What Everyone Seems To Get Wrong About Mastodon




What Mastodon't


I'm sure you've seen, in the last day or four, the exodus of users from Twitter. Many of these users find themsleves reaching for the open source, federated "twitter alternative" Mastodon, or one of the several other Activity Pub compatible software packages. For me, and many other longtime denizens of the Fediverse, this has been a kind of mixed blessing. I've seen an influx of new followers, up 1,000 people or so in the last week. That's Significant, I have a wider reach now than I did before. It's also stressful, I have a wider reach now than I did before.


Of course, with this influx of new users comes a redux of the same handwringing that we see every time there are new users, plus a New bit of hand wringing with whispers that sound a lot like "Eternal September" Most of this handwringing is bullshit, or at least misunderstood or misrepresented. The whispers of "Eternal Septemeber" are especially frustrating. I don't want to spill a lot of bits to re-hash the same arguments that have been made over and over again, but I do want to address a couple, and talk about what Mastodon is and isn't.


What the eff is The Fediverse?


So let's start from the top, what the eff is the Fediverse? The Fediverse is a different kind of social network. It started as implementation of the OStatus Protocol used by GNU/Social, and expanded to include ActivityPub when ActivityPub became a thing. OStatus support is mostly legacy or non-existent for most of the fediverse.


Mastodon is the largest, and most widely used software making up the Fediverse, but it's far from the only one. There's pixelfed (like instagram), peertube (like youtube), and a bunch of others. Mastodon is a platform for sharing 500 character messages (or longer, depending on the configuration of your server), these are colloquially known as Toots, in a timeline.


In theory, this is much the same as Twitter, and Mastodon has drawn lots of comparisons to twitter (even from me) but there are some big differences between mastodon and twitter that are worth discussing.


1) Mastodon is federated and decentralized



There’s a local timeline, showing all public posts on the local instance, and a federated timeline, showing all public posts that have been seen by users on this instance. On a small or medium sized server, the Local timeline is likely to turn in to a kind of town square. A place where people can get to know one another. On medium and large instances, the FTL becomes a firehose, moving so quickly that it is impossible to keep up. It does enable some discoverability and serendipity, which is Welcome because discoverability on The Fediverse is different (and probably more difficult) than on centralized social networks.


2) Mastodon has good, but imperfect privacy controls



Some of these features depend on federating servers following the rules. Some federating servers do not follow the rules. There is room for abuse here, and bad actors do attempt to abuse this occasionally. (For the most part, at least so far, this has been inconsequential.)


3) Mastodon does not have global usernames.



4) Mastodon is open source, under the AGPL



Glitch.soc was an early Mastodon fork with lots of additional features. Recently, Hometown has sprung up, and I'm a big fan of the hometown software.


5) Mastodon works on iOS and Android



6) Most Mastodon instances take a hard line on harassment



7) Mastodon isn't a Twitter clone



8) Mastodon isn't one thing, the fediverse isn't one thing


We're dozens upon dozens, with different goals and desires and definitions of success. Some of us have been here for decades and some of us will still be here decades from now, and we're glad you're joining us for the time that we're together.


Addressing Concerns


I've been a mastodon user for half a decade or more, and it has legitimately had a measurable, massive impact on my life and my wellbeing.



As new users flood in, I see the same complaints, concerns, and fears. I'd like to address some of them:


What do I do if my instance dies?


Import your follows and followers to a new instance. It's easy and the tooling is robust.


Have fun. Back up your list of people you follow occasionally. Don’t worry about the social capital of identity. This is anti-capitalist software.


To be clear, many instances will die over the next few months.


There has been a rush of new instances in the last several days, and a lot of them won’t make it. Support your instance admin finacially if you can. Or host your own (single user) instance, and then you only have to worry about yourself.


How do I prevent people from impersonating me?


Verify your identity against another website using a rel=me link.


Publish your prefered Mastodon handle and instance in multiple places, so that it’s easy to find. You can also use tools like The Mastodon Bridge to verify that you’re interacting with the people you think you are.


I heard that instance admins can read your DMs


Yep, that’s true. It’s also true for Twitter, for Facebook, and for Email (unless you’re using encryption.) Heck, Police don’t even need a warrant to access any electronic communications older than 6 months, thanks to a dumb law from 1986, and social services don’t have to notify you that your data has been accessed.


People are already reading your DMs, and your mastodon admin probably isn't among them.


Don’t use a social network for publishing senstive information.


This is not a Mastodon specific problem. If you have something that needs to be shared actually in private, use strong encryption in the form of PGP, OTR, or a secure messaging app like Signal.


What about bad actors on other instances? Or bad instances?


This is a real problem, sometimes. When it is a problem, talk to your instance Admin about blocking the bad instance. This is not a Mastodon specific problem, but Mastodon has better tools for fighting this problem than other platforms.


But The Fediverse is doomed to die!


Nah, Mastodon started as an extension of the GNUSocial protocol. GNUSocial had been around for 10+ years. Lots of different software exists to support the fediverse, It’s not going anywhere. Use might wax and wane, but because it’s decentralized and federated, it can’t really die.


Heck, if anything, it’ll out live twitter.


But it’s too complicated, it’ll never replace twitter!


Nope, it won’t replace twitter. It will provide an alternative to twitter for those folks that want one. And it’s fun!


Eternal September


If you're not familiar with the phrase, "Eternal September" is a phrase used to reference the death of usenet. The legend goes: Every September, new students getting usenet access for the first time would be noisy and ignore existing norms and expectations. These new students would overwhelm the network, rendering it an unpleasant place to be for several weeks, then they'd figure it out and calm down and things would go back to normal. Lather, Rinse, etc.


Then enter AOL.


AOL gave Usenet access to their users. Usenet was flooded with lots of people who had no interest in the existing culture of usenet. It floundered and sputtered out.


That's how the story is normally told anyway. "Eternal September" has come to mean "New people are here, and I don't like it." I have my doubts that the story was that simple, but I wasn't there. I am here, though, on the fediverse, and I'm sick of hearing people whisper about an eternal september.


Let me say explicitly: The Eternal September mindset is both harmful and backwards. It's gatekeeping. Banish it from your mind. Embrace the chaos, help people find a place to fit in. Or don't, ignore them. This isn't usenet, this is the fediverse. It doesn't have the same weaknesses usenet did, it isn't an easy vector for Spam, the moderation tools are better, the federation tools are better.


Twitter's meltdown is not AOL.




Activity Pub on Wikipedia

Explaination of Mastodon's identity verification

My Mastodon Instance

No More Eternal Septembers



What Everyone Seems To Get Wrong About Mastodon was published on 2022-11-06