Update, November 2022: This post was originally written in May 2017. Since then I’ve updated by fixing typos and adding new links but haven’t changed the lessons. In 2018 I noted that Mastodon has continued to make progress, and that were new lessons to learn, so added “(so far)” to the title. Flash forward to 2022 and it all still seems pretty relevant!
April was an exciting month for Mastodon. By the end of the month, the open-source, decentralized, social network (“Twitter without Nazis”) had grown to over 500,000 users, funding via Patreon for the lead developer and a part-time project manager, and corporate adoption. The month had its challenges as well, of course. 14 Perspectives on a Breakthrough Month gives an overview of what happened.
Things have calmed down in May. There’s a lot less media attention, and growth is slower. The release process is getting more mature, with kanban boards and release candidates, and discussions in the Discourse forum as well as the Discord and Matrix chat rooms. So now’s a great time to look at what we can learn from these experiences — for Mastodon and its future, and for other independent social networks as well.
Of course, a lot of these lessons aren’t new at all — we’ve seen them before with Dreamwidth, Diaspora, StatusNet, Gnu Social, Pinboard, Ello, and others. Mastodon’s a good reminder that they’re still true, so it’s worth reiterating here:
- A lot of people want an alternative to corporate-owned ad-funded social networks.
- Paying attention to marginalized communities is a great way to get critical mass and visibility.
- A small team of developers can get something usable out quickly
- There’s interest across the world, not just in the U.S. Mastodon’s lead developer is German, the most active instances are based in Europe and Asia; France is the first government to have an instance; and initial corporate adoption came in Japan.
- Decentralization makes things more complex
Moving on to some new lessons …
- Policies against racism, sexism, discrimination against gender and sexual minorities, and Nazis are extremely appealing positioning these days. Not for everybody, of course: anti-safe-spacers, people with simplistic views of “free speech”, trolls, harassers and Nazis all have problems with it. Still, there’s clearly a large under-served market who’s sick of the norms on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook,* and elsewhere. Creatrix Tiara’s Mastodon 101: A Queer-Friendly Social Network You’re Gonna Like a Lot on Autostraddle, from November 2017, is a good example.**
- An explicit anti-harassment and pro-sexual-minority focus will attract a lot of people who are tired of the normalized harassment and heteronormativity on other social networks — enough to have a significant impact on the software. Furries, LGBTQ+ people, and women have implemented the bulk of Mastodon’s functionality, and continue to help drive development going forward.
- A small team of developers can deliver real innovation when it comes to defenses against harassment. Mastodon’s content warnings and instance-level blocking, while far from perfect, are both significant advances on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, an earlier open-source projects. And this lesson directly relates to the previous one: in 2016/2017, it was LGBTQ+ people who advocated for and implemented much of this innovative functionality including content warnings, instance-level blocking, and local-only posts.
Allie Hart’s Mourning Mastodon has a list of early queer community-led improvements. Cassian’s I left Mastodon yesterday and I left Mastodon 27 days ago, from 2018, documents the queer-driven origin of keyword filtering and important muting improvements.
- However, even with a stated anti-harassment focus it can still be challenging for a network to respond well when people are actually harassed. In decentralized networks, communications between instances whose admins have different norms about the definitions of and appropriate reactions to harassment add a level of complexity. And the crucial anti-harassment protection of local-only posting (originally implemented in the trans-led glitch-soc fork in 2017, and also available in the Hometown fork) has been rejected from the main code base, so isn’t available on most Mastodon sites.
Creatrix Tiara’s 2018–2022 Twitter thread is a good early example.
- Even with an explicit anti-harassment, anti-fascism, and anti-racism focus, people of color are likely to be marginalized if the most influential people are white. Other patterns that are likely to occur as well (as elsewhere online):
— cis men are likely to prioritize anti-harassment functionality lower than women and gender-diverse people.
— harassment is more likely to be directed at women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people.
— impacts are likely to fall most heavily on women of color, and in particular queer women of color.
- Rapid growth will tend to dilute a LGBTQ+ focus, unless there’s an effort to keep LGBTQ+ people centered and give them real authority. Allie Hart’s Mourning Mastodon and Mourning What Now?!?! April 2018 posts make this case in detail. hoodieaidakitten’s Mastodon’s Complicated Relationship with Queer Activism, Margaret KIBI’s Fringe Mastodev series (The Beginnings, Enter Allie Hart, Joining GlitchSoc, Intermission, and Progressing), and Cassians I left Mastodon yesterday and I left Mastodon 27 days ago provide a detailed look at the early history. Ana Valens’ Mastodon is crumbling — and many blame its creator, from 2019, is an excellent summary.
- The existing “fediverse” is a two-edged sword for a social network with an anti-harassment and anti-racism focus. While the fediverse shares the goal of building an alternative to corporate sites, many fediverse sites that describe themselves as “free speech zones” (and people who prefer those sites) are likely to disagree on some core issues including the definition of harassment.
- Instance-level federation choices are an important tool for sites that want to create a safer environment (although need to be complemented by user-level control and other functionality). Given the range of different attitudes towards harassment (etc.), this is likely to lead to alliances of more-closely-linked groups of sites that share values, with relatively weak connections between the groups.
- There’s a lot more that can be done to counter harassment, Nazism, racism, sexism, transphobia, and other hate online. Mastodon’s current functionality only scratches the surface of what’s possible — and has generally been introduced in reaction to events in the network. Transforming Tech with diversity-friendly software looks at Mastodon in a broader context.
It’s early days yet for Mastodon — it’s been around for less than a year — and no doubt there’s more to learn as well. It’ll be interesting to see how the software and the community evolve over time. Stay tuned!
Thanks to Creatrix Tiara, Thursday, and others for feedback on early drafts!
* see Mark Zuckerberg Hates Black People for a good perspective on this
** November 2022: Creatrix Tiara is now at @firstname.lastname@example.org. Their 2018–2022 Twitter thread and current thread with POC perspectives on content warnings are both relevant to many of the lessons outlined here.