Thoughts on Mastodon

by | May 18, 2023 | Commentary, Nerd Stuff

I have been trying Mastodon for the last several months. It has a long way to go, but its decentralized structure could free the internet.

Note: The observations made in this post are from my experience as a user over the past couple of months. I’m still figuring out Mastodon and this Fediverse stuff, and I realize that my observations may be specific to Fosstodon because some servers are different. I also must acknowledge that some of my critiques may be due to ignorance. If you see something incorrect in this article, or you’d just like to help clarify something or provide some input, please reach out at [email protected] or just toot me @[email protected]

I have never been one for social media. The way I see it, social media prevents the internet from fulfilling its potential. The ‘Fediverse,’ on the other hand, offers an interesting antidote to the exclusive islands traditional social media sites attempt to create.

Unfortunately, the Fediverse confuses people. It is a concept, not a specific network, and under the umbrella of that concept multiple protocols compete. Activity Pub has had the most success thus far, and Mastodon has been the most successful Activity Pub software.

When Elon Musk took over Twitter and immediately started trashing the place, Mastodon had the perfect opportunity to catch on. A mass exodus did ensue, but not one massive enough to propel Mastodon beyond niche. From my experience on Mastodon, its potential has not been realized purely because of decisions made by the developers. As the community has grown in recent months, a firehouse of feedback has been unleashed on the developers. Hopefully they’re able to tease out the helpful bits and elevate Mastodon to becoming a major cultural force.

Positive: Can interact with any federated server

The best part of Mastodon is that different Mastodon servers can “federate” with one another so they all remain their private spheres, but they also can interact with one another. What does that mean in practice? You can click on multiple “feeds” in Mastodon that will present you with “toots” from users. The Local feed shows toots from users on your server, the Home feed shows toots from people/hashtags you follow, and the Federated feed shows you toots from servers that your local server has federated with.

Since you can follow individuals who are on any server (that your local server federates with), that means your Home feed can expand much beyond your local server. Following the right people/hashtags is crucial to creating a useful Home feed in Mastodon.

The fact that your server chooses what other servers to federate with also provides a great benefit. If a server primarily exists to troll, host illegal content, or violates the expected conduct of your server admin, they can just stop federating with that server. On some servers, the admin may decide to only federate with a select group of like-minded servers. That’s great! On another server, the admin may decide to federate with pretty much everyone. That’s also great! Most will be somewhere in between. The point is that different communities can enforce their own standards and still partake in the Fediverse.

Negative: You can’t really move your account

One of the things I was most excited about with Mastodon was the idea that you could move your account. Mastodon boasts this as a key feature and, unfortunately, it’s not really true.

When you create and account with Twitter, your handle will look like ‘@handle.” That’s simple. Mastodon must take different servers into account, so your handle will look more like “@[email protected].” This slight complexity adds just enough of a burden to be problematic.

How do you move this handle from one server to the next? You can’t. By “migrating your account,” Mastodon will export a file detailing everything and everyone you follow and block. Then you can make a post say, “Hey, I moved to this handle, please go there.” Not all followers will make the transition.

Mastodon does itself no favors by boasting about the portability of accounts. The copy on the website makes it sound much easier and seamless than reality.

Negative: Control rests with the server admin, not the user

While it’s great that the server admin has a lot of flexibility, this unfortunately means that the users must choose a server wisely. I went with Fosstodon, which aligns with half of my interests, but the rest of my interests are difficult to explore in this space. Hashtags and lists provide some ways to do this, but they require a lot of work and funnel down the content almost too much.

My greatest frustration with this server lies in the Federated feed. Here lies the vastness of the Fediverse, but it’s an endless waterfall of garbage. Most of my time in the Federated feed is just spent muting bots, weirdos sharing fetishes and NSFW images, anime, and East Asian posts that never translate well (nice try, translate button).

Despite muting literally hundreds of accounts, it’s still just nonstop garbage. Sometimes I’ll see some interesting things to respond to in there, but usually it’s just not worth the effort. What would be helpful is if I could filter what servers I want to see. The Fediverse will only be truly useful when users—from a single account—can hop from server to server without actually leaving their home server. This could be easily achieved with Federated Feed filter rules.

On the plus side, a user does have the option to block a server. Clearly implementing further controls wouldn’t face any real technical hurdles. Maybe these features exist on some other servers, but my searching has only brought up other complaints from users looking for this same feature.

Positive: You can run your own Mastodon server

Back in the ’90s I created my first website using SimpleText and an FTP program to upload my files to Tripod. Later I would pay for various shared hosting plans and today I use a VPS. Perhaps this is why I never found social media to be appealing. I wanted my own piece of the internet to mold according to my will. Even if my hosting company shuts down, I still own my domain name and I own all the files that make compose my website.

Like many webmasters, I have long held the opinion that I would only join social media when it has this same sort of freedom. I only begrudgingly use third-party email services because hosting my own email was a royal pain in the ass. In the future I will attempt to self-host a Mastodon instance and see how it goes. Importantly, the option exists and is baked into the Activity Pub design.

Negative: Running your own server is a pain

The downside of running your server and the only reason I haven’t already done it is that, after perusing the documentation my initial thought was, “dammit, this is email all over again.” My day job pays me to keep up with how to run a functional email server and it was still not worth it to run my own.

Let’s face it, running a server just a basic server isn’t easy. There are security concerns, updates to deal with, backups, and just the basic networking is beyond average users. And even if you can handle the basics (like me), there are so many things that could go wrong.

Negative: Mastodon has no algorithm

Another problem that Mastodon touts as a feature is the lack of any algorithm to promote content. Everything you see will be in sequential order based on the various feeds. For example, the local server feed will show me all the posts from my local server, with the most recent at the top.

The problem of this method has already been exposed with the disastrous Federated feed. Fortunately, Fosstodon hasn’t grown to the point where the local feed is absurd and quickly dumps thousands of posts a minute on the users. But this also means that a server with too many users makes it difficult to explore without filtering things through hashtags or what people you follow are doing.

For all of Twitter’s faults, predicting what content users may like based on their usage is a good thing. In fact, I would argue it’s vital for a successful social network. My wife is a traditional social network user and she always cites discovery as the most fulfilling feature. She loves that they figure out her interests and suggest things she didn’t know about but perfectly fit her personality. These networks can go overboard with the creepy surveillance to make their algorithms work, but that doesn’t mean that Mastodon should forgo algorithmic suggestions altogether.

Negative: Mastodon lists are not dynamic enough

Lists sounded like a good way to deal with some of the problems I have encountered, but it seems that you can only make lists of users (and they have to be users you follow). For me this makes lists completely useless.

Why? Because I don’t follow enough people to need that segmentation. My home timeline provides the functionality of keeping track of people I follow, so unless I start following 100+ people, why would I need this? And while the feature might be nice for people who do follow 100+ people, I doubt that describes the majority of users. So we have a featuer that could be useful for the majority of users but instead it’s designed for a small minority of users.

For journalists it would be extremely useful to make lists of people they do not follow. Writing a story about a certain group or population? Make a list of those people. I suspect the developers are worried about trolls using the feature to keep track of people they want to harass, but Mastodon already makes it easy to block people.

Everyone says that hashtags are everything on Mastodon but there’s also no way to make a list of hashtags. Now that would be useful. It also seems rather obvious and easy to implement. When I Googled this issue to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, I found a Github feature requrest from six months ago and everyone begging the developers to implement it.

I have similar complaints about the Favorites feed (the Bookmark feed makes sense to me but I don’t use it). I was using the Favorite button as a “Like” button—and it appears most other users do likewise—but it has no algorithmic significance. Although I still favorite posts to show the author my appreciation, but it seems that yet again we have a mechanism that could be meaningful but the developers chose not to.

Negative: No quote toot

I know this is the biggest complaint from the Twitter migrants and while it’s not a huge deal to me, it’s inconvenient to lack any sort of quote function. This is something that pretty much every forum has had for 20+ years.

Mastodon would actually benefit from quotes more than Twitter because of the extended character limit. A quote function would let me pull out a single sentence I want to directly respond to and then put my response under it. This is pretty much standard internet communication.

Does it open the doors to snarky and out of context replies? Of course. But I think it’s a mistake for Mastodon’s developers to think that they can weed out bad discourse by design. You can have two internet forums using the same software and one will be full of hateful trash trolls and the other will consist of scientists cordially saving the world. Tools for effective communication will always have the potential to be abused.

In a way, Mastodon reminds me of Robert’s Rules. Even if you structure a meeting so that it never appears unruly, that doesn’t prevent an individual speaker from saying some crazy stuff. In fact, many trolls love overreaching structure because they can use it to frustrate other speakers.

Think of Donald Trump during debates. He throws out so many crazy lies in quick succession that his opponents cannot adequately respond to each lie given the format. If this were Mastodon, a quote toot would allow the opponent to respond to those points individually instead of allowing the discourse to become unhinged.

Positive: Activity Pub should allow for this same federated system with the above negatives corrected

The best part about Activity Pub is that competition can rise up without fragmenting the community. In fact, there are alternatives to Mastodon that federate using Activity Pub. Perhaps I’ll discover one that better suits my needs should Mastodon fail to adequately progress.

However, it would be disappointing if this were to happen simply because Mastodon gather a lot of press and name recognition during the early days of Musk’s Twitter takeover. It would be a shame for that awareness to be squandered.

Despite my several complaints about Mastodon, I do still think it has made more progress to bring about a decentralized web than any other platform. For that, it has my support. I just hope that it continues to grow and fulfill its potential of freeing the internet from the shackles of closed social media platforms that all seek to turn the internet into 1990s AOL. I encourage everyone to get a Mastodon account or join some other Activity Pub platform. Even if you generally dislike social media, as I do, do it for the internet.

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