalist, like @email@example.com
So if you’re on an instance that blocks abusive instances, what do they do to follow.theguardian.com, for example when it posts transphobic columns from one of its longtime writers? Does the entire follow.theguardian.com instance get banned?
Because the point is: it could be, and that decision is not necessarily in the hands of a user of that instance, it’s entirely in the hands of the administration/moderation team.
So in that sense, there’s a bunch of choice that didn’t exist before. You could decide not to follow, say, Suzanne Moore and have her in your blocklist. You could also belong in/to a community that doesn’t want to have anything to do with an organization that supported or supports Moore. Before, the moderation decisions other than individual blocklists were at the aggregate e.g. Twitter level.
I mean, I think the NYT is Not Great a lot of the time, but I would still probably want to see its content and what some of its writers post in my timeline. Would that mean I would have to find an instance where the following.nytimes.com wasn’t blocked? If I wanted to follow “official” NY Times accounts, then yes.
Is that such a bad thing? Let a thousand instances bloom with separate affinity groups? Maybe?
Where I disagree with ændra though is that there will be (or already are, at the rate of ~70k new Mastodon users joining the total network over the last 24 hours) people who want to see news in their Mastodon timeline. Or that there will be people who want to talk about sports: would it be a good idea for The Defector to have an instance? Should the great people who write for The Defector have accounts that clearly tie back to that media property? Should The Onion have one?
Again, the whole point is that there’s choice here, which means we humans get to make a whole bunch of decisions. We love making decisions, but that’s the rub of being alive and ostensibly conscious.
Fine. If not media organizations, of which the big ones are incentivized to act in a certain way due to being legacy organizations in an attention economy, then what other types of institutional instance might be good ideas?
One idea was for unions to offer instance accounts6, in particular the National Union of Journalists in the UK - where gated membership of the union would allow you a sort of provable status online in a profession independent of an employer.
(As I’m thinking out loud about this, there’s undoubtedly other ways of proving facets of your identity: the NUJ could assert your membership by signing membership with your public key (attached to your instance account?), and you could link that NUJ-signed membership back to your account. Have I basically tried to re-implement web badges? Probably!)
The other way of doing this would be with a bunch of link rel=me links or webfinger profiles, where your employer-gated webfinger profile would point to your account. But I feel that all of these issues are conflated and messy and I’d have to draw a diagram. I still feel, instinctively, that there is value and usability in a clear account name of, say, @firstname.lastname@example.org (or even @email@example.com) that’s different from @firstname.lastname@example.org being able to assert that it’s related to the account @email@example.com or that @firstname.lastname@example.org is related to someone who works at the Washington Post who is called Alexandra Petri.
Anyway, there’s all of that.
Is Mastodon actually all that usable?
There’s a bunch of questions that I’ve seen coming up among both brand new users in the Twitter exodus and relatively new users who haven’t used Mastodon that much. They’re along the lines of:
- what Mastodon instance should I be on?
- am I on the wrong Mastodon instance?
- what’s the deal with all these Mastodon instances?
- what am I seeing here?
What’s going on here?
I think a bunch of fear of missing out, for starters. Which is combined with the general sense of not understanding how federated networks work compared to a single global “algorithm”-mediated single-instance, single-shard timeline.
(People who play massively multiplayer online videogames are totally used to this: there are servers and you pick one and if you and your friends are not all on the same one then… you don’t get to play with them that time.)
The signup flow for Mastodon in a client app like on iOS or wherever explicitly involves picking an instance. For certain outcomes (i.e. easing onboarding and maximizing your users), this is not great! I would be interested in seeing how many people bounce off the “choose your instance” screen and how many just end up with whichever one is at the top. Is the instance signup list randomized? Who knows! I have not gone to check. I could go check the source, though, but I am on a plane and do not want to. Could someone write a Really Good App for using Mastodon and then sell placement for instances? Yes! Would instances then decide to reject signups from that app? They could! Welcome to choices – you have to make them now!
One way you can think about Mastodon instances is as a whole bunch of mailing lists and if you are old enough then you can also think of them as SIG listservs: in some cases, highly-moderated, potentially small, special-interest communities where people with shared affinities get together to talk about whatever it is they want to talk about.
When those SIG lists get big enough some smart moderators also create things like SIG-talk or SIG-unmoderated, which is where general conversation can be hived off or moved to because it turns out whenever you get a sufficiently large group of people together for a bunch of time they tend to do irritating things like “make friends” and have the irresistible urge to “talk about things” other than the specific subject matter. This can be irritating to moderators who a) have enough to do already, b) are exercising considerable “soft skills” to keep the place running well and dealing with unwanted behavior, and c) are not paid to do this anyway.
So now we see Mastodon instances springing up around (and I have seen all of these but again, am on a plane):
- academia in general
- hand-crafted… crafting
- lgbtq issues
- trans-safe spaces
- “the UK”
Again, older internet people who are shaking their head and might be thinking THOSE WHO DO NOT KNOW HISTORY ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT might be feeling a bit weirded out about the above, almost as if you might construct some sort of hierarchy or taxonomy of these instances! Or even a directory! Jerry someone could make one, maybe. Hell, you might even have the National Center for Social Applications make a list of New Instances of the Day!
The thing about these examples (bluntly: mailing lists, usenet) is that they all tied off a third-party identity, which was your “email address” and generally people used to only have one of those, so you could participate in all of these “small world social networks” that were all distinct and not joined together in any real way (see also: x-posting) using This One Weird Trick of subscribing to them and then you could participate over email, using something called an “Email Client” like Eudora or Pine or Outlook Express or Netscape Communicator Suite for Enterprise Edition Collabra or whatever.
This kind of works for Mastodon? If you have a third party client, then what can happen now is that you add multiple instance accounts to your client and then you switch between them which is kind of okay but not great?
Why would you need to do this?
Because there’s this thing called your Home view, which is of the people you follow and (maybe?) the stuff that’s happening on your local instance (e.g. rec.arts.startrek.disco), and then and a Local view which is everything posted by everyone on the rec.arts.startrek.disco instance and (maybe?) the things that those people have boosted from other instances, but not all the things from those other instances, and neither of them include things from The List of Bad Instances.
Phew! This is all totally fine and intuitive and for mass adoption (again: a choice) does not need to be tidied up at all.
What I don’t think you can get right now (which would have to be handled at a client level?) is a timeline that aggregates all your instance accounts together into some sort of meta-Home-timeline, almost as if you were subscribing to all of these mailing lists and they all got thrown into an “inbox” with threading handled by a client (sometimes? maybe? also by the mailing list) and mushed together, and you could even “order by time” or if you’re weird these days have your mail client order all those “posts” by “importance”.
But now I come back to “what instance should I be on?” Well, this is complicated! Do you join a general instance (most people are on mastodon.social)? In this case, your Local timeline is going to have A Lot of stuff and that server is going to encounter Some Issues Every Now And Then as its architecture needs to be tweaked to handle the travails of serving, well, lots of people, and doing Lots of Federating. This is most like Twitter, where there’s a bunch of people in an undifferentiated public square and the thing they all have in common is that they’re On Mastodon or more recently share an affinity for being Camp Anti-Space Karen.
Or! You could forego that and just join one of the (smaller?) instances like the one for people who make things and do crafting and your Local timeline is full of nice people doing the same thing as you and care about the same things as you, which is crafting. You might though encounter a schism about mask wearing or right-wing politics as if you’re also a large community of people who do things with wool.
And what if you have multiple interests? Do you join lots of them?
And those are just the choices that are interest-based. The thing about Mastodon instances is that they can be for whatever you want. Do you want the kind of instance that will ban/not federate with The Guardian or The New York Times, because of that bedbug guy? Do you want the kind of instance that is generally okay with The New York Times? Do you want the kind of instance that is okay with a bit of TERFyness so you can fight with them? Do you want a Culture Ship Mind roleplaying instance, but not the one that’s got extremely graphic ROU Meatfucker roleplay?
For the first time, people are being confronted with making a choice, potentially fine-grained, about moderation and social norms in a virtual space. Like, there’s a list and you have to pick one, or it feels like you have to pick one and even though accounts are portable, like, have you ever moved house? It’s horrible. Migrating to a new Apple Laptop is a pain and that’s even with all the wizards. You’ll keep thinking you’ll have lost something. So it doesn’t matter if accounts are portable, you still don’t want to get it wrong.
See, in the end, I don’t think most people want that choice. Most people like to outsource those kind of decisions to other people and be able to trust in some sort of institution or set of institutions that might be called a “society” which enforces using a variety of methods up to and including solitary physical confinement norms of behavior.
You know, they want a nice, safe place to live.
Some people want a nice, safe place to live that doesn’t let in coloured people. They suck and are horrible and we shall not federate with them, which is a great choice to have that many people do not have in the real world and certainly Twitter doesn’t really give you that choice in an appreciable or “good enough” way. Which is why some people are interested in moving now there might be a viable-enough alternative!
But, I think, until (stretching the metaphor) the transport links and inter-town communication links are better established and more clearly understood people are going to worry about whether they live in the right town and whether they’re missing out by not being in that other town right there, or, you know, that really cool bar with that bunch of other people but ugh it’s south of the river and that’s great, but south of the river means long-pressing on your account avatar and, like, that’s effort. Some people (e.g. me) have Twitter alts (alternative accounts) – I have a private account and honestly, I hardly use it. This is because I have a tendency to overshare and also like the attention, which are things that my therapist loves to talk to me about. Other people have private-only accounts. My point is that I have two accounts for two different parts of me and I hardly use them. I have open, right now, five Slack workspaces on my laptop, only one of which is professional, the remaining four contain somewhat overlapping venn diagrams of people, social relationships, and in some cases specific subject matter. Some of them are even private and invite-only. I could be signed into, I don’t know, 20 more? I haven’t even counted the different subject-specific Discords!
As an aside: I have written before about the 90s dream of a universal inbox and how at some point people thought you’d be able to aggregate multiple forms of communication – mainly Microsoft, if I remember – the Digital Paperless Office where your faxes, voicemails and emails would all come into that Exchange mailbox. That is clearly not going to happen now and not because there’s a lack of interoperable protocols. No, it’s not going to happen because of a) money and b) a lack of will in regulation. I guess if it would happen anywhere, it might happen in the E.U. where regulators have a point of view (however badly implemented or expressed) that technology can occasionally do what a democratically elected society wants it to do, rather than what will maximize shareholder value over the long-term. I mean maybe it would also happen if a gatekeeper like Apple decided to throw its weight around and mandate interoperability into some sort of OS-level messaging framework which it kind of has done as a backdoor through Siri and so on, so that at least there’s OS-level consistent control of communications apps. But you might want to ask Spotify, for example, about how that’s gone.
Anyway. Towns and distinct places. There was a great analogy I saw, that Twitter is like a big city. It contains super interesting stuff, a lot of people, in some cases it is quite dirty and could do with being cleaned up, but there’s a mass there and the ability for serendipity that doesn’t exist in a smaller space. The city analogy feels much more apt than the town square, not least of which because a town square with tens of millions of daily active users isn’t something for which we have a mental model. A city, though? Yeah, that fits: they’ve even got people who’ll hurl abuse at you and, in theory, people who might have an opinion about whether that’s okay and do something about it. You might move to the burbs or to a nation state that has a better opinion about, say, paid family leave or not having a death penalty, but every so often you might still want to visit that big dirty noisy city just to have a look around.
It’s worth mentioning Facebook and Reddit, the latter because it’s genuinely built around communities, the former because it subsumed communities in the form of Groups, which weren’t previously a Thing.
Reddit, briefly, has the equivalent of a whole bunch of towns (i.e. subreddits) with their own neighborhood/homeowner’s association, anyone can spin up their own town, and every so often the overarching government will come in and remind people that certain communities that have crossed some sort of line really aren’t allowed. There’s one You on Reddit that can belong to multiple communities, and you can’t really get it wrong as such. And you have a unified inbox in that all the stuff from the communities (sorry, usenet groups) streams into a general feed – a bit like a town square – that you can, if you really want to, just order by New.
I don’t remember seeing much of Facebook Groups being recommended to me, but then again I don’t use Facebook that much anymore. Reddit’s website, though, pushes a whole bunch of suggested subreddit communities to me. While Reddit and Facebook Groups might be recommended to you, there’s absolutely none of that recommendation bullshit with Mastodon. No “you might also want to follow” or “you may be interested in the instance for people to reminisce about alt.tv.x-files, or want to recreate that tvtropes feeling”. (I know who you are. Hi.)
Reddit also has a bunch of other feeds: “All” which is the equivalent of the Local feed for a Mastodon instance, and “Popular” which is your standard upvote-ish feed and so on.
So, what would I change, and what might happen?
Mastodon.social might just become the Mastodon, through sheer weight of history, accident and placement. The other instances won’t go away, which honestly is a relief, as if it’s finally okay to start mailing lists again. Discords and Slacks won’t go away either. Some Discords and Slacks might also be displaced by Mastodons. This is… kind of all good? More choice!
Also, the systematic unbundling of One Size Fits All social networks, kind of by affinity/interest but also, I guess, by vibe [sic], if at least because Slacks and Discords and Mastodons and Facebook Groups and so on all have totally different vibes. People still use Peach!
I suppose what might happen is that if you’re worried about the shared consensual hallucination of reality having been systematically dismantled with the splintering of mass media and mass shared experiences that have a half-life longer than, at best, a week, then boy howdy are you going to freak out. If you thought there were self-selecting echo chambers or bubbles then guess what! There’s even more chance that you can burrow deeper into an instance or an online-mediated social experience that if you want keeps you away from stuff that you don’t like. That seems less good, and I don’t mean in the “you should expose yourself to hateful abusive people on purpose every now and then just to stimulate your outrage/anger immune system and to get your heart rate up”, I mean in a “is it important and useful to know what other people think and what they’re doing?”
Which, to be honest, raises an interesting point, which is if you were in your bubble of instances that purposefully didn’t federate with the alt-right nazis but you did want to know what they were up to, you’d want… I don’t know, reporting on what’s happening in those instances? Not quite a weather report as to how abuse is going lately but I suppose a more explicit, more detailed Internet Beat, an embryonic form of which we already have in a reactive or every-so-often sense of “this is how ~chan or ~fruitfarm played a part in this week’s horrific shitshow”, or perhaps different rounds of Today in Tabs, as if your main anchor from your horrible old evening news throws over to the Those Other Instances Correspondent. Or a sort of nascent Good Morning America style “and finally” which I’m led to believe is basically whatever feel-good meme they found from the internet, probably to do with throwing ice water over yourself in an effort to raise money for an otherwise unfunded chronic disease in a country with a frankly tortuous attitude towards healthcare.
Anyway. That is what’s caught my attention about Mastodon. Which is rather a lot, apparently.
How are you?
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s13e17: A Proposal for News Organization Mastodon Servers and More, me, 28 October, 2022 ↩
“Hi. I started an instance called http://4estate.media back in 2018, intended to be a place for journalists to post, using Keybase proofs to verify identity and requiring users sign up with their work email account. I closed that instance earlier this week. It’s a bad idea.”, @ændra, 29 October, 2022 ↩
I don’t have a citation here. There is most likely research on how QTs are used and their impact in the real life. I don’t want this to be my version of some people are saying, so just caveat all of this, okay? ↩
“The value is: since only members are allowed accounts on a union instance, it’s like an automatic sorta-kinda blue-tick for your profession, and it’s independent of your employer.”, @conniptions, 28 October, 2022 ↩