So literally the day after blogging about being off Twitter and #WhyIStayOnMastodon, a big crowd of Australian left twitter, including most of my mutuals, showed up in the Fediverse. So much for my plan to ease off the compulsive Mastodon checking.
This isn’t the first wave of birdsite refugees to hit Mastodon and it won’t be the last, although there are signs that we’ve reached some sort of threshold where the new arrivals start finding enough to talk about that they stick around. But I thought I should post a few things about what I’ve noticed about the place, and how it is, and isn’t, like Twitter.
It’s not just Mastodon. There are different types of software in the federated social media sphere which can federating with one another using the OStatus and ActivityPub protocols, one of which was developed for GNU Social, which came first. There’s also Pleroma, which is younger than Mastodon. And there’s drama.
There’s also drama within Mastodon, most interestingly about how the project is governed. This is normal and healthy, and how free software should work.
There’s no one Fediverse. This has always been true of Twitter, which is what phrases like “X Twitter” imply: different slices of the thing have their own cultures. It’s even more true in the fediverse, where each instance has its own moderation policy, and (sometimes) its own topical focus and (more rarely) custom software modifications, as in oulipo.social, which rejects all posts containing the letter ‘e’, or its anti-instance, dolphin.town. Mastodon’s culture of strong local moderation and content warnings — and its reputation as a safe haven for furries, people of colour and queer and trans folk who were fed up with Twitter’s miserable efforts at countering abuse — can give the impression that it’s trying to be one big earnest safe space: as can the anti-Nazi policies which most instances, particularly the ones in EU jurisdictions, are happy to enforce. But some instances are, or have been, a lot more 4chan-like. Any fediverse server is free to block federation from any other, and in late 2017 and early 2018 there seemed to be some kind of instance block war going on, although I wasn’t paying too much attention to it. I think it reached some sort of equilibrium, but a mass influx of shitposters from political Twitter is just the sort of thing which could fire things up again. Conflict of this sort is inherent in the federated model, and there’s no telling what will happen if things are really snowballing.
Actually, content warnings are good. If I were asked to sum up the difference in ethos between Mastodon and other services I’ve used, I’d say that it tries to give you the most explicit control about what you let people see, on the most granular level. That’s why the privacy settings for individual posts can seem over-the-top, but actually make sense, and it’s why content warnings are a really good way to communicate to your readers what a post contains or is trying to do. Spoiler alert: it’s about letting people not read your post if it’s not relevant to them or would harm them, or give them spoilers. And when used properly, they can add the crucial dimension of timing to a good shitpost. (Apparently, Pleroma calls them ‘subjects’, so I guess someone was triggered by the term ‘content warning’).
Irony still works here. As do the usual range of shitposting strategies. (People were trying to get ‘pooptooting’ happening, but it never took off.) I’ve seem people say things like “will there be weird Mastodon like there was weird Twitter”, as if the whole lifecycle of the platform will recapitulate itself, but social media is Heraclitus’ river where the water is made of terrible memes and references to 90s culture, and you can’t step into it twice, nor would you necessarily want to. But Mastodon has been evolving its own vocabulary of in-jokes, because it’s full of clowns like you and me.
Earnestness works too. It still feels like it’s at the stage where you can make connections with people about shared interests, and the communities haven’t gotten too hidebound. It’s still absurdly friendly, if you’re used to Twitter. It can also be really long-winded and obsessive.
It has its problems. It’s still got too many straight white blokes who work with computers on it, and if anything, the recent Twitter influx seems to be making that worse. I don’t know what we can do about that other than to follow, pay attention to and boost other voices as much as possible.
Oh, and retweets are boosts now, which is what they always were. I’ve always thought that the best Twitter filter would be to block everyone who has a ‘RT ≠ endorsement’ disclaimer in their bio, and Mastodon has made it explicit: if you spread something around, you’re helping it, whether you like it or not.
If you give it a go, my primary Mastodon account is @firstname.lastname@example.org