GNU Social, Pleroma, and the Mastodon Culture Conflict

So, full disclosure. I’m a personal friend of Gargron (manager and main developer of Mastodon), on decent terms with lain and kaniini (developers of Pleroma), previous support manager on, and run my own Pleroma instance for myself. I got no dog in this fight. I just want to see people respecting each other.

I’m gonna stay away from talking about particular things that particular developers have done wrong, because no one’s free of sin and all that, and frankly if everything I’ve ever done were on the table, none of y’all would listen to me. I think some people have done some fucked up stuff but for this write-up I’m not gonna cast any stones. Consider this a firm non-endorsement of any person. I’ll talk shit about people elsewhere.

So that said, why does this big section of Mastodon hear “Pleroma” and think “asshole” or “Nazi”? I think it’s a founder effect thing.

Early got into it a lot with the “poorly behaved” GNU Social instances because it was there before we were and that’s where the NIMBY assholes were. (Along with some decent people and a LOT of bots.) You dump the first wave of Mastodon users from tumblr and hackernews into an ecosystem with intentionally edgy shitposters, gamergaters, and lolicon apologists (mostly banned from Twitter) and of course they fight.

There were cultural differences, even among the people who weren’t being actively malicious. GS and its predecessors were built with the presupposition that every message would be fully public and that was desirable behavior. Then came Mastodon with out-of-spec message scoping tacked on to OStatus, and Content Warnings, and compatibility issues. People who idolized a certain kind of “free speech” saw Mastodon’s way of doing things as repugnant — I think we know how that goes.

When Mastodon first implemented Message Scoping, GS didn’t know anything about it, and displayed all messaged as public. This made GS instances the “bad guy” for ignoring scoping in the eyes of some people.

Mastodon also for a long time didn’t separate local and federated timelines, and the messaging on what a “Federated” service meant wasn’t clear to the new settlers. Sometimes conversations between two people were leaked straight to public timeline if one of them was instance-level blocked. There was a lot of headache for server moderators who were being told to Deal With users that weren’t theirs, back when the moderation tools weren’t as robust.

Not to whitewash anything — I figure I better note that some of the GS instances straight up leaned into the culture war, all the way to embracing the Nazi epithet. There was a document going around about the GNU Social Axis for a bit. I don’t know where the PDF is but they still have an active !bangtag group at !axis (I’m not sure Mastodon ever implemented support for those.)

There was #mastodonspygame too for a while. Not sure if anything came of that. Specifically just designed to stir up discord. Bad looks.

And frankly, fuck all of -those- people and their Nazi Internet roleplay shitshow. But that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

I know of a few cases of Mastodon users going out of their way to start fights with GS people, too, though I admit I don’t know as much about it as it never really became my problem the same way the reverse did.

Anyway, those same people from GS — good, bad, and otherwise — are comfortable moving to Pleroma because GS has aged pretty poorly. Pleroma originated as an alternate frontend for GNU Social and it was started by a GS user. It’s got that familiarity and it’s not as heavy on resource requirements as Mastodon.

So — before it was GNU Social instances, now it’s Pleroma instances. But neither GS nor Pleroma itself was born out of malice. It’s just where the people who’ve always been stirring up shit go.

Pleroma’s really easy to set up and deploy, and light on the system requirements, and as far as I’m concerned that’s exactly the kind of thing we need to replace centralized services. Something easy to deploy yourself, wherever.

And for me, I don’t think decentralization is a valid excuse from decorum and basic human respect, and I really wish y’all would behave, but I do think getting people away from corporate social media is a more pressing conflict than us throwing rocks at each other. Maybe we can get on the same page about that.

Edit: this article has been supplemented with information about feature differences in early versions of Mastodon.