Mastodon Mythbusting: November 2022
Mastodon is gaining popularity in admirable spikes, especially from Twitter, which brings out a lot of user experience flaws, floods the r/mastodon subreddit with support requests and lots of hobby admins face more serious server load, resulting in more serious bills for hosting.
In this post I want to take a brief look at common questions, misunderstandings and that there is no simple answer to a lot of questions.
Firstly, I will describe good things as things I like, since values are relative and we all have our little lens of memories and experiences. Secondly, I'll try to include intention and expectation of possible users, like what a non tech-savvy user would expect from similar apps to cull the what-about-ism that's befalling too many conversations about how comparable social networks are.
Good Things About Twitter
Some good things about for example Twitter is that there's a lot of brain power and money at work which make some things incredibly convenient and hard to replicate. People are used to NOT having to think about a list of things like:
- What server they're on, one brand usually means one thing
- Caring for which format a photo is in before they upload it (AAAH! LET ME UPLOAD WEBP)
- Well indexed and fast search for entities like accounts, posts, etc
- Near real-time status updates on timeline and threads
- Content moderation, to some degree
- Reliability of services! Big tech outages make mainstream news these days
Some of these issues are architectural, others are more human factors.
Somebody who starts their own server and suddenly gets 10000 signups in the 8 hours they sleep will have an outage unless they made preparations and are willing to more or less blindly spend more money. Also if they don't share the responsibility they alone are a liability by being a single point of failure.
Technical issues are generally solvable, but most come down to money. It's unreasonable to expect some things to be as fast, smooth and well functioning without a similar effort being spent.
Good Things About Community Driven Media
This is not specific to Mastodon, it's for all indie media, it's just the elephant (heh) in the room right now! Things will always evolve and develop, some mistakes we will repeat as a species over and over, let's see where this one goes.
Trust Issues 🧐
By all of the questions that come up around Mastodon, like:
How do I know if the admin of the server changes password storage so they can steal my password?
I like to believe that people develop a more critical understanding of the old saying that
The cloud is just someone else's computer
I like that, because it's an uncomfortable and relevant discussion that only flares up once in a while when Apple starts scanning everyones iMessages or facebook ignores creative usage of its API for abysmally manipulative political targeting.
Independent Communities 🪐
In a way each instance in the Fediverse, if it's a clone of something that exists or something different, is a bit of indie community. It's maybe the smaller version of the forums that have fallen to the mighty social networks. There are some great pools of interests, hashtags and servers to dip and dive into. Lots of them will not last forever, but that wasn't really the point in the beginning.
If we don't see communication as pointless, but every connection made and conversation had a win for the involved parties, that's cool with me. I'm having a lot of fun, no matter if this will be a new "big" or even "default" social network.
Government Communication 🔏
The German government was quick on their feet to launch their own instance at and it's in fact populated with active accounts, which I think is brilliant, if you meet an account it can easily be verified by being from that domain, which is closed for registrations from external users.
It's a different topic how much a domain should mean for trust, but it's a common practise how things work on the web. You look at the URL if you want to be sure the site you're on is actually your bank or whatever more sensitive service you're about to use.
More importantly the government IT can take care of their own accounts and don't need to go through any authentication procedures with the social network to be recognised as the real deal, which is great!
Filter Bubbles? 🧋
One of the topics that comes up in the server context of having more specific servers for generally like minded people is filter bubbles, which we all somehow live in, but which can be more extreme when you spend a majority of your social media time in an even more isolated one.
Even newly established Mastodon instance journa.host for journalists, by the New York Times struggles with backlash and moderation in the new federated model where the different parts of the system can stop listening to each other:
Zach Everson, one of the journa.host administrators, responded that he agreed with Ms. Molloy, then added, “Banning someone for posting a link to an NYT article sets a precedent that we really need to work through.”
An admin from a reasonably busy instance with 80 thousand active users recently posted:
What's it with people reporting every single person they dont like.. :amaze: Please, stop with that. This is not #Twitter. Please use features like mute or block if you don't like people but stop reporting otherwise I'll start banning people who keep reporting for nothing :blobhammer: I'm trying to keep things running with so many new people and it's such a waste of time to hear whatever you don't like Otherwise go waste Elon's time, not mine
This is a human aspect of moderation that can both be very time intensive but that the fediverse also has an opportunity to do better, because your "chosen home instance" will probably be closer to what you consider acceptable and can differ from the average or other poles of the network.
Another post regarding basically gaming federation policies was posted by Jeffrey Phillips Freeman titled Eugen Rochko, CEO of Mastodon, Caves to Nazi's Agenda and deals with automation and claims that some things are about looks and not resolving actual issues.
Technical Difficulties 🔥
As teased earlier, it's not all nerds bringing superior tech to the table, especially the UX is a challenge for lots of people, that post boomer screenshots on reddit or express their frustration in not being able to join and look around:
I was hoping Mastodon would surprise me and not just be the standard “FOSS always has very poor UX.” I can't even make an account.
which I think is perfectly justified. It's a frustrating experience wanting to try something out and then meeting a closed door or your entire freemail provider being blocklisted by a server that doesn't accept
@hotmail.com in new user applications. This would not happen anywhere else, as social media and messengers usually try to spend venture capital to create the highest monthly active user numbers in the whole industry.
Allegedly tumblr, the site that gutted itself after purging NSFW content, plans to implement ActivityPub to connect tumblr to the Fediverse. However, that's just a tweet, we'll need to see what actually materialises.
Self-hosting is not a path that the average person can take, probably not even with a one-click server provider. In contrast to Fab's perception of me, I am somewhat aware of the barrier of entry, but I want to respond to his takes anyways:
This is exactly why distributed networks like this are doomed to fail. If all of the users are admins, only people that are willing to be admins will be users. And that's probably less than a few hundred thousand people in total.
[...] Your perspective is warped by being in a bubble that has nothing to do with reality. I've been there. I used to believe Linux was a viable operating system for most people. Or that Valve was going to bring AAA games to Linux. Or that people were going to move from Twitter to federated social systems en masse. And stay there 😂.
There are some proponents of single user instances, but I don't share their approach, what I believe is that people should have the possibility to own their data or to have great liberties who to trust with them. Host your own instance if you want to, but I wouldn't portrait it as a viable solution for most people. Social media with the ambition for above average adoption should work for everyone at a cost much lower than 10€ a month.
I am very priviledged to be able to just spin up servers left and right and try running part of the network, because I happen to live in a country where I got paid to study lots of nerd stuff and now have money to spare from my day-job. This still leaves an interesting question, what does the network cost at different levels of scale and who's going to pay for it?
- I have a LOT of nerdy connections, but I'm also building UX for normal people that either are using mobile devices as their main device. I'm not wearing the tech-utopia hat here and I don't believe that if everyone was just a bit more developer, everything would be well. I want things to be simple and attainable for the average person.
- For me this isn't the point and I'm not romanticising it. It's fine to get excited about things, tell your friends to check it out, but a lot of people set themselves up for disappointment if they expect a drop-in twitter replacement both based on the unambiguity of a globally accepted network (and brand) and how much people will choose convenience over everything else.
Obviously I can't prefix every light-hearted retoot with that, so I hope it helps that I SPELL IT OUT here 😛.
PS: If you want to see Fab and me shout at each other regularly, you can check out our YouTube channel where we play Tarkov!