Mastodon: Finding the Goldilocks Zone for a social network

Size has a big impact on what an online community is like. Small communities have trouble sustaining themselves, since a community can’t thrive without people to talk to and stuff to talk about. But large communities become increasingly difficult to moderate, and unmoderated they can become very toxic.

A new social network called Mastodon has taken an interesting approach to this problem. Mastodon is loosely based off Twitter with a few new features, like creating content warnings for posts so you can flag them as containing spoilers or political content. But I think the most interesting feature of Mastodon is it’s decentralized nature.

Most social networks are centralized, meaning that everything flows through one set of servers owned by one company. That company must decide what people are allowed to post and enforce the rules. This is complicated and messy and you cannot rely on “common sense” because that means different things to different people. Different cultures have different rules. That’s a problem when you’re trying to create a centralized discussion forum.

That’s what makes Mastodon special. Mastodon is open-source and decentralized, which means that anyone anywhere with some technical expertise can set up an instance. It’s like starting your own online country: you decide what the rules will be, and if people like the cut of your jib they’ll move there. And Mastodon instances can federate, allowing their users to interact and see each other’s posts. This allows instances to get good content from instances they like and lets them cut off instances where people are being jerks.

This is not a prediction that Mastodon is the Next Big Thing or anything like that; I’ve done enough of those in my time to know I’m no good at them. But as an experiment, it seems very much worth trying.

Different networks take different approaches to the filter bubble problem. On Facebook you’re pretty much only talking with your friends; most people make friends with people who think like them, so the filter bubbles here are strong. On Twitter, you’re probably following people who think like you, so the bubbles are still there, but anyone can contact anyone; this can weaken the bubbles but also sets up problems of abuse which Twitter has proven completely unable to handle. Mastodon has a new approach: it allows community members and leaders to choose for themselves what kind of community they want to live in, whether that’s a place where “be nice” is strictly enforced or a place utterly devoted to free speech. They can be neighbors with other communities that feel the same way and block off communities they don’t get along with.

It’s a world where you don’t have to choose between being stiflingly enclosed and being caught in a raging windstorm, because there’s a gradient between those two extremes and you can pick any point in between them and move whenever you like. I’m liking it so far! If you join, feel free to follow me; I’m on icosahedron.website with the nerds who introduced me to Mastodon. If you’re starting an account, take a look at https://instances.octodon.social/. It will ask you one question about how much moderation you want and give you a short list of instances to pick from.

Here’s to freedom and harmony among us!