Mastodon, Twitter, and you (or not you)

Mastodon has seen one of its periodic growth spurts over the last week as a bunch of left-leaning sorts finally decided they had had enough of Twitter’s awful moderation policies and the not-ignorable possibility that it might be run by people at least a little sympathetic to Nazis. This is the most recent growth spurt Mastodon has had since, well, the last time people decided they had had enough of Twitter’s awful moderation policies, which was when I personally signed up on mastodon dot social (mightygodking, of course, because whatever my other sins may be I resolutely remain on-brand). And I tried it out for a while, and I went back to Twitter. I’m back on Mastodon again now, mostly because people I like are trying to use it again and I want to see what they say.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Partially, of course, there is the issue that social media, for many people – including myself – only really has value once it obtains a certain level of critical mass. Twitter has that; Facebook has it; Instagram has it. Mastodon does not, not yet. The largest Mastodon instances are about 100k-150k strong, except they’re Japanese instances mostly dedicated to sharing lolicon so they’re not really emblematic of how big Mastodon is generally. Dot social, at around 110K users, appears to be the biggest instance whose growth is not primarily driven by Japanese not-quite-technically-child-porn-but-close. This sounds respectably large, except that not all of those users are active by a long shot; plenty of those accounts are people who migrated once, got an account, and then went quiet because they decided not to use the service. I mean, Ello has over 1.5 million registered accounts and it’s not exactly thriving. And then you hit the issue of people who have multiple Mastodon accounts on different Mastodon instances (which is where the service starts to hit headache levels for me).

But there are other reasons than lack of critical mass, I think, that Mastodon does not provide a lot of Twitter exiles with what they want. Let’s be honest; what Twitter users annoyed with Twitter mostly want is Twitter except with better harassment policies and no Nazis, and Mastodon at first gave the illusion of offering this (the fact that the basic Mastodon homepage looks a lot like Tweetdeck and that Mastodon is generally modelled after earlier Twitter builds helped quite a bit in this regard). But, and this is key: Mastodon does not, in fact, offer either of these things. Individual Mastodon instances might offer these things, but the problem with decentralized power structures is that when you need central power to exist in order to stop certain things, decentralized power structures cannot, in fact, do anything to stop those things. Mastodon’s advocates inevitably argue at this point that participating in your chosen instance fixes these problems, because if your local instance bans Nazis, for example, then that solves the Nazi problem. However, this solution only works on the most local of levels.

Here is one fairly obvious abuse vector for Mastodon I have not yet seen a solution for: let us say you have an account on a large, non-controversial instance like dot social. I want to cause you harm, so I steal your avatar and username and replicate it on another instance dedicated to “free speech” (e.g. shitposting) where moderation essentially does not exist, and I know the moderators will not stop me from impersonating you and then penning, say, racist screeds under “your name.” If I am technically adept enough (and the demand of skill here is not impossibly high) I can even go ahead and set up my own instance so now I’m my own moderator and can even use your own moderation requests as an additional vector for abuse.

Twitter’s moderation policies are shit in most regards, but their track record with malicious impersonation is (or at least used to be, although I haven’t seen any complaints about this aspect of it of late) reasonably solid, because it has to be in order to maintain their high-profile corporate clients. But – and if I am wrong about this I would like to be corrected – that seems to me to be a dealbreaker for using Mastodon with any seriousness.

Beyond the abuse issues with decentralization, though, Mastodon’s appeal for me as a social network is limited because it’s more or less intended to be non-expansive by design. That’s really the point of decentralization in the first place: you reduce the amount of abuse by reducing the number of users, so that moderation is not so onerous that it can be handled by a minimum of humanpower. When you consider Mastodon in this light, you realize it’s not really a Twitter replacement so much as it is an update on the private and semi-private forums that dominated internet communication in the early 2000s before Facebook started approaching critical mass. And those were fine then and they’re fine now for what they are, and I take no issue with people who want to retreat to walled gardens or semi-walled gardens for their internet socializing.

But realistically, that’s what Mastodon is. It’s an opportunity to sequester yourself rather than a choice to participate, and I think a lot of people enthusiastically endorsing Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter don’t really appreciate that yet. I’ve been watching the local timelines on several instances and while they’re polite and respectful (because the instances I’ve been visiting are filled with people who are trying to diverge from Twitter because it’s not respectful enough) I do find it definitely less… daring? Seeing people request that other people use the content warning shield for punchlines for their jokes is weird enough on its own – but, more than that, the demand on dot social (and it is, in no uncertain terms, a demand) that people use the content warning shield for discussing politics to any extent is really enough to kill most of my interest in the service; regardless of the expressed sentiment that “it’s all cool, just use the CW,” it still feels unwelcome, and my natural preference is not to transgress and so… yeah. I understand that people can find political discussion unpleasant or even stressful, and I don’t have a problem with them wanting a safe space. But I don’t really want to hang out in that safe space too often even if I am invited. (And I totally understand that this is, in part, because I am a straight white dude and can be comfortable much more easily than average. I mean it when I say I don’t begrudge people wanting a safe space.)

And that isn’t just about my preferences but also muchly about wanting to be exposed to ideas and beliefs other than my own. It was centralization and critical mass which introduced me to Black Twitter, for example, and less frivolously allowed black people to communicate to white people much more directly how they were being abused by police. (The frequently less-than-stellar responses from white people aren’t because of Twitter, at least.) Similarly, it’s good to see and be exposed to, on a regular basis, what people with different belief systems from me think. I might think that they’re stupid, of course, but at least it’s direct knowledge of belief from a primary source and that does matter to me.

In the end, Mastodon’s “federation/instance” jargon is a really terrible way of describing it (one quirk of open source programming is that you inevitably end up using whoever’s terminology sticks first, and this can be either a blessing or a downfall and Mastodon is obviously the latter); one user suggested “galaxy/planet” as a better way of describing it, which is more poetic, but since humanity hasn’t really mastered interstellar travel as of yet I think the appropriate metaphor is “country/cities in, say, the mid-90s.” In 1995, you might live in, oh, Atlanta, and most of the people you know live in Atlanta, but maybe you talk on the phone regularly with your good friend who moved to Philadelphia, and a couple of your college buddies who live in San Francisco, and you get a very incomplete idea of what life is like there as a result. You’re all still Americans, but you’re all inhabiting different subcultures and because of a lack of exposure you don’t get the full picture – and yes, in the “individual forum years” in the early 2000s, the internet still mostly felt like this.

And that’s what Mastodon feels like to me now; it feels like when people move out of the big city to a small town, and explain to you that they love it better in the small town because it’s more relaxing and they don’t have to stress all the time. Which is fine and I’m glad it’s making some people happy – I really am – but it doesn’t appeal to me as it stands. Maybe it’ll change. But right now, I think I’m just gonna check in every so often and see how it’s going.