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We Need to Toot About Mastodon.

Is Mastodon the silver bullet, or yet another social media dud?

First of all, we’ll have to clarify one thing. This post isn’t about the American heavy metal band Mastodon. It’s about the social network Mastodon. You’d think that the creator of Mastodon (the social network) would to at least a little research before picking a name, but apparently not.

With that out of the way, let’s get on with it.

The internet is great. It makes it incredibly easy to for us to connect, share, and educate ourselves. It’s also a place where trolls breed and feed, and hate is amplified. The anonymous nature of the series of tubes that is the internet often brings out the worst in people. There are few things that will make you lose faith in humanity faster than reading comments on a random, high-traffic site on the internet.

Historically, any lack of anonymity has restrained the trolls to a certain degree. And life was good. But with the rise of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, we’ve seen that some people really don’t need anonymity to go absolutely nuts. They’ll write and share whatever they think about race, sexual orientation, global warming, and other heated topics. This has turned many social media sites into very hostile environments, and people are looking for alternatives.

So wouldn’t it be great if there was a Twitter, but without all the hate and hostility? Mastodon tries to be just that, but can it succeed?

Toots and Boosts

Mastodon is a lot like Twitter, but also different in many ways. Instead of a centralized service controlled by one entity, Mastodon is a series of instances administrated by whoever decide to host them. Since Mastodon is open source, anyone can run an instance. Each instance can enforce its own rules, which has given rise to a lot of niche instances based on things like interests, language, and geographic location.

All public toots (as in Twitter’s “tweets”1) on a particular instance, are shown chronologically in that instance’s local feed. This differs from Twitter, where an algorithm decides what’s being displayed in your timeline. Each Mastodon instance can also display a federated timeline, i.e. public toots from other participating instances. In addition to the public timeline, it’s also possible to toot unlisted, which means that your toot isn’t visible in any of the public timelines, to only your followers, or one or more selected users, similar to Twitter’s direct messages. In an attempt to support self censorship, Mastodon makes it easy for users to add content warnings to their toots.

Getting started with Mastodon is easy as pie. Or perhaps even easier. Simply go to joinmastadon.org, and you’ll find a list of instances. Alternatively, you can use instances.social, which tries to find an instances based on your preferences. When you’ve found an instance that suits you, simply register an account, and you’re good to go. Personally, I’m @vegardskjefstad@mastadon.xyz.

Critical Mass

So you have an account on an instance. Now what? You could of course toot a bit. There’s a good chance it’ll be as effective as writing something down on a piece of paper, and throwing it in the bin. Your toot will appear in the public timelines, and perhaps it’ll earn you a follower or two. But it’s likely it’ll just drown in the noise, at least in the federated timeline.

For many of us who use social networks, it’s more about consuming than producing in terms of content. We follow a lot of people, but we rarely contribute original content to the network. This kind of usage is Mastodon’s Achilles’ heel. Because its distributed nature, anyone can register a given username on an instance. This means that Celebrity A can register an account on an instance, but that doesn’t stop someone from registering the same username on another instance. This means it’s open season for impersonating celebrities, which in turn means that you’ll never find any celebrities, and probably very few well-known personalities in any given field, on Mastodon.

Celebrities bring a lot of people to social media. Search for any of them on Mastodon, and you’ll find none. Search for a master list of notable people to follow on Mastodon on the internet, and you won’t find that either. The social network had a huge influx of new users about a year ago, when The Verge, Vice, and others wrote about it. That brought a few C-list internet personalities to Mastodon, but most of those account are abandoned now.

The way I see it, Mastodon in its current form will never be a new, generic, global social network like Twitter. But that’s not its ultimate goal anyway.

The Mastodon mascot, a Proboscidean.

Mastodon and the Sex Workers

Mastodon is about creating a self-regulating micro blogging service for a closely knit community. The point is to get away from the hostile environments many of the global social networks have turned into. With their own rules and regulations, each community can decide what goes, and what doesn’t, without global oversight.

A prime example of this is the newly established Switter Mastodon instance. With the recent passing of the SESTA/FOSTA bill, social media sites are liable for any facilitation of prostitution that happened on the sites. In turn, American sex workers effectively got banned from the internet. Just hours after the bill passed, Reddit started banning relevant sub-reddits, and people saw themselves getting shadow-banned on Twitter. Not a surprising move considering the possible consequences the sites faced.

The solution was Switter, where sex workers can go about their business. As of writing, the instance has more than eleven thousand accounts. The administrator of the Switter instance is still liable under the SESTA/FOSTA bill, but it’s trivial to hide it somewhere outside of American jurisdiction.

Technology Won’t Save Us

I doubt that I’ll be very active on Mastodon. But since I’m generally interested in anonymity, privacy, and security online – see my PRISM Break series of posts – I’ll follow Mastodon closely. The service might just fill a gaping void on the social media scene.

But will it solve the greatest problem, and get rid of the trolls, and the hate? No. Technology can’t do that. Right now, it looks like it has the complete opposite effect, amplifying hate and hostility instead. People’s opinions differ, and what I perceive as stupidity is another man’s profound opinion. The issue of vaccination is a good example. People will always disagree, and that’s not a bad thing. A lot of interesting happen when people who disagree sit down and discuss. Unfortunately, some people have a hard time getting their points across in a civil way. It doesn’t matter whether it’s online, or in real life, they are assholes, no matter what. And some people simply want to watch the world burn.

Since these people can’t be reasoned with, they have to be handled in other ways. Mastodon makes it easy for a community to bring out the ban hammer to remove the trolls and the haters. This is a doubled edged sword, however. Because what’s a troll? Is it someone that simply disagrees with the community? Or is it someone who is just there to make a mess? If you use the former definition, the community could quickly turn into an echo-chamber, which isn’t a good thing either. It’s a hard thing to balance.

The point is that technology won’t save us from ourselves, no matter how great it is. Mastodon is a power tool that can be used to build great communities, but it has to be wielded wisely.

Footnotes

  1. Also, retweets == boosts, and like == favorite.

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