Skeleton of a Mastodon in a museum with a guy standing next to it for scale.
American Mastodon Skeleton Smithsonian Institution Archives

Some notes about life on a Mastodon

With Elon destroying Twitter, a lot of people are looking to move their online social life elsewhere and it seems Mastodon's decentralised 'fediverse' is where many of them are parachuting. Most are still keeping their Twitter accounts alive until the bitter end, but as the horde moves, there are some people who are finding the experience of life on a largely volunteer run network based on free open source software maintained by a German nonprofit kind of different. I've got a longer blog post coming, but thought I'd dash in some (rough) notes that are hanging around my screen for now. (Also so I can close some tabs).

  • The Markup has a very good break down of what life is like on a Mastodon server, read it. It covers many issues you'll want to consider before joining.
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation has given a very close look at the security issues around Mastodon as a platform and as a decentralised "fediverse." Read that, too.
  • If you're considering hosting a Mastodon community yourself, my only suggestion is to think about it really carefully. And then think again. Go for a walk, have a lay down. Then, aside from the technical piece of running a social network effectively and securely, read this guide to potential liability pitfalls for people running a Mastodon instance.
  • Here's a good Twitter thread on the difficulties of moderation. Imo, people are jumping over to Mastodon with the expectation of being treated like customers. There is no commercial component to it. You are not a customer. People are not doing this for work.

There is not one Mastodon, but many. It's a federation and anyone can host one but not all are created equal. The whole "just choose any server" UX needs work. There are nutter Mastodons out there. Dodgy ones, too. There are also a number of fairly friendly ones. Twitter is/was a centralised commercial service currently under control of an erratic, billionaire man baby. Mastodon platforms are run by all sorts. I don't think any of them are billionaires. They may have other issues.

Trolls, bots, harassment and abuse are in the fediverse as well. Mastodon doesn't solve the moderation problem, it shifts it and creates strange new quandaries. Instead of the central dictator, you have fiefdoms, some with their petty tyrants, others with inconsistent or corrupt policing, and many seemingly with no sheriff in town at all. Still others have structures with reasonable user expectations and volunteers who do look like they are trying to get it right.

That's not to make light of serious matters. Abuse, threats, attacks, creepy guys sending unsolicited dick pics, attempts at blackmail, and other horrors I won't even list here are serious, and need to be treated seriously. And I'd argue a lot of commerical platforms also don't take them as seriously as they should, but arguably a small scrappy band of volunteer mods on an open source platform are far less resourced to do it. I encourage reporting these people, outing them and using public humiliation, and any relatively safe avenues of vigilanteism that ruins them, but the reality is that they prey on fear and embarrassment. It's a community problem that needs community support. That's not a conclusive answer to the problem, but I don't think I have one. I don't think any one person has one.

Mastodon isn't private. There is no end-to-end encryption, but there really isn't on a lot of other services you use, too. I would be careful of what I posted there. You can DM someone but this stands for Direct Message, not Private Message. Any one with administrator access can view all your content. I don't like that the DM button includes an icon of a padlock, as people often associate that with encrypted messaging. There isn't any. If you want to keep the content of your conversation private, you need to use something with end-to-end encryption. Signal. Wire. Matrix. Element. Briar. Even WhatsApp. Take that conversation somewhere else. I would say the same thing about Twitter DMs. A lot of people don't realise what service administers have access to. 

I'm not new to the fediverse, but have been absorbed by watching it suddenly grow. Hope it works, expect many fiery crashes along the way. It's not commercial. There is no manager to talk to. You're not going to a restaurant, but to a pot luck. Keep track of your casserole dish.

A lot of people come over to a Mastodon platform, and what they see first is what's missing. There's no algorithm studying you to figure out what you might want to see. Some things they were used to Twitter doing for them don't exist. Remember, Twitter is/was a multi-billion dollar business that (Even with all the layoffs and quitting) still has thousands of employees.  Mastodon is run by people doing so largely in their spare time for free, because they believe in it, on servers they pay for out of their own pockets.

I want Mastodon, or something like it, to win. I want free open source software to win. I want decentralised, community run systems to win. But to win, it has to be accessible, usable, secure, and inviting to everyone. There are a number of problems with it, which I hope to get to in another post. But it does at least seek to offer an alternative model. For those who don't like Big Tech, surveillance capitalist business models, and all of that stuff, go live in the other world for a while. Set fire to your ideas of finding some kind of internet utopia in the process. The world is trade-offs, and nothing is permanent. Maybe you like it and maybe you don't. The worst that probably happens is you delete another account.