It was nearly four years ago when I made my first account on the Fediverse.
My signup in 2016 coincided with the lowest point of my life: not a few months prior, likely due to my own actions, my friend circle all but collapsed, leaving me hanging without a social group. I was living in Guildford, England, for a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering. It was an education path I was beginning to doubt already and would ultimately end in an embarrassing withdrawal from studies by April of the next year. Twitter, as it did and still does, continued to act in boneheaded ways. Not to forget, of course, the political disaster happening across the Atlantic. Suffice to say, I, along with a lot of other people, were in dire need of friends.
I, like many others eager to move to greener pastures, was initially hesitant and confused with Mastodon’s model. Instances? Federated? There was some doubt over its ability to scratch a social itch. Not a moment too soon, though, a great many who have already established presences on Mastodon came to the rescue. Patiently they explained the goals of Mastodon, and how the limitations I saw were actually opportunities and benefits. In fact, Mastodon was a place where you could have as a safe harbour from internet reactionaries, while simultaneously being a place where you can find a friendly social group who would also appreciate your creations as an independent artist, without feeling like a corporate shill.
By the end of 2017, after switching to an art instance, I was swayed.
Yet, not long after, controversy emerged surrounding the administrator of the art instance I was on. Uncomfortable with the allegations made, I decided to change instances once again towards the end of 2018.
I found my way onto a furry instance. A lot of people had sung praises about it and a great many other instances too on Twitter for some time, taking advantage of the numerous times Twitter cocked its gun and shot itself in the foot; simultaneously, the sun began to set over Tumblr. These instances were tight-knit communities, and I was reassured I would have a great time there, meeting and interacting with new people who were likeminded.
Of course, now it’s 2020. For the past number of months, it ended up serving as not much more than another art gallery I needed to update, and one where I felt incredibly distant from everyone else. I’ve grown tired of trying to make Mastodon work for me. Funny that, since it wasn’t too long ago, I would have been happy to sing praises about Mastodon. Twitter, the thing I wanted to escape from, was, all things considered, doing just fine for me when it came to meeting new people. What happened? Was I not using Mastodon properly? Did I lose the thread?
Far from it, really.
Superficially, the GNU-based social networking platform appears to behave like Twitter or any number of its clones. There are accounts you choose to follow, posts to like, and some you decide to boost (retweet). There is strict character limit, and replies are threaded.
But unlike Twitter’s (or indeed, any other social network’s) organisation, whereby everyone is in a singular, nebulous space they share with everyone else; Mastodon is decentralised into numerous instances. Each instance runs Mastodon software, and each have their own rules and policies, sometimes even their own special code injected into baseline Mastodon experience. These instances all network, a process called “federating”, creating a large web of interconnected communities.
The benefits of such a system are clear. The self-governing of instances allows for rules tailored and applied specifically for those specific communities, avoiding a situation on Twitter whereby moderator reach can only go so far, and whereby the qualms of the community largely go unheard by central Twitter authority. Banning Nazis and other similarly aligned bad-faith actors is taken seriously across the Fediverse as a result. If they decide to try to create an instance on their own, other instances can simply de-federate from them. The free, open-source, and decentralised nature of the system means there is little incentive to shill out to corporations and corrupt politicians. It’s not meant to be like a capitalist corporation, ever-growing and always looking for more, but something far more sustainable and relaxed.
As such, I don’t lend much credence to articles that rely on traditional platform growth metrics to measure Mastodon’s success — doing so misses the point. It’s at least refreshing to see “making a good service” being prioritised over “making a popular service”, especially in this age of empty, Silicon Valley-based, youth-obsessed start-ups. Mastodon isn’t “dying” because it hasn’t met your growth expectations, simply because it never cared about them in the first place.
Rather, nothing of what I want to say here is to definitively gauge the “state” of Mastodon, whether it is declining, rising, flatlining, or otherwise. Instead, it will be more a reflection of my own personal experience, focused on answering a question that has been bothering me for months now:
Why did Mastodon, a social media platform with its community proclaiming its ability to form friendly social environments, ended up simply alienating me?
The pub vs. the barbecue party
I spoke with a friend of mine the other day, in which we discussed the nature of social platforms and how we organise our social lives online. From that, I theorised that most people online have organised themselves into a “two-pronged” system. Broadly speaking, when finding social spaces online, I found it useful to think of certain spaces as “friend-finding” and others as “friend-meeting”.
A “friend-finding” space is one that facilitates the discovery of new people and the formation of new social networks. Large social media networks like Twitter or Tumblr are built for this sort of wide-net casting. On Twitter, accounts are made public by default, allowing users to get quick reads on the kinds of things people like tweeting about. Retweeting, the act of re-broadcasting a post onto your followers’ timelines, enables the fast dissemination and spread of material to potential new peers. Hashtags and lists allow for new avenues of exploration and homing in on interesting subjects. Even with more controversial features being added to Twitter, such as “who to follow” suggestions and likes appearing as retweets, Twitter’s suite of features is all geared towards seeking out new people and forming relationships with them.
The large size of the singular melting pot of a community on Twitter, of course, means certain systems are needed to ensure users can exercise a degree of control over the material they receive. You don’t see what everyone on the entirety of Twitter tweets about constantly, for instance; you follow specific people who tweet and retweet things that interest you. The threading of replies allows for multiple conversations to branch from single tweets while still making it easy to navigate individual conversation threads with ease. The overarching goal, therefore, is not to get a big-picture view of what the entirety of Twitter is doing. Rather, you are expected to curate and form a feed of things that interest you and, hopefully, find people to create relationships with.
Once you meet and establish those relationships, there is often a move towards “friend-meeting” spaces, whereby intimate conversation in a small tight-knit group come to play. Chat programmes like Telegram and IRC clients are built to facilitate such interactions. Rather than picking users to follow, you’re presented with a single, chronological timeline of everything happening in the room. On Telegram, you can search for message history to review specific points in the timeline, and revisiting a chat you hadn’t opened in a while leaves you where you last were, allowing you to follow along and catch up with what had previously happened. Everything is designed to make you feel like a part of a cohesive whole.
There are, of course, many platforms that don’t neatly fit into these boxes. Discord, ostensibly a chat program, allows the creation of very large servers with multiple separate channels, each with their own conversation streams. Very large Discord servers can feel more like “friend-finding” places due to their size and organisation. Twitter itself allows for direct messaging and creating group chats even, even if there are likely better alternatives. It’s also important to point out that each system has weaknesses: the open nature of Twitter allows harassers to show up at people’s doorsteps at random. There are trade-offs to be had, and extremely significant, sometimes harmful ones at that.
That being said, social platforms tend to centre themselves around either being a “friend-finding” or “friend-meeting” space. This sort of thinking can even extend beyond online social media platforms: YouTube essayist Chris Franklin used a similar framework to describe the differences in socialisation between online multiplayer games Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch. Thus, I don’t believe it’s accidental nor arbitrary, and that people online tend to organise their lives in these ways naturally. It’s therefore useful to gauge the appeal of a social platform in these terms: will this new platform work for me as a “friend-finding” or “friend-meeting” space, and how well does it accomplish this task?
A clubhouse with a bank vault for a door
Even as late as 2018, there were still concerns lingering in the back of my mind over the viability of Mastodon for someone like me. I’m a furry artist, and with most other artists of any kind today, there is always a push to “grow your audience”. One couldn’t afford to not have an online presence, and so with this spectre looming over my head I aired my grievances to a friend of mine, who happened to be an administrator of a Mastodon instance.
Said they, if I wanted a place to “grow my audience” I would have to look elsewhere; Mastodon was not a place to find a new customer base. I begrudgingly accepted their position, and so I attempted to shift how I viewed Mastodon: one that is laser focused on finding friends and being part of a social community, to the exclusion of everything else. Art and self-promo, despite being core to my identity, would have to take a bit of a back seat to me just trying to socialise. No big deal, though — no harm trying to find a new social group. Might as well engage with the platform on its own terms. It turns out, however, that finding a new customer base on social media is not unlike finding new friends and a community.
If I may be frank, Mastodon was not a good place to find a new friend group. On the contrary, the Mastodon instance system is good if you like small, tightly knit communities, but more importantly, is geared towards those who already have, or are part of, a community.
Arguably, as many on Mastodon have pointed out to me, I should not be thinking in terms of instances so much, because the federation system means boosts and other interactions cross instance borders with ease. Yet the systems in place gear you towards focusing inwards, and to focus on the instance you on rather than trying to find peers elsewhere.
On the right of the TweetDeck-like interface, a button will bring up the “local timeline”, giving you a special timeline that shows what everyone on your instance is posting. The other timeline, the “federated timeline” is completely impenetrable as it shows absolutely everything from every instance that is in some way connected to the one you are on. I’m not sure if there’s anyone who uses this on an instance of more than a thousand people.
Notice how the local timeline presumes you only wish to seek out those who are on the same instance as you. There are no posts from other instances, not even boosts (or “boops”, as they were nicknamed on my instance). There is no way, for example, to see a custom timeline of the posts of people who are following me. Arguably, there’s a greater chance I’ll get along with people who follow me, as opposed to strangers who may have nothing to do with me aside from sharing the same instance I’m on. The only way to actually find out, though, is to simply go through my followers one by one, checking them out individually.
Hashtags are another method in which I find people who share the same interest. However, for any number of reasons, hashtags feel like somewhat of a taboo on Mastodon, at least from my experience. I felt discouraged from using them as there was a certain association with using hashtags and corporate marketing. Personally, I find the hostile attitude towards hashtags fairly trite — Twitter uses hashtags, therefore hashtags are bad, I guess — but so it goes. Another avenue for me to find peers, and for them to find me, is off the table.
As a result of the above, instance communities feel very insular. Either you hit it off with the immediate local community, or tough luck, buster. Interactions with outsiders is possible but discouraged.
What of testing out different instances, then? Surely, it is worth your while to shop around with different instances before settling on the one whose community you connect to with the best. Additionally, if you don’t like the instance you are on, why don’t you simply move?
Some things are easier said than done. There is, of course, the technical hurdles of having to re-register a new account for each and every instance you want to be a part of, although that is left somewhat moot with a new feature rollout which aims to make account migration more painless. Rather, it is the social labour that goes oft uncommented. Because of the highly closed nature of instances, expect to have to write an introduction whenever you join one, detailing your name, pronouns, hobbies, interests, talents, fursona, art galleries, other social media, chat contacts, and so forth. This is on top of how, in the instance system, each instance has its own social paradigm: who its respected figures are, how discourse is handled, what content warnings are expected to be used, what the rules and mores are; effectively, what the local culture is. As someone who already expends a lot of effort trying to hold conversation with friends, this becomes exhausting very quickly, trying to rapidly integrate myself into rings of strangers. If you do not have pre-existing social capital (i.e. people on those instances already know who you are because you’re, like, famous), moreso.
Additionally, you cannot see the local timeline of an instance before signing up. Understandable, given how privacy is a priority for a lot of Mastodon’s userbase, but there are trade-offs to be had. You must register the account first, complete with email, password, and verification, before you can begin to grasp whether that instance is suitable for you or not. Instance login pages do include descriptions about the community, but in the case of the instance I was on, the description’s stated values didn’t wholly reflect what the culture on the instance was like. I was told it was a “friendly, furry oriented, LGBTQ+, generally leftist” community. An apt description, and one that appealed to me as someone who shared all those values. Sadly, it did not mention that the bulk of the instance’s culture centred around shitposting and memes. Not bad on its own, of course, but as someone who takes up the bulk of his time on Twitter with politically charged worldbuilding art and vague armchair musings about social sciences, hardly a culture I can find myself at home in. Shopping around for a new instance to hopefully settle down in is effectively, then, a blind endeavour.
Therein lies my issue with the instance system; not with its value from a moderation or administration standpoint, but from a social one. When you are on an instance, that is basically your entire sphere from which to explore and create relationships in. In the case that you don’t connect with the community, it is difficult to reach out and find others who are outside your instance, and trying to find a new instance that might be more suitable for you is a process of blindfolded trial and error.
It’s here now I find myself, in a strange turn of circumstance, praising the online raging bin-fire that is Twitter. For all its issues (and, my god, does it have issues), it has always made it easy to find new people and network with them. It has no hesitation to show, to the point of fault, even, how eager it is to facilitate such discovery.
Trying to find a community to call home on Mastodon is akin to joining Telegram chats at random and hoping you hit it off with the locals. Not the worst idea, but there are certainly much better ways to do so that won’t drain your social energy as quickly. But even that metaphor isn’t apt.
A conversation browser
So perhaps Mastodon is not the greatest place to seek out and find new peer groups, but what of the more intimate side of things? The instance system, as insular as it is, is geared towards making walled-off communities with tight social fabric. Unfortunately, I don’t have much faith that Mastodon’s systems are ideal for creating tight-knit communities either.
Recall how “friend-meeting” platforms organise themselves differently to facilitate intimate conversation, as opposed to how “friend-finding” platforms work. Telegram, as an example of a “friend-meeting” place, is a chat programme that can create group chats with singular chronological timelines. Unlike “friend-finding” Twitter, you cannot follow only the people you like; short of blocking, you must listen to everyone. Nothing is hidden behind replies and threading, and conversations cannot branch off in multiple directions; a conversation in a given chatroom is often the only conversation being had. You cannot “tailor” a conversation; you must accept it as whole. It becomes easy, almost automatic, to get a picture of what the group is doing at a given moment, simply because there is no other option of only seeing some of what the group is doing. This allows a group in a chat together to feel like a small but tightly knit whole. Spend enough time in a chat and you’ll pick up who the regulars are, what the general attitude is, what subjects come up repeatedly, the habits of the users, and so forth. It becomes easy to get a feel for the group’s social paradigm.
Mastodon does not use a system like Telegram or even Discord, a chat program that can allow for sprawling servers with thousands of members. Instead, it adopts the system that Twitter has, but to its own detriment, especially on smaller instances. Whereas on Twitter, where the following accounts you want and the threading of conversations are required to keep the platform usable due to its size, the smaller sizes of Mastodon’s instances don’t necessitate such aggressive end-user tailoring. The local timeline display doesn’t even show replies, just individual posts, all disconnected from each other. You cannot figure out who “the regulars” are, if such a thing even means anything, you have no idea which individuals the community values short of looking up follower counts, and you have no sense of “where” a community is at a given time.
Conversation threads on Mastodon don’t even feel like conversations in a group, in so much as just a collection of disparate people each individually reacting to what someone else says, with no fabric between them. It is harder to feel for the weave of the community of a Mastodon instance, which in turn makes it difficult to knit yourself into it. Rather than feeling like a symphony orchestra, where people drop in and out but the collective still functions as a single whole and you can get a quick impression of what the group’s purpose is, it feels like a hundred separate musicians scattered around in a room. Each of them are doing their own thing, and I’m not sure how anyone relates to anyone else, so nothing feels like it has a place. In turn, I cannot find my own place in the room. I feel more like a nuisance, standing around and taking up space. It feels alienating above everything else.
While editing this, I passed it by a friend of mine, who stated the following to me:
You know what Mastodon feels like? A conversation browser.
You scroll through the timeline and you get a whole bunch of conversation starters and silly jokes and people screaming into the void, but you don’t see any of the conversations actually happening until you go into them.
Really, they managed to boil down my last four paragraphs into two chat lines. It’s not terribly surprising that they too, once eager to endorse Mastodon, found themselves back on Twitter again. Similarly, it’s why if I do have a group of people I want to foster a community with, I’d direct my efforts to a Telegram group chat or Discord server.
The social network
For me, then, my lacklustre impressions from Mastodon come from its structure as a social platform, and frankly has little do with others’ criticism surrounding its developers nor social media “metrics”. It has the “friend-finding” features of Twitter to help me discover new people and hopefully form new relationships, but the instance system and inwards-focused model puts a hard cap on how distant I can reach out before hitting a barrier, a barrier that does not exist on Twitter. Simultaneously, the threading and followers system prevents a Mastodon instance from truly feeling like a tight-knit group of individuals the way a similar group can feel on Telegram or even Discord: always chaotic in directions, and never flowing in a single way that is easily comprehensible as a member of the group.
It’s the worst of both worlds: a space that at once feels too restrictive to feel expansive and free, and one that is too cavernous and vague to feel truly intimate. When initially speaking of this on Twitter, a few of my peers on the site compared Mastodon to the vaguely hostile, impenetrable nature of cliques in secondary school. It’s a sentiment I find myself sadly sharing.
Really, the closest thing I can compare to Mastodon in terms of how its communities feel is Reddit’s Subreddit system: a network of individual communities that don’t have hard borders between them but have incentives to keep to themselves. Subreddits feel too expansive and chaotic to feel intimate. Of course, Reddit does not hide how it was initially a news-sharing site, complete to work with the now-rusty RSS. These roots carry on into the present day, whereby Subreddits feel more like showcases and open forums than actual social spaces where you form relationships. It’s just that Subreddits tend to readily embrace this showcase-y nature. And, of course, you can check out Subreddits you’re not on to guess if they’d be a good fit for you before diving in. And you only need one account.
It’s worth repeating that I do not want to frame Mastodon as some inherently doomed system. Even suggesting that it can be “doomed” is being disingenuous; Mastodon not trying to become the “next big thing” to the likes of Facebook or Twitter as so many think it is trying to. It certainly has demonstrated its value to a great number of people already. This four-thousand-plus-word ramble isn’t even aimed at them; I certainly have no interest in trying to persuade them to move away from something they have clearly found joy in.
Rather, as someone living in the age of information, understanding ways to describe and discuss how these new and complicated things known as “social media platforms” feels crucial. There is interesting insight to be had regarding how we, the social creatures that we are, adapt to this new landscape, and what this might say about how we organise ourselves outside of the internet. Dismissing a platform as “just bad” without trying to see what did and didn’t work does not help anyone. Analysing these systems can, in the end, help someone who is on the verge of materialising something to help us escape the Twitter hellscape once and for all.
Equally important is the understanding the strengths and limitations of a given social system. Many people on and off Mastodon invited me on the promise that I would make lasting friendships and find myself in a community I can call home. When none of it really came to fruition, I wondered if a better awareness of the limitations of the platform beforehand may have caused them to pull their punches, and perhaps considered they might have had another advantage (such as social capital) that may not apply to someone like me. Introspection is a critically important way to learn and improve yourself, which extends out towards designing a social media platform. Many times on Mastodon I saw people level real criticism at it, and many times did I see others dismiss them as “you’re just a Twitter person who doesn’t get it”, rather than perhaps first checking if the complaints may be rooted in some kind of sincerity or truth.
There’s also a dismissive attitude levelled towards a lot of criticism that I find unproductive, and to some degree, disappointing coming from leftists. I would imagine that a leftist response to someone saying they don’t feel welcome in a certain space is something gentler than, “it’s not for you, then, just go somewhere else and leave us alone”. The irritation is understandable; running a Mastodon instance is no easy task and mandates the donation of a lot of time and resources, so it is easy to feel defensive when criticised. Still, it’s worth taking such feedback into account, or at least try to discern what can or should be examined and what is in fact bad faith criticism.
As I write this, despite having announced it there, I’m still hesistant about deleting my Mastodon account. Perhaps some part of me thinks what I posted there is still valuable for historical record, but perhaps I also have some part of me that wants a future Mastodon to magically work out and rescue me from the talons of the Twitter bin-fire. The efforts to combat a lack of oversight and corporate influence are respectable and highly desirable; it’s just a shame that along the way it sacrificed its ability to be a meaningful social platform for me.