Mourning What Now?!?!
This essay is a response to my previous one, and if you haven’t read that one yet you really should or else none of this will make sense. It is difficult to know what sort of response an essay will receive until after it is published — indeed, anticipating this response is part of the skill of writing an essay — but aside from it being more popular than I originally predicted (like, really, who wants to read a 4300 essay on obscure social media politics … or so I thought), I think for the most part the reception has been as I’d hoped, and that the essay itself covers many of the concerns which people have had. Nevertheless, I want to take this space to (briefly) respond to some comments I’ve seen on the article, and then (not-so-briefly) give a couple of my own.
Here are a few quick responses to some things I have heard others say:
If queer users don’t want to be left out of Mastodon development, they should make their own fork that they control.
This sort of response is very common when presented with an essay like this, and it is the result of reading my article and then asking, “Okay, this article presents a problem, how can it be solved?” And yes, queer users can fork Mastodon, and that certainly would put them in the reins of development a little more.
But this maybe misses the point. In writing “Mourning Mastodon,” my aim was not to tell queer users how to solve their representation problems, but to make clear to Mastodon development the ethical responsibilities they had towards the communities they served. And this is a problem which queer users forking Mastodon can’t solve. Indeed, placing the onus of responsibility on queer users is just an avoidance of the real ethical charge.
This always happens with software development; stop making it about identity politics.
Maybe you should read the essay again, because it wasn’t actually about identity politics. Nowhere in all 4300 words do I make the argument “The queer community of Mastodon deserves representation because they are queer.” Rather, I say, “The queer community of Mastodon deserves representation because they are a community.”
To be clear, because the original community of Mastodon was a queer community, I think that they are more vulnerable and face greater dangers than other communities might. In this sense, the ethical imperatives of my essay are perhaps heightened — queer communities do not have the same sets of options available to them that other communities do. In addition, because I am also queer and a member of that community, their current precarity hits me a little closer to home. But the argument in my essay can by-and-large be replicated for any displaced community, and if Mastodon had originally been a product of some other culture, they would be just as entitled to make these claims as I am.
You talk a lot about queer users, but what about everyone else?
Keep reading lol.
I really don’t like thinkpieces. I don’t like writing them (hours and hours spent making and editing reductive arguments for the purpose of stirring up drama? Please), I don’t like sharing them (I always lose sleep over it and it’s never fun), I don’t particularly like reading them (usually they leave me feeling more frustrated than satisfied), I hate the culture which surrounds them (either: magnifying irrelevant and poorly-thought-out views to an air of great importance, or: reducing important and worthy voices to little more than clickbait tripe). I think journalism is good and valid and important, but I also think that a genre of journalism which obsesses itself with hot takes and trite calls-to-action hardly deserves the name. So believe me when I say that, if I am finding myself writing an essay which arguably could be categorized as “a thinkpiece”, something has gone terribly wrong.
Of course, something has gone wrong, and that is why I wrote the essay.
As I stated in, well, the title, the subtitle, and literally the first sentence, my goal in writing “Mourning Mastodon” was to come to terms with a loss which has until now expressed itself for me as a deep feeling of melancholia. The sensation of melancholia suggests an inability to mourn, often because that which has been lost has as yet gone unnamed. So one of my primary goals in writing my essay was to help name the loss that I had experienced — that my community has experienced — such that we might be able to grow past it in an effective manner. Over the course of naming this loss, I uncovered power dynamics that I found to be less-than-ideal, and issued a number of demands targeted at preventing further losses in the future. I think that the essay which resulted was strong, to-the-point, and made great progress towards achieving these goals (your mileage may vary). However, in my efforts to present an argument which was both powerful and cohesive, I was necessarily forced to brush over or elide certain elements which perhaps should not go unsaid.
My hope in writing this response is to perhaps bring some of those elements to light.
On Mastodon’s history: I state in my original article that I have been a part of Mastodon “since (nearly) the beginning, which is to say, November.” I base this claim on the commonly-cited date of October as the project’s de-facto point-of-origin. Furthermore, I list a number of Mastodon’s features as being “conditions of birth,” taking them for granted for the sake of my argument.
The fact of the matter is, however, that Mastodon’s development ensued for many months prior to October, and many of the features which I listed as inherent to the project were in fact historically contingent. Recounting this narrative requires analysing the specific history and pre-history of the relations between Mastodon and the GNU Social project, as well as of its very earliest members. As I wrote my essay largely from personal experience, this was not my story to tell. But the fact that it is a story worth telling should not go unacknowledged.
On POC users and racism on the site: I mention the history of racism and people of color a number of times in my original article, always in passing. In particular, I make passing note of an occasion (or several) in which people of color (yes, often QPOC) were driven off of the site by (white) queer users — only to then make the argument that those very same queer users should be granted more developmental power. This may come off to some readers as… odd.
It is odd. It is a flaw that I was aware of while writing the essay and which I knowingly published in spite of. I am not a good enough essayist to write at once that “Mastodon’s queer community had value and needs to be preserved” and “That said, Mastodon’s queer community was really messed up though,” and have my resulting argument come off as cohesive. I wish I was — both of these things are true.
In my essay I write that the queer community deserves justice; namely, that they “be recognized for their efforts, allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and given the opportunity to continue to play a meaningful role in its development.” But what of the other communities, who, granted, didn’t contribute as much to the Mastodon project, but, again, only because they weren’t allowed to? Do they not also deserve justice?
This discussion is a much harder conversation to have (which is not to say that we shouldn’t have it), because it is not talking about compensation, but reparations. And I will admit, knowing that the audience to my demands is a largely-white group of developers who have not shown the greatest sympathy towards racial concerns in the past, I pulled my punches. Perhaps this was selfish of me. So let me say this now, in the hope of perhaps clearing things up:
When I say that Mastodon should include queer decision-making in its development process, I do not mean so at the exclusion of the other communities which it serves. To the contrary, I think that every community served by Mastodon deserves a say in the project moving forward. My reason for emphasizing the queer community in particular is (a) because it is the community to which I belong, and am thus best qualified to speak of and for, and (b) because, given their history with the project, I think it is in the best position to make these kinds of demands.
I think that the queer community on Mastodon has some serious looking-in-the-mirror to do, but the pragmatist in me acknowledges that this is unlikely to happen while the community is facing the threat of extinction, and my priorities descend accordingly. Others may not agree with this evaluation, and this is an important conversation which I think we need to have.
On moving forward: In my original article, I lay forward a series of demands regarding the future of the Mastodon project, aimed at addressing some of my concerns surrounding community exploitation. I do not, however, propose any definitive solutions by which these demands might be met.
As a journalist and theorist whose strengths lie in rhetorical studies and literary criticism, I will admit that I am far better at identifying problems than I am necessarily at solving them. Generally speaking, I am content to leaving the specifics of implementation up to the engineers. However, given that the engineers in this scenario are perhaps part of the problem, I am willing to share my thoughts on the matter — but note that these ideas should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.
In my opinion, the primary issue with Mastodon’s development model does and has always come down to two aspects. The first is the revenue stream — or, rather, the lack thereof. No large, open-source project serving — literally —nearly half a million accounts can or should sustain itself off of a single Patreon for one developer. Mastodon needs an organization, it needs a funding model, it needs to be attracting fundraising and grants. This means it needs a mission statement. This means it needs governance. This means it needs a PR staff.
Right now the Mastodon project consists almost wholly of development, but development is only a small part of what the project as a whole needs.
The second is the fact that Mastodon conceives of itself as a singular, one-size-fits-all solution. Mastodon development is not currently working to identify the varied communities which use its service or assess their needs. It has no form of outreach, it has no reliable way to submit feedback, it has no diversity or sensitivity training or advocates.
People complain about Silicon Valley all day long, but Mastodon is literally worse than all of them when it comes to this. It has precisely zero open lines of communication with its users. At least Twitter has a blog.
Both of these items are things which I will get agreement on from people involved in the project, but usually in the manner of “Yeah, but… later,” with no definite answers as to when exactly “later” is. In my opinion, these are things Mastodon should have had from the beginning. I acknowledge that Mastodon is a volunteer project, but people couldn’t volunteer for these roles if they wanted to — there isn’t a place on the GitHub site for them, certainly. This is something that I think needs to change.
In conclusion: I appreciate everyone taking the time to read my many thousands of words on this topic and apologize for just adding a few thousand more. I think that these are important conversations to have and Mastodon is a platform which — despite my apparent pessimism! — I care about deeply. I wouldn’t be saying things if I didn’t care about the project. Because I care about the project, I want it to get better.
Feel free to respond to me with any further thoughts you have on these matters, and I will do my best to keep up. @ me if there’s anything I can do :P
— Allie ❤