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Mike Kreuzer

Mastodont touch that dial

23 May 2023

Over the last five years or so I progressively left Twitter for Mastodon, moving completely over before the Musk purchase. That makes me a reasonably old old-timer there, & like most old-timers I have opinions, & stoppeth one of three. Mastodon was always rough around the edges, & always almost but not quite the social network for me, but I think that may all be about to change.

For the moment I'm steadily winding back my Mastodon presence. From being a reasonably heavy user to trying at least to be a light one. I set up the automatic deletion of my old posts, but inevitably that didn't work. So I scripted the deletion of my old posts, another process as clunky as the rest of it. I have a two week tail of history on there, for now. It probably bears examining why, & why I'm actually hopeful about the future of the place at the same time as I've moved to treading water & waiting. "And thus spake on that ancient man…"

First, some Mastodon sacred cows. You'll be told that Mastodon isn't the Fediverse, that the Fediverse is a much wider universe of servers compatible with the ActivityPub spec. But effectively that's not true. Effectively Mastodon is the Fediverse, at least for now, because almost every Fediverse server runs Mastodon. The Fediverse is meant to run on the ActivityPub spec, but because that spec's so poorly written Mastodon effectively is the spec too. Any server running something that didn't talk to Mastodon but instead implemented the ActivityPub spec in its own way, if such a thing existed, those servers wouldn't be talking to anyone else. Worse, while Mastodon can obviously be federated, for most people mostly it isn't. Not really. Most people on Mastodon are on a handful of servers. Not everyone, but most people. The concentration's reinforced by federation & also by search not working, both disadvantaging users on smaller servers, & now also by onboarding being made "simpler" by just offering up the biggest server to new people. These things happen on purpose. It works this way because it's designed to. Things like quoting posts or searching text are impossible. Until suddenly they are. Decisions are capricious and arbitrary.

Other things are just plain broken, and have been broken for a very long time, & for much the same reasons. There are bugs old enough to have names, "the Mastodon stampede" for example, where a herd of Mastodon servers all DDOS a website to get the same meta information about a link. Or where Mastodon servers build giant caches of everyone's media files. Want to run a server hosting porn? Run Mastodon, it'll hoover it up for you. These things don't fundamentally change until suddenly they do, if they do, because the Fediverse is concentrated on the one piece of software, that mostly runs on only a handful of servers, where the biggest servers & the update process itself are all controlled by just the one guy. The exact opposite of how it all claims to work & the worst of both worlds, the lack of resources of the open source world, combined with the centralisation of the corporate.

None of this is a secret, but it's worth saying out loud.

Because federation so strongly advantages users on servers with lots of users, and because of the risks involved with what's being cached & served up by a server, it's not worth paying to run my own one-person setup. I did, but I gave up after only a few months. So I'm stuck with living on charity on other people's servers, dependent on their goodwill & legal risk appetite, as well as more prosaically, simply on their attention span to keep their servers up & running. Yes I can migrate if they ever decide to pull the plug, as has happened to me twice so far already, sure, but doing that always loses all my posts, and occasionally doesn't work at all. Culling my posts ahead of time is at least in part a way to front-load that disappointment for me, but also because I'm aware this is charity so I want to keep my footprint small on a server I'm not paying for.

For whatever reasons, these or maybe others, most of the people I used to interact with on Twitter who migrated to Mastodon have long since gone silent. Some drifted back to Twitter, some went elsewhere, some dropped out of social media entirely. That was my online community for a decade, & now it's gone.

I looked at Twitter again briefly earlier this year to see if I could stomach going back, but I went in already intolerant because Musk had smashed up my comfortable online existence. The outrage engine worked on so many levels at the same time it was kind of impressive on that score at least. The hate speech. The trending Nigerians not happy about Jeff Bezos' divorce settlement, I guess because being anti women's always popular, or maybe as a spectacular piece of social commentary about non Americans talking about US politics, who knows. The rusted on voters barracking relentlessly into the void. The business & finance tab that was just a list of crypto scams. The weeks they had the stupid crypto dog logo. I tried, but I bounced off. Hard.

Mastodon & Twitter have both changed, if only by a bit so far in the case of Mastodon. I have something of a community on Mastodon now. It's nice, but much smaller than it was, & it contains almost none of the same people. It probably always used to be that Twitter was people shouting propaganda at one another, still, that felt like it was the conversation of the world. I used to leave Twitter feeling like I knew more about what was going on, & that's almost never true on Mastodon. Mastodon in comparison used to feel like spending time with people who had their doonas pulled up over their heads, hiding from the world. They often had good reason to, but I usually left feeling none the wiser about what was happening. The people there have changed, so it's less like that now, but the news still isn't there, I still leave feeling not much the wiser.

Mastodon's thriving for some people, usage is way up supposedly, but it's never been quite there for me. It hasn't got worse for me, but in important ways it's also not got much better either. Maybe some of the big tech players entering this space will change that though. That's my hope, paradoxical as it may seem. Bigger players to muscle out the current biggest player who hasn't proved up to the job.

Jack Dorsey's been building Bluesky, his for-the-moment invite-only Twitter-but-without-Musk. I don't have an invite, but when it opens up bridging between ActivityPub & the AT Protocol seems at least theoretically possible. Medium, Tumblr, even Facebook have all also talked about federating in some way too, or are rumoured to be, & maybe some or all of them will change things, maybe even for the better. It's always possible. It's certainly sparked yet another round of Mastodon people apoplectically hating corporations & the everyday world, & promising to try & block it all out. But if Instagram, if the latest round rumours are true, were to federate along with its two billion users & buildings full of salaried developers, that would dwarf the current centre of power, & if enough people could get out from under their doonas the changes that might flow from that would be worth sticking around to see.

In the meantime there's not really an alternative for me any way. There're the Indie Web people, who struggle to put a comment form on a website. There're the older also-ran social networks, Reddit & Tumblr, "Hacker" "News" (man I miss n-gate) & Slashdot, as well as the horror shows of Facebook, LinkedIn & Twitter. For the moment Mastodon's all there really is for me, so I'm there, just less often than I once was. But I'm hopeful.

The opening for a good Twitter replacement remains as big as it ever was.