My Irish Exit From Mastodon
It’s not you, it’s me. Well, actually… it’s a bit of both.
I remember when I first joined the fediverse (or “fedi” as it is affectionately known) in 2017. The UK had just voted for Brexit, Trump was in the White House, and Twitter had turned into a complete cesspit as a result. But salvation was at hand, because a libre software alternative was now available!
It was a very quirky place back then. Most posts seemed to contain tech people ranting about Twitter, Linux nerds evangelising libre software, and strangers with cartoon animal avatars flirting with each other. Posts were also called “Toots”, mostly because hbomberguy tricked Eugen into it.
Also in the summer of 2019 I saw a chap called Chris ranting on fedi about the GIMP developers not listening to his well-constructed case for changing their project’s name, and decided to take a look at the codebase myself to see what I could do. To my surprise, people were not satisfied with an automated script that downloaded the latest source code and patched the translation files, they wanted something that they could download, install and run on their machines. I posted a Mastodon poll to name the project, it went viral on fedi, and “Glimpse” was the most popular choice. Luna invited Chris and I onto a project IRC channel with the same name, and the rest is history.
In hindsight, it’s still pretty bizarre to me that a group of terminally online MAGA types were triggered by some placeholder content I wrote for the project website and spent four months throwing the mother of all tantrums about it. Fortunately I live in another country so had no quarrel with them, and the Streisand effect they generated helped us to offset their relentless trolling and wanton thuggery.
You can read Glimpse: A Year on Hiatus for more information about what the project achieved when it was still being actively developed, its current state and when we plan to finally wind it down.
The Fediverse Evolves
In recent years, fedi has changed. For example, it has become more child-friendly by hiding lewd stuff by default and losing its infamous prostitute instance. Mastodon development is still part-funded by a company that sells sex dolls though, so apparently its horny legacy still continues! (Scroll to the bottom of joinmastodon.org if you don’t believe me. Publicly announcing that they’re funded by gambling sites and academic fraud is also a strange choice)
There have also been many more waves of Twitter refugees. Sadly that has made everyone’s feeds less diverse, and it has gone from being a fun stream of interesting weirdness to a boring stream of middle class Americans who keep forgetting that other countries exist and that the people living in them may not necessarily share their interest in domestic US news, culture and politics.
(I should stress that I don’t mind reading that stuff myself, but as I am not American I do also appreciate a bit of variety. I also don’t always have the mental energy to hear about America’s problems when I’m already dealing with problems that actually impact me in my own country!)
Similarly, I have been disappointed to see each new Twitter influx clobber hobbyist creators and marginalised people on fedi with criticism and moderator reports for daring to promote their work or ask for financial help. That is not normally against the rules, but in the minds of these people it’s somehow the same as seeing an advert for a big brand with a marketing department. Their behaviour is driving good people away and destroying the unique culture and chill vibes that fedi once had.
The “mainstreaming” of the wider discourse has slowly withered away my interest in using Mastodon. I learned more about LGBTQ+ history, wacky online subcultures, bizarre political theories and quirky Linux stuff than I ever thought possible in the first few years of my participating in the community. Now it is all being drowned out by a deluge of other peoples’ misery and boring grey sludge.
Either I’m a hipster that hates it when my favourite websites become successful, or I’ve become a grumpy Englishman that’s too old for this crap. Given that I’m in my early thirties, live in a rural town and read a newspaper on my iPad over breakfast each morning, I think it’s probably both!
Flaws in the Federation
So, to business. As I was a Mastodon user for almost six years, I do have some thoughts about what went well and badly for that platform. It’s my blog and I don’t care if you disagree with me, SO THERE!
One could say that the main selling point of Mastodon is that it’s a federated clone of Twitter that anyone can self-host. Nobody has to rely on Elon Musk’s wacky ideas about freedom of speech. Also, if the Mastodon developers make bad decisions, we can just fork it or use an alternative, right?
Except… Mastodon currently dominates the fediverse. In fact it is so dominant, that the client-to-server part of the ActivityPub standard has just been completely ignored and the Mastodon API has become the de facto standard. Its huge user base also funnels their resources into the project, so its dominance over alternatives like Pleroma and MissKey is exponentially reinforced over time. If Mastodon ever stops following the ActivityPub standard, every other platform that wants to remain compatible would have to follow suit or risk losing access to over three quarters of the fediverse.
If you think that can’t happen, just take a look at what happened when Mastodon migrated away from OStatus. The old fediverse is now a very small group of isolated servers that mostly run GNU Social.
In my experience, Mastodon is an expensive and time-consuming system to self-host. The side-effect is that most people give up and join servers moderated by strangers instead. The few that have what they need to self-host all follow the same tutorials and rely on the same shared hosting providers. Honestly, I dread to think what would happen to the fediverse if Cloudflare ever cancelled its free tier!
In my humble opinion though, the biggest threat to the fediverse is that it relies too heavily on the charity of unpaid volunteers to moderate users, build communities and collaborate with other instance admins. Historically those have been three areas where you get the competence levels you pay for.
Unsurprisingly, well-meaning introverted *nix sysadmins that run Mastodon instances as a hobby do not make good moderation decisions. The many people outside of that demographic who might be skilled enough to be good moderators are often not in the privileged position of knowing how to deploy a server, or being able to pay for shared hosting and contribute unpaid volunteer hours.
This often means that users you follow, users that follow you, and sometimes every user on the servers that host them, can just disappear from your window into the fediverse without warning for reasons that sometimes don’t make sense. There are also cases of instance admins asking users to leave, not because they actually broke any rules, but because their posts attracted too much attention and the admin doesn’t want to deal with the drama or risk being de-federated by other instances.
Realistically, unless you pay someone a full-time salary to be a moderator, they will not become proficient enough to do so effectively. The fact amateur hobbyists do a better job than automated algorithms and offshore labour is merely an indictment on the “tech bro” approach to moderation.
I don’t think that an instance with more than 1000 users can be effectively moderated by an unpaid amateur. Instances with more than 10,000 users should really have a team of moderators across timezones to keep on top of abuse reports, and instances with more than 30,000 users shouldn’t exist at all because they make moderation tasks harder for every other fediverse instance.
That scaling problem could be resolved by empowering individual users to moderate their own experience with shared blocklists. For various technical reasons that confuse and baffle me, apparently it is impractical to implement them properly on Mastodon. As a result, most shared moderation is the product of a “fediblock” hashtag that keeps getting spammed with troll posts, wiki pages that keep getting DDoSed, and an invite-only Discord server run by instance admins.
In many ways, moving your account around the fediverse feels like migrating between fiefdoms with different rules and customs. While one could argue that being able to move instances is one way that you personally can hold your new overlords accountable, in practice that is easier said than done.
The automated account migration tools on Mastodon do seem to work, but they are still a bit of a joke. You lose all your posts, it only works if the receiving server runs a similar version of the software, and if all the good instances have already de-federated from the instance that you were already on then you’re stuffed. If you want to move from Mastodon to something else… good luck with that! LOL
For the most part, instance admins seem to keep other instance admins honest by threatening them with mutually assured de-federation. Over time scuffles and disagreements have led to a Balkanised fediverse, so the subset of users with whom you can interact is based mostly on how easygoing your instance admin is and how popular they are with other instance admins. It is not uncommon for people to have subject-specific “alt” accounts on instances elsewhere to work around this problem.
In some ways Balkanisation is a brilliant thing because it limits the viral spread of spam, harassment, hate speech, disinformation, advertising and grifting. In other ways it’s dreadful because that limited reach makes it difficult for legitimate news sources, NGOs and public services to justify setting up an official presence on the fediverse. In addition, it makes the “group think” problems I discuss in the next section worse, because voices that might contradict it have probably been de-federated.
You can always spin up your own Mastodon instance, but be aware that moderated instances usually de-federate from unmoderated instances. Stay on top of user reports or your server might be cast out into the wilderness for committing fedi crimes. You have been warned!
Sins of the Father
I think that an illustrative example of Mastodon’s degenerating feeds was King Charles III’s coronation, where I lost count of the number of extremely online people in my feed posting pictures of guillotines, insisting that the arrests of protestors wanting to disrupt the event was equivalent to North Korean tyranny, and loudly expressing their bafflement that my fellow countrymen have yet to rise up and overthrow our constitutional monarchy. They were apparently so passionate about their anti-British republicanism that they were rendered incapable of using content warnings, hashtags or alt text.
What really demonstrated the change of vibe for me was when I tried to explain in an academic way a few days after the coronation why most English people aren’t agitating to replace our system of government. Apparently not being overtly negative about the monarchy triggered a group of Americans, shitposters and left wing anarchist types, who accused me of being an apologist for British imperialism and high-fived each other as they suggested ways to brutally murder the royal family.
While I can see the funny side of how that shook out, it is not the first time that this has happened to me. Over the past couple of years I have increasingly found myself taking breaks from the website when my feeds were getting a bit “extra”, and self-moderating by avoiding subjects that might trigger atheists, vegans, tree huggers, libre software zealots, etc. When I say that I enjoy driving my car, it shouldn’t be taken to mean that I want to run over children, rip up train tracks and boil the planet!
In my opinion, Mastodon has succumbed to the same problems that afflicted Twitter, the website that it cloned and iterated upon. Filters and temporary mutes do help, but they still require maintenance.
Also I suspect that US domestic political discourse makes the problem worse. British politics are different from US politics in a number of ways, and so are the domestic politics of literally every other country, but because social media companies are often American and assume their users are American by default, everyone’s feeds get flooded with advertiser-friendly American content.
Sadly even without Twitter’s algorithmic feed amplifying the effect, it seems that microblogging is still a gamified experience that rewards people with a dopamine hit when they win fake Internet points (likes, boosts and follows) and inflicts social pain when they screw up (unfollows, blocks and trolls in their mentions). When that is paired with real world or pseudo-anonymous identities, this risk-reward dynamic nudges people to avoid censure by shitposting, re-sharing already popular content and leaping to knee-jerk opinions based on safer, but often more polarised, “group-think”.
This effect is also why you should never rely on social media as an indicator of public opinion.
In any case, this trained behaviour seems to generate more interactions and content for ad-driven platforms to monetise, but in my opinion it cultivates amateur clowns and drama queens that stifle interesting discussions, blow everything out of proportion and harsh everyone else’s buzz.
It is true that federated social media removes adverts, and therefore much of the profit motive, but when systems like Mastodon replicate the functionality of websites like Twitter, it logically follows that they may also replicate the same toxic behaviours that those functions originally fostered.
Mastodon could have broken away from these dark patterns and forged a more healthy path as they developed their version of social media. Instead the developers seem to have focussed on creating a self-hosted Twitter clone for people who want a “less crappy” experience. It is a step in the right direction, but perhaps not the final destination.
Mastodon adds welcome improvements, like the ability to set post privacy levels and activate follow approvals without impairing your account, but those are really just augmentations. A spade with a fluffy handle is more comfortable, but it is still a spade and its primary purpose is to dig holes!
Soon, Mastodon will also have quote posts, or “quote tweets” as they are known on “the bird site”. Twitter designed QTs to artificially generate more low quality interactions with the same content because they don’t care about the original author. There is also a long history of trolls and online influencers abusing quote tweets to acquire more attention and cast their next victims for targeted harassment. Having been on the receiving end of the latter myself, it is fair to say that I am not a fan.
For a long time, Mastodon stood firm against quote posting, but now due to the amplifying effects of the functionality that they have replicated, they have finally caved to pressure from a noisy minority of users and pledged to deliver quote posts, despite knowing that it is harmful to their user base.
To end this post on a less disparaging note, an augmentation that I will miss from Mastodon is the ability to export my account data, edit it with a spreadsheet program and then re-import it. I also thought that being able to set my posts to self-destruct automatically after a fixed timeframe, add extra metadata to my profile bio and pin more than one post were all very nice touches.
Life After Mastodon
I haven’t yet decided whether I will create another fediverse account. I am keeping an eye on GoToSocial though, as it seems to be taking a more novel approach to social media than Mastodon.
The service that I’m most likely to try next is probably BlueSky, but I am currently still on the “waitlist”. I think that the AT protocol shows promise because it has been developed by a team of full-time staff that also had experience on existing social networks, and the benefit of hindsight because they started a few years after ActivityPub was confirmed by the W3C as an official standard.
I would like to see a system where users self-host their profiles on their own devices using P2P technologies, then subscribe to shared blocklists and feeds on hosted relays. That would empower users to make their own choices and scale moderation better as the network grows. Unfortunately, I don’t think that idea will be practical until IPv6 is universally adopted, but a man can dream…
In the meantime, I don’t mind taking a break from having a public-facing account on any social media. I am not immune to the negative effects of those websites, so maybe a detox will be beneficial.
I will however endeavour to write more frequently for this blog! There are some interesting ideas floating around in my head for new posts, so I will try to make them a reality. :)