Mastodon Review: Federation of Bubbles
Twitter is 14 years old. And many people start seeing it for an enfant terrible it is. Some see the purple hair and pronouns in the bio, others see trolls and racists everywhere. And this makes people mad.
Microblogging is a dangerous genre. People just blurt out what’s on their minds and provide a little context. It forces people to communicate not with well-thought-out and articulated arguments but with short quips. Needless to say, modern Twitter is a warzone, and given its corporate administration has picked a side, tensions can only go higher.
In 2016, just as Twitter was approaching its current state of a free-for-all, a new challenger appeared named Mastodon the social network.
Mastodon is building an ad-free, community-run microblogging platform with much more robust censorship mechanisms than even Twitter. Mastodon boasts more than 2 million users being by far the largest decentralized social network to date. So how good is it?
It Is Sort of Like Twitter
Mastodon was in fact marketed as an alternative to Twitter from the get-go and it does have many of the same features. Some things it even does better than Twitter. For example, if you need to put your pronouns in the bio, Mastodon has a dedicated tool for this. You can also provide your posts with trigger warnings so that other users could automatically opt-out.
Mastodon posts are called toots and have a 500 characters limit (or more on some instances).
The interface is actually robust and intuitive. The screen is divided into three tabs. The leftmost tab serves for writing and sending toots. The middle tab shows mentions, toots from everyone you follow across instances, and some featured content. The final tab offers some QoL options and additional features: under notifications, you only see mentions, under direct messages you can check your DM inbox, etc.
Finding users in other instances is intentionally complicated to prevent potential harassment. To find someone in the fediverse, you’ll need to know both their account name and which instance they’re in.
But Not Really
What’s a fediverse you wonder? It is the key concept in our review.
The main difference between Mastodon and Twitter is obviously the open-source and decentralized nature of the former. There is no master server or single entity running the network. Rather it is a federated service more akin to the ancient Fidonet, where users launched their own local nodes (in Mastodon they are called instances). Those instances interconnect, allowing users to follow and communicate with users on other instances. And together they form a fediverse (a portmanteau of “federation” and “universe”).
This structure dictates a very special approach to community management and moderation. Its decentralized fractured nature makes it impossible to deny anyone a platform on Mastodon, but on the other hand, it enables the compartmentalization of communities.
Segregation Instead of Banning
All instances have their own rules and requirements for content. Some instances do not filter content at all, others have volunteer moderators and codified rules. Individual Mastodon users can mute, block, and report other users. When a report is filed, moderators of that particular instance have to make a decision on how to act upon it. But moderators can only take action against members of their own instance, so if you run your own instance you are almost impervious to censorship.
Well, not really. Admins of each instance can set the rules under which their instance interacts with other instances. And they can block instances they do not like from connecting with theirs altogether.
Mastodon’s main site provides a list of popular instances. But they only list servers that are “committed to active moderation against racism, sexism, and transphobia.” And that’s how they implement a soft shut-down on their local troublemakers.
Who Frequents Mastodon?
There is no actual research on this, but browsing the available instances one can quickly find out that aside from language-based nodes Mastodon hosts several large and distinct communities.
First and foremost, the fediverse is inhabited by geeks from all walks of life. Developers of open-source software and hardware (Liberapay, HardenedBSD, Pyra, Vikings, Technoethical), pirate organizations and representatives, infosec crowd. Universities around the world (MIT, University of La Rochelle, Clarkson University, Umeå University) have also launched their servers.
Another major group comprises of legacy social networks outcasts. Not just the notorious ones, like Gab. Tumblr’s decision to ban all porn triggered a mass exodus which in the end led to a large boost in traffic for Mastodon. After Twitter’s controversial treatment of the Indian Supreme Court’s member Mastodon gained a sizable Indian community. Twitter’s purge of certain types of Hentai led to a migration of a large number of Japanese users to the platform.
It should be safe to say that most Mastodon users come from groups that support personal data privacy and oppose certain types of censorship.
While Mastodon is a federation of independent user-run instances, it is itself only a small part of a larger community of services built on the ActivityPub protocol. For example, Pixelfed is a substitute for Instagram based on the same protocol, while PeerTube is YouTube’s twin. All ActivityPub services and other open-source social protocols form a larger Fediverse, not unlike the Steemit ecosystem.
Mastodon is better than Twitter but also worse.
Better if you seek a vast but safe and tightly-moderated community. Worse if you seek a censorship-free platform. Mastodon’s censorship is of the soft type, where marginal voices are not de-platformed but segregated and shunned. But this segregation is an incredibly efficient tool.
This article is a part of our Occupy the Internet series, where we review the current trends in the nascent decentralized web and cover the burning issues of privacy and censorship.
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