Last major update: December 3. See the update log below for details.
DRAFT! Feedback welcome!
I've shared the draft on hci.social, scholar.social, infosec.exchange, and mastodon.social ... if you're on Mastodon, hopefully your instance federates with at least one of those!
It's also on Twitter, and in the Nexus of Privacy Dreamwidth community
Table of contents
– Mastodon goes live
– Mastodon, GNU social, and the early fediverse
– Flamewars, per-post privacy, and ROT13
– Rapid queer-led community innovation
– Dogpiling, weaponized content warning discourse, and a fig leaf for mundane white supremacy
– The breakthrough month
– The Battle of the Welcome Modal
– A breaking point for the queer community
– The aftermath
– The patterns continue ...
– Does Mastodon really prioritize stopping harassment?
- The view from 2022
Wow this is long – over 10,000 words! I will probably wind up serializing it as multiple posts. For a draft, though, it seems best to put it in a single post. Like I say, feedback welcome!
- The recently-released Mastodon v4.0 changed the name of "toots" to "posts."
- "Instances", "servers", and "sites" are synonyms.
"Mastodon is a free and open-source server software designed for communicating with and participating in the large, nebulous social-media network colloquially known as “the fediverse”; in very recent times, it has found itself the subject of a surprising level of journalism, hailed frequently as the (enlightened, doomed, sometimes both) successor to Twitter and its ilk."
– Allie Hart, Mourning Mastodon, April 2017
"Something remarkable is happening. For the past two weeks, people have been leaving Twitter. Many others are reducing their reliance on it. Great numbers of ex-Twitter users and employees are making a new home in the “fediverse,” fleeing the chaos of Elon Musk’s takeover. This exodus includes prominent figures from civil society, tech law and policy, business and journalism. It also represents a rare opportunity to make a better corner of the internet…if we don’t screw it up."
– Cindy Cohn and Rory Mir of EFF in The Fediverse Could Be Awesome (If We Don’t Screw It Up), November 2022
Five and a half years later, there's once again a flock of new arrivals to Mastodon – and a huge amount of media attention. Unsurprisingly, most of the newcomers don't know a lot about Mastodon's history. Neither do most of the journalists covering it.
Which is unfortunate. Articles like Will Knight's The Man Behind Mastodon Built It for This Moment in WIRED focus primarily on Mastodon founder and BDFL (Benevolent Dictator For Life) Eugen Rochko and presents a very simplified view of history:
"Mastodon grew slowly after the first code was released in 2017, appealing mostly to free software enthusiasts"
That's true, but it leaves out some crucial aspects. For example:
"So the first thing that I want to make clear is that Mastodon has a history of being inhospitable to marginalized users."
– Dr. Johnathan Flowers, The Whiteness of Mastodon
And as these past patterns repeating themselves today, and the romanticized view of Mastodon as being a "nicer" place than Twitter gives people an excuse to dismiss them as an aberration, allege that this bad behavior is just coming from newcomers who don't yet know the norms, or make unrealistic assumptions.
"You know, the thing that gets my attention concerning how safety concerns have become a sticking point as more and more people join the fedi is how white people are defiantly defending what is rather than envisioning what could be."
– Are0h on Mastodon
Few if any of the journalists encouraging people to check out Mastodon mention the safety issues, or let their readers know that Mastodon lacks basic anti-harassment functionality that's available on Twitter'(like controlling who can reply to your posts), let alone anything like Block Party. Maybe they don't realize it, just as most Mastodon users don't know that valuable anti-harassment functionality isn't available in Mastodon mainline code, even it's been in forks (variants of the code base) for years. What's up with that?
"The refusal to see outside of what they see is best is one of the most defining characteristics of white people in the fedi and one of the main obstacles to progress, as we are clearly seeing the need for an improved fedi experience across the board."
Indeed. So one good reason to look at Mastodon's real history is to do better going forward – a topic I'll return to at the end of this post in The view from 2022.
Another good reason is that Mastodon's early history is an amazing case study of community-led innovation – and in particular, innovation led by a very queer community. As Flowers warns, it's important not to use this history to avoid critiquing the whiteness of Mastodon or other power inequeities. Two things are true simultaneously:
- Marginalized queer, trans, and non-binary people drove a lot of Mastodon's key fucntionality, including content warnings, instance blocking, and local-only posts
- Mastodon has a long history of being inhospitable to marginalized users – including people of color and disabled people (as well many of the queer, trans and non-binary people who contributed to its success).
Still, it's a great example of the community-led practices Sasha Costanza-Chock discusses in Design Justice. And the way key functionality have turned out to be useful for everybody is an illustration of the advantage of centering the most impacted populations Afsenah Rigot so powerfully makes in Design From the Margins:
"Their experiential knowledge of how tech products can be improved to keep their communities safer, though, contains key insights for building better tools for everyone. After all, when your most at-risk and disenfranchised are covered by your product, we are all covered."
Much of this work – all done by volunteers – encountered fierce resistance, and virtually none of it has been properly credited. So Mastodon's history is also an excellent example of the point Costanza-Chock makes in Design, power, and justice:
"[P]eople are often marginalized from the stories we hear about the creation of new tools. Social movements are often hotbeds of innovation, but their contributions aren't always recognized.”
So here's an attempt to provide a history of Mastodon's early days that doesn't whitewash the past – and acknowledges some of the erased contributors.
Like any history, this is partial. It focuses primarily on the very early days, up through June 2017; and it only discusses English-language Mastodon. And a large percentage of the voices here (including mine) are white. Journalists rarely quoted Mastodonians of color, and Mastodon's norms discourage from linking to posts that weren't written to be shared off-Mastodon (unless you get permission, as I have for the ones I've included here). This creates an inaccurate impression, because despite all the marginalization and abuse directed their way, people of color have played a big role in Mastodon all along. If there are linkable references that I haven't included, please let me know and I'll add them.
Mastodon goes live
The initial version of Mastodon's source code was published in February 2016, and the first issue (adding a license) was filed later that month. Mastodon started to get broader adoption after Rochko's October 5 Show HN: A new decentralized microblogging platform post to Hacker News. In response to a question about his future plans for the project, Rochko said:
"I'm a realist so I don't think that it will be able to compete with Twitter. However I would like this project to become the go-to option for people who are already inclined to prefer decentralized/self-hosted solutions, and simply be better than the other software in that space."
By late November 2016, Mastodon began getting media attention. Here's three early articles:
- Mastodon is an open source, decentralized version of Twitter, by Christina Bonnington on the Daily Dot (November 22), is a quick overview. One big advantage: "Unlike Twitter, it’s non-commercial and not centrally owned, so you don’t have to worry about what will happen to your account or your posts if it gets acquired by another company."
- Open Source Alternative to Twitter: Mastodon Social Network, by Mohammad Suleman on ILoveFreeSoftware (November 29) has a good description of the early functionalty. Key advantages over Twitter: the 500-character limit per post, TweetDeck-like user interface (now known as the "advanced web interface"), not sharing your data with Twitter, and the ability to "set up a private social network for your company, your school / college, or family."
- MASTODON, on Aneddotica Magazine (November 28), a cut-and-paste of Gargron's original Patreon and a link to mastodon.social.
Here's Rochko's demo of the initial UI
These articles leave out a few important considerations. For one thing, very early Mastodon had almost no anti-harassment support. "Blocking" didn't really block the other person; muting and reporting didn't exist yet. And early Mastodon didn't have good support for people using screenreaders or other assistive technology. A November 1 2016 github issue noting the lack of alt-text support wasn't fixed until September 2017.
Mastodon, GNU Social, and the early fediverse
The fediverse (a portmanteau of "federation" and "universe") is an ensemble of federated (i.e. interconnected) servers that are used for web publishing (i.e. social networking, microblogging, blogging, or websites) and file hosting, but which, while independently hosted, can communicate with each other.
"New users have been coming to the fediverse in waves. There’s always been a background level of organic growth but most of the action happens when Twitter does something stupid."
– Thomas Karpiniec, From GNU social to Mastodon (2018)
In the October 2016 Hacker News discussion, Rochko described Mastodon's technical approach to decentralization as based on OStatus, Atom feeds/ActivityStreams, Salmon, PubSubHubbub and Webfinger, and noted that "anything that supports those technologies is part of the network (e.g. GNU social instances)." robek 'rw' world's April 2017 What is GNU Social and is Mastodon Social a “Twitter Clone”? gives some background
In 2007, Evan Prodromou developed the framework for what would eventually become GNU social. At the time of its conception, it was known as Laconica and utilized on a microblogging service named Identi.ca. After receiving funding, Prodromou renamed Laconica to StatusNet and began development on the service....
In 2010, Prodromou added support for OStatus, which was the standards update to the OpenMicroBlogging protocol.
By 2011, articles like EFF's An Introduction to the Federated Social Network also included networks like Diaspora that supported different incompatible protocols, and soon after the term "fediverse" began to be used; DDFON's Federated SNS (Fediverse) Historical Timeline cites a 2012 tweet from Mark Eckenweiler. Other software like Friendica and Hubzilla (both originally created by Mike Macgirvin) also implemented the OStatus protocol. In 2013 StatusNet and FreeSocial merged with GNU Social (whose development had been led by Free Software Foundation employees Matt Lee, Donald Robertson and Deborah Nicholson), and by 2014 Hannes Mannerheim's Qvitter plugin provided a Twitter-like interface.
In a February 2016 Hacker News discussion on GNU Social, a FLOSS alternative to Twitter, reidrac describes identi.ca as "pretty much about Linux, Open Source, and basically that was it." As Hal noted in a 2022 discussion,
"That Linux culture of "just run your own server" originates from them. It's rugged individualism ignoring the barriers in place to doing so that particularly hit marginalised groups very hard."
Karpiniec's GNU social and #RIPTwitter (2016) notes that the GNU Social community "consists mostly of polite free software enthusiast types" and Robek similarly describes GNU Social as initially "A slow, but comfy little paradise for geeks and developers."
Twitter's introduction of an algorithmic timeline in February 2016 led to an influx, with quitter.se (the largest instance at the time) getting 1200 new signups in two days. Robek says that many of these newcomers were "GamerGaters, Trolls, Idiots, and the curious," many of whom went on to start their own instances. Karpiniec notes that shitposter.club was started at this time, and Hal suggests that many of the Nazi-filled instances in the fediverse today had their origins in this pre-Mastodon influx. In a 2022 discussion, revenant dyke describes GNU Social's late-2016 culture as "a bunch of channer shit and blatantly anti-gay and anti-trans memes", and notes that "the instance we saw most often on the federated timeline in those days was shitposter.club, a place which virtually every respectable instance now has blocked." clacke agrees that "the famous channer-culture and freezepeach instances came up only months before Mastodon's "Show HN"."
As f00f/eris/continuum/etc notes in a November 2022 thread
"the federated social web of this time was quite poorly moderated; there were servers with rules against certain kinds of harmful content, but their admins had difficulty keeping up with other instances that did not share the same rules, including a lot of "free speech" instances that permitted everything within the law."
clacke similarly suggests that the project and community
were unprepared for the influx and steeped in an individualist hacker culture where tolerance of intolerance was not considered a big problem and "just don't read it" was considered a solution. The software had no tools and the community had no roles for creating a safe environment.
As I said in 2017's Lessons (so far) from Mastodon
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.
Flamewars, per-post privacy, and ROT13
Mastodon also didn't initially have tools for creating a safe environment. As Shel Raphen, former Mastodon volunteer coordinator, project manager, and community manager, says in Ana Valens’ Mastodon is crumbling — and many blame its creator
“When everyone joined there wasn’t per-post privacy or CWs or anything that people associate with Mastodon today. The new wave of queer users came up with, designed, pushed for, and implemented those features.”
Allie Hart, who first arrived on Mastodon on November 23 (before per-post privacy had been implemented) writes
"At this time, replies were not excluded from the public timeline results, and massive reply-chains formed as users jumped freely into ongoing conversations happening on public accounts.
This system, surprisingly, worked for the first few days, until November 25 rolled around — as some might remember, the day Fidel Castro died. Political flamewars engulfed the site. The very next day, the project’s lead developer pushed a commit to hide replies from the public timeline, and shortly after made post “privacy” a per-post setting."
– Allie Hart, Mourning Mastodon, April 2017
I wasn't there for the 2016 flame war, but from what I've heard it was pretty epic – and there may well have been some racialized aspects to it. Some people left as a result. And Mastodon's per-post privacy setting was an extension to OStatus, which, which caused tensions with fediverse instances running GNU Social and other software. trev's 2018 GNU Social, Pleroma, and the Mastodon Culture Conflict notes that
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.
This was also right after the 2016 US presidential election and many people valued Mastodon as an “apolitical” space free of commentary on the upcoming white supremacist presidency. So for a while there was a de facto agreement not to make public posts about politics. That didn't last, and Hart reports that after a number of "similar but smaller disruptions," the convention of using the simple ROT13 cipher to hide political posts or "other unsavoury material."
Jung pbhyq cbffvoyl tb jebat?*
Still, people continued to join. Carl Miller's Who commands the internet? (from 2018) quotes Rochko on the early membership:
“Queer people joined”, said Eugen, “and Furries. It comes in waves. We see a spike, then it falls down as users go back to the commercial platforms. But it never falls back as far.”
Rapid queer-led community innovation
"way back, at the beginning of mastodon’s rise to what it is now, queer activists, be they just a stranger with a keyboard, new to the social media site, weighing in on a topic on the public timeline, or me, someone actively attempting to be the middle between the most vocal voices, and tangible, meaningful change through gargron’s code, and github focused writing and activity, people were queer. they were marginalized, to some extent. people who weren’t comfortable with the status quo, so we changed it.
we begged, and screamed, and kicked at the ground until there was enough dust in the air for gargron to cough and wheeze and change things, and in the end, those changes were enough for things to change for the better."
– hoodieaidakitten, Mastodon’s Complicated Relationship with Queer Activism, July 2018
As Flowers highlights in The Whiteness of Mastodon, the history of Mastodon is often presented as "grounded in queer folks attempting to avoid the harassment on Twitter as a shield against critiquing the whiteness of Mastodon." That's a problematic framing for so many reasons. As well as whitewashing history, and erasing the people of color who have been on Mastodon since the beginning, this framing also elides the power struggles related to community members wanting to prioritize improvements to help address the harassment and abuse that was happening on Mastodon – especially to people of color.
That said, Mastodon in early 2017 was hella queer, and the queer volunteers who helped create Mastodon made an incredible amount of progress in the first half of the year – so much so that even today Mastodon has a reputation for queer-friendliness. At the software level, this included significant advances like content warnings (which despite the potential for abuse is generally seen as a very good feature), instance blocking (a major innovation over Mastodon's predecessors), the welcome modal, and local-only posts.
So, while keeping Flowers' perspective in mind, let's take a moment to recognize the community and their contribution.
"What of this community? What was it like? Well: “Welcome to mastodon.social, here’s a copy of the Communist Manifesto and your fursuit,” or so the (oft-repeated) saying went, underscoring the deeply leftist, kink-positive and often furry nature of its core base. Often these users were lesbian, gay, bi, or pan; frequently they were trans and/or nonbinary; many dealt with disabilities; many were victims of harassment. Certainly, the most vocal and most frequent of Mastodon’s unpaid contributors seemed to invariably fall into one or more of these categories."
– Allie Hart, Mourning Mastodon, April 2017
The initial versions of Mastodon initially had no protections at all against harassment. Hart links to github artifacts for the implementation of locked accounts, private toots (as posts were called until very recently), blocking, muting, and reporting in the December 2016 - March 2017 timeframe.
As Hart points out, these features were all the result of deliberate requests from members of the community, and many commuity members contributed code to the implementations. They were also added to Mastodon "generally after their moment of need first arose, and even then frequently only after a good deal of strife". For example,
- Hart identifies the "massive schism around race and politics led to the creation of awoo.space and drove many POC off the site" as leading to the belated introduction of reporting in February 2017.
- Instance-level blocking (an innovative and important anti-harassment technique) was prototyped by community members in mid-January but was not adopted in the main code base until May after a succession of incidents from badly-behaving instances.
Dogpiling, weaponized content warning discourse, and a fig leaf for mundane white supremacy
Ana Valens Mastodon is crumbling — and many blame its creator (2019) quotes a user who left Mastodon in early 2017
"Voz, who is a brown queer trans woman, considered Mastodon “a very white space” that gradually mirrored real-life versions of gentrification: White users made the service “more and more hostile to the Black and Brown users” that were among Mastodon’s initial adopters.
“Whiteness insists on hiding itself, and a veneer of respectability given by ‘banning (overt) Nazis’ is really just a kind of fig leaf for the more mundane white supremacy at work there,” voz said via Keybase."
Margaret KIBI's The Beginnings describes one example. Content warnings (CWs) had first been proposed in November 2016. Blackle coded an initial implementation, focused on their use as spoilers, in early January 2017 and they were integrated into the main code by the end of the month. And then:
[E]arly in February, this community standard was weaponized, as white, trans users—who, for the record, posted un‐CWed trans shit in their timeline all the time—started taking it to the mentions of people of colour whenever the subject of race came up. It was an incredibly unfair double‐standard, which effectively amounted to white people restricting the domain of public discourse to only those things which made them feel comfortable.
[W]hiteness is a large problem within the LGBTQ community. Being queer does not insulate one cell from the inheritance of whiteness
In a brief discussion of Mastodon in Transforming Tech with Diversity-Friendly Software, I mentioned some of the other challenges
[T]he Mastodon community currently has some significant diversity challenges in some other dimensions (for example, very few Black and Latinx people), an attitude on many instances of shutting down discussions pertaining to identity or systemic oppression as “irrelevant”, and situations where people of color have been harassed. It will be interesting to see how things unfold.
Creatix Tiara's 2018 Twitter thread describes one of those situations I was referring to
I became really famous on Mastodon because in my first few HOURS on there, after I commented about the lack of PoC, I was dogpiled by an instance run by a guy with a known podcast who thought I was some kind of SJW harpy. This harassment went on for about a week if not more....
The reason I got dogpiled in the first place was because I talked about how Mastodon seemed to be unintuitive for anyone who isn't a dev, and how that might affect engagement from ESL & PoC overall. I got told that I should put in pull requests or work on the code.
When I said that not everyone is a coder & that shouldn't be a requirement to make things accessible, that's when things got hostile - that I was unnecessarily playing the race card. I had to quit my first instance and find another one willing to block that instance.
As mentioned above, Rochko still hadn't integrated instance blocking into the main Mastodon code base, so Creatrix Tiara had to find a site running one of the Mastodon forks that did support it.
It's worth highlighting that the dogpiling didn't drive Creatrix Tiara away from Mastodon – in fact, later in 2017 they wrote Mastodon 101: A Queer-Friendly Social Network You’re Gonna Like a Lot for Autostraddle, and just a few weeks ago kicked off an excellent thread where BIPOC and POC users shared pespectives on Mastodon's CW culture and norms. However, a lot of other people of color who were kicking the tires on Mastodon saw this and other incidents of racist harassment decied that y'know, maybe Mastodon wasn't the place for them. And who can blame them?
The breakthrough month
"If you—like me—are unfamiliar with the landscape of free and open source software (FOSS) social media, Mastodon is weird. It's really really weird."
– Sarah Jeong, Mastodon is like Twitter without Nazis, VICE (April 4, 2017)
"So, April, huh. Twitter changed the reply system, which everybody told them they shouldn’t do, and then removed the iconic egg avatar for new users, and suddenly all of my work of telling people that one day Twitter would do something they didn’t like and they’d need a viable alternative paid off."
– Eugen Rochko, April post-mortem, April 25, 2017
April 2017 was an exciting month for Mastodon. Sarah Jeong's Mastodon Is Like Twitter Without Nazis, So Why Are We Not Using It? on VICE Motherboard (April 4) was part of a wave of media attention that kicked off explosive growth. By the end of the month, Mastodon had funding via Patreon for Rochko and a part-time project manager, and corporate adoption, and over 500,000 users – including me! I joined Mastodon not long after reading Jeong's article, and set up shop on toot.cat, an instance run by people I knew from the Open Source Bridge conference.
Jeong links to an early example of people being told to start their own instance if they don't like what's happening, a Mastodon tradition that continues to this day. She also notes:
"And there's one thing that has to be said about mastodon.social. There are a lot of people complaining about transphobia, homophobia, cissexism, sexism, and Nazis. There are not a lot of people complaining about white supremacy, and there isn't a lot of chatter about the surge of Islamophobia in the world. I understand the need to insulate oneself from upsetting topics, but insulation necessarily breeds insularity."
A few other snapshots from April 2017:
- Qina Liu's What I wish I knew before joining Mastodon, on HackerNoon (April 9) is a getting-started guide I remember recommending, with lots of screenshots, a list of early high-profile accounts to follow, and a discussion of the pineapple meme 🍍.
- Johanna Drott's Mastodon, pineapples, social media and other unanswered questions (April 9) captures the sense of possibilities as well as key questions that still haven't been resolved: “What is interesting is that the sense of early 90s cyberoptimism has started to reappear. It is possible to do things again, to change things, to build things that will make a difference…. What can and ought we do to establish sustainable social norms? How do we live together without breaking one another?”
- Eileen Brown's Is Mastodon the new social media star, or imploding black hole?, on ZDNet (April 17) discusses the challenges brands will face on Mastodon. "I think that enterprises will give the service a wide berth as they will not be able to find a way to monetize the time spent getting adequate coverage. Mastodon diehards will rejoice at this."
- Lexi Summer Hale's Infrastructure 101 notes that "For many people in the SJ [social justce] community, Mastodon became more than a social network — it was an introduction to the tools of the trade of the open source world." Hale also highlights on Mastodon's scalability issues. "Shiny as the UI may be, Mastodon’s back-end is a performance nightmare. The dev took shortcuts (shortcuts that are becoming terrifyingly industry-standard) and now his servers are paying for it."
- The Normal Invasion (April 16–17), an epic tootstorm by @dredmorbius, suggests that Mastodon’s initial quirkiness and welcoming to certain non-mainstream communities will inevitably be lost as the community grows.
- What No One Else Has Told You About Mastodon, by Ryan Parreno on Spot (April 17), discusses the culture on mastodon.social at the time. "[T]he most popular kinds of posts in mastodon.social relate to memes, and we get as absurd and silly as we can. During my stay in Mastodon, I’ve posted and shared memes related to Neil Cicierega, misspellings of the word gaming, dril tweets, puns, limericks, sexual limericks, even elaborate jokes that use the content warning feature." Perreno also mentions the threats to Mastodon's culture from gentrification. "Will gay-friendly Mastodon survive? Or can we build a better community in its place?"
- Kevin Marks' Mastodon, Twitter and publics (April 24) discusses Mastodon's "pleasant tone to a lot of posts that comes with sharing and reacting without looking over your shoulder," suggests that "Eugen has done a good job of tummling this community, listening to their concerns and tweaking Mastodon to reflect them" (using CWs as an example), and notes that "The structure of Mastodon and GnuSocial instances provides multiple visible publics by default, and Mastodon's columnar layout (on wider screens) emphasises this."
- Amaelle Guiton's Mastodon : un autre Twitter est possible in Libération (April 19) also sketches some of the key questions on people's mind at the time. How to resolve tensions between the desire to become a global village like Twitter and the goal of a “safe space” for groups facing discrimination? Will power shift to instance administrators or the users? How to streamline communication while preventing harassment? Guiton also has a wide range of quotes from people with positive things to say about their experience.
- Matthew Skala's Mastodon WTF timeline (April 23) is a detailed look at the situation from the Japanese perspective. By the end of the month Pixiv's pawoo.net and mstdn.jp were the two largest sites, although silenced by most English-language sites because of concerns about images legal in Japan but not elsewhere.
Other than Jeong's article, none of the April 2017 coverage appears to have mentioned race. I also couldn't find any references to harassment.
The Battle of the Welcome Modal
In April 2017, many new arrivals (including me) found Mastodon confusing. Techies could often come up to speed fairly quickly, especially if they had experience with earlier decentralized social networks like Diaspora, identi.ca, and Gnu Social. Others often had a harder time, and as a result a many people didn't stick around long. Of course, this isn't unusual for a new social network (for years, the vast majority of people who signed up for Twitter made at most one Tweet before dropping it), but it still isn't a good thing.
Community members with onboarding and user experiences pointed out that giving people a few key pieces of information after they first signed up could address a lot of common sources of confusion. As Valens describes Mastodon is crumbling — and many blame its creator, Shel Raphen – who was doing an outstanding job of project management in a very difficult situation – designed a welcome modal. Rochko harshly criticized the design and made significant changes that "broke the pedagogy and curriculum built into the design of the onboarding modals," which had been reviewed and approved by various other contributors.
"Raphen confronted Rochko over the modal, telling him that he has to “thank people and appreciate their work” on the project.
After Rochko introduced his own alternate welcome modal, Raphen claims community pressure led Rochko to add Raphen’s design—without crediting Raphen in the project’s release notes.
“I went in and edited the release notes myself and added myself, since I had that privilege, and Eugen got pissed and removed all my privileges and basically booted me from the project,” Raphen said."
A breaking point for the queer community
"things changed, because more and more people comfortable with the status quo followed. we queer activists rapidly became the subset that originally came, the marginalized. the minority."
– hoodieaidakitten in Mastodon’s Complicated Relationship with Queer Activism (July, 2018)
Valens describes Raphen’s treatment in the Battle of the Welcome Modal as "a breaking point for Mastodon’s queer community," and that's how I remember it too. That said, it was only one aspect of the threats the queer community faced. Allie Hart's Mourning Mastodon (April 22), written a few days later, notes that
"The recent influx of users to the platform has brought with it new contributors and an expanded revenue stream that has rendered the original nearly obsolete. Queer users could leave en masse without harming the project’s survivability, which means that the reciprocity of their relationship has been terminated — queer users still depend on the project, but the project no longer depends on its queer users."
"Most of the responses to the piece were things I had anticipated ahead of time: Queer users, generally, said "yes this rings true;" white techbros, more or less, said "this is overblown" or "if you're so upset by this, why don't you write a fork?" (LOL. As a matter of fact, there was another fork attempt around this time—Mastodon CE. I contributed my frontend‐splitting code, but the fork attempt appears only to have lasted all of three days.)
There was another response which I received which I didn't expect—from people of colour reading the piece, all of whom (who @‐mentioned me) seemed to be new to the site, who were curious about the instances of racism I mentioned but largely left unexplained, and wondered why I was placing so much emphasis on queer problems and queer empowerment when white queer users were arguäbly the source (well, one of the sources) of the racism problem in the first place."
As Valens says, some of the same criticisms leveled against the Mastodon project could be made against the white queer community on Mastodon:
"The gentrifiers were now being gentrified, so to speak."
In the followup Mourning What Now?!?! (April 23), Hart says
"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? ...
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."
Tthe surge of users slowed down in May and things calmed down for a while. One reason is that Mastodon's Patreon was bringing in enough money to hire maloki as a part time project manager / community manager. hoodieaidakitten describes maloki's efforts to work with Rochko "to try to smooth over his rampant, unceasing issues with transparency on what is being done to the code."
Instance-level blocking was finally released in mid-May, but most of the development energy was now occuring in forks. Margaret KIBI's describes their reaction to being invited to join one of these forks in Joining GlitchSoc:
"I didn't (don't) think that Mastodon's less‐than‐stellar history of responding to race‐related issues would be resolved by anything other than a significant nonwhite presence in the development staff—and that, far more than Mastodon's handling of queer issues, was what had gotten me into Mastodon development. A trans‐dedicated fork could well end up in tension with those goals if—as historically had been the case on Mastodon—those trans women trended overwhelmingly towards being white.
On the other hand: How many major user‐facing open‐source projects are significantly‐to‐entirely owned, operated, and dedicated to trans women? For a time at least, that was GlitchSoc. It was a big deal, and I couldn't exactly say no."
Joining GlitchSoc documents the development of important functionality including user‐defined profile metadata and collapsing posts. User-defined profile data, for example, was originally proposed in November 2016 as a way of including pronouns on a profile page, implemented in GlitchSoc in June 2017, and finally implmented in mainline Mastodon in April 2018. In late June, GlitchSoc was also the first fork to implement basic support for local-only posts, originally proposed in April 2017 and still not integrated into Mastodon's main line.**
Lessons (so far) from Mastodon for independent social networks (May 10 2017) was my attempt to sum up what I had learned in my month on Mastodon. A few of the highlights:
- 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.
- Even with a stated anti-harassment focus it can still be challenging for a network to respond well when people are actually harassed.
- 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.
Federating with the Trouble, from Open Source Bridge in June 2017, is a good snapshot of the state of Mastodon from toot.cat's admins. The Open Source Bridge website and wiki are no longer available, but fortunately I live-tooted it – here’s the tootstream. The thread provides another example of queer community-led development, one that affected both toot.cat's code of conduct (originally based on Audrey Eschright's work, the Citizen Code of Conduct, and some earlier anti-oppression work) and the underlying software:
when you start having long conversations, need to get very specific about what you mean by anti-oppression. e.g. "no nudity" is a problem for sex workers. so expanded that to a four-paragraph section. also worked to get NSFW tag changed to "sensitive image" - just came out yesterday!
It's really amazing how much of Federating with the Trouble remains relevant. For example, this discussion relates to the current debates about defederating mastodon.social in response to ongoing moderation problems:
suppose an instance has been running for a while and has local followers. now the admin starts breaking their own code of conduct and allowing harassment. can try diplomacy ... it's hard! need a "NATO of Mastodon admins", multiple tries to do that - probably the hardest situation
revenant dyke adds
I remember there being an attempt at a themed instance for mastodon admins in mid-2017 but it was incredibly short-lived. Maybe it could have been done better with the technologies we have today, but there were the same administration questions that places like journa.host are grappling with now—admins can't communicate with other admins if they are suspended, but do you really want to open your doors to Every Admin?
"Mastodon v1.6 is here, and it is the first Mastodon release which fully implements the ActivityPub protocol. ActivityPub is a new federated messaging protocol developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) which aims to fix the shortcomings of past standards like OStatus."
– Mastodon and the W3C , September 2017
"Unfortunately from a security and social threat perspective, the way ActivityPub is currently rolled out is under-prepared to protect its users."
– OcapPub: Towards networks of consent, Christine Lemmer-Webber
The OStatus protocol used by the early fediverse had a lot of limitations, and Mastodon's non-standard (but necessary!) extensions often caused compatability problems with other software. Replacing OStatus with the ActivityPub (AP) protocol, a standard being developed by the World Wide Web Consortium's Social Working Group (SocialWG) offered a path forward. In April 2017 Rochko cited a potential benefit of ActivityPub support: "the ability to implement follower-only messages as well as direct messages without leaking them to old GNU social server that don't understand privacy scopes." With substantial contributions from the community, and support from the SocialWG, implementation was completed fairly quickly. At the time, Mastodon was by far the largest social network to implement ActivityPub, with over 850,000 users.
ActivityPub was a significant improvement over OStatus, and is now supported by dozens of other implementations . As with Mastodon's early days, there was a major queer influence: according to Christine Lemmer-Webber, four of the five authors of the ActivityPub standard identify as queer.
However, ActivityPub also has some downsides. As Ariadne Conill points out in ActivityPub: The “Worse Is Better” Approach to Federated Social Networking, safety analysis is done by testing it against basic use cases (rather than a more structured or complete approach) and simplicity of the protocol is prioritized over safety. As Mike Macgirvin relates, Mastodon's tradition of not always playing nice with other implementations continued, leading to compatibility issues such as HTML content from other apps vanishing when viewed on Mastodon.
While there was some discussion during the standardization process of how ActivityPub could be made more resilient against harassment and abuse (the meeting minutes from October 2017, for example, note the support for a "block" tool and mention Mastodon's cross-server filtering tools), Lemmer-Webber cites "time constraints and lack of consensus" as the reason the ActivityPub spec was released with "holes in the spec" related to authorization and identity management.***
As a result, as Erin Shepherd describes in A better moderation system is possible for the social web,
"The basics of ActivityPub are that, to send you something, a person
POSTs a message to your Inbox.
This raises the obvious question: Who can do that? And, well, the default answer is anybody....
"[T]his means that we’re dealing with things now with the crude tools of instance blocks or allow list based federation; and these are tools which are necesssary, but not sufficient."
What could possibly go wrong? As Lemmer-Webber says
"[T[here is nothing about Mastodon or the fediverse at large (including the core of ActivityPub) which specifically prevents nazis or other entities conveying undesirable messages (including spam) from entering the network"
Conill cites a specific example of ActivityPub's limitations, relating to instances you’ve banned still being able to see threads from your instance:
"What happens with this is that somebody from a third instance interacts with the thread and then the software (either Mastodon or Pleroma) reconstructs the entire thread. Since there is no authentication requirement to retrieve a thread, these blocked instances can successfully reconstruct the threads they weren’t allowed to receive in the first place."
Lemmer-Webber also notes that a last-minute addition to the spec means that "we cannot proceed to make the system much safer to use without throwing out
sharedInbox since we will lose our ability to make intentional, directed messages."
Of course, these design flaws can be worked around to some extent. In addition, ActivityPub could evolve to better address harassment; both A better moderation system is possible for the social web and OcapPub: Towards networks of consent describe potential paths forward. To date, though, that hasn't happened.
A lot of my interest in Mastodon in 2017 was whether it could be a useful platform for grassroots activism (a topic I briefly discussed in my Open Source Bridge presentation Grassroots activism is hard. Can open source help?). It's still an interesting question to me; as Flowers points out on Twitter Mastodon's anti-virality is a challenge for activism in general, but then again intersectional activists used Twitter very effectively even before affordances like quote tweets were supported. But in 2017, the answer for Mastodon was clearly "no", both because of the whiteness and key functionality limitations.
So I stopped spending as much time on Mastodon, although kept my accounts and continued to pop my head in from time to time. I was lucky enough to have chosen instances that were well-moderated, LGBTQ+-friendly, and had zero tolerance for racist abuse, so my personal experiences have been generally positive. Obviously, though, that's not true for everybody.
Since I wasn't as present on Mastodon during this time, my notes are much sketchier. So rather than a detailed chronology of this timeframe, I'm just going to sketch some highlights.
The patterns continue ...
The impact of the LGBTQ community on Mastodon continues. As queer, trans web developer David Wolfpaw (founder of the tech.lgbt Mastodon community) says in Can Mastodon be a Twitter refuge for marginalized groups? (2022)
“I cannot count the number of people who I’ve seen and followed…on Mastodon and then come and realize more things about their gender identity, their sexual orientation, their different community markers. A lot of people, and I myself would be included as well, have said that exposure to new, different types of identities in a space [where] it’s safe to ask questions, it’s safe to learn from others and generally not be instantly harassed has been very helpful.”
And marginalized members of the community have continued to drive significant innovation on Mastodon – often without being credited. For example:
- Artist Marcia X created the #FediBlock hashtag for admins and users to share information about instances spreading harassment and hate, and long-time Mastodonian Ginger immediately helped by spreading it to faer networks and normalizing its use. In 2022, this hashtag remains an extremely valuable resource. However, various "fediblock" sites and accounts have popped up over the years without any credit – or compensation – to the original creators.
- Cassian’s I left Mastodon yesterday and I left Mastodon 27 days ago (June 2018) document the community-led deveopment of keyword filtering and important muting improvements – and the lack of credit.
"In the last few weeks, I have made a UI suggestion with a mock-up and one without, and Gargron implemented both, but he didn’t acknowledge me or reply to me or thank me for my contributions at any point. He just did it. When I mentioned this on Mastodon, someone replied and said exactly what I was expecting — that working on open source projects is a thankless job and that’s just how it is, it’s the culture, get used to it. (I did also get a lot of grateful and kind and supportive replies, to be fair.)"
Valens quotes Hoodie Aida Krisstina on the issue of credit:
“Evidently sometimes what [Rochko] does is take the pull request, close it, use that code as a starting point, then later commit it himself,” Krisstina said in an email. “This, tied with how [Rochko] credits others (read: he doesn’t, except for GitHub commit history), means that there is very little evidence, and virtually no recognition for the folx that actually made a feature happen.
Other problematic patterns that were established in the Mastodon's first year have also continued. A few examples:
- In May/June 2018, the initial implemention of trending hashtags – with no ability for site admins to turn the feature off – led to a firestorm of criticism from people who saw it as clashing with Rochko's claim that Mastodon had "a focus on user experience and anti-abuse tools." As maloki said, "You can't have anti-abuse tools by actively creating tools that are very likely to be used for abuse, without consulting people who know and understand anti-abuse." Cassian’s I left Mastodon yesterday and hoodieaidakitten's Mastodon’s Complicated Relationship with Queer Activism have some additional discussion. The feature was eventually removed, and an improved implementation was released in 2019.
- August 2018's Battle of Wil Wheaton highlighted both the strength of Mastodon's LGBTQ+ community (workingdog_'s Twitter thread provides important context ommitted from most mainstream narratives) and Mastodon's weaknesses in dealing with harassment. Nolan Lawson's Mastodon and the challenges of abuse in a federated system has some good observations.
Once the underlying software supported alt-text, much of Mastodon adopted a norm of putting descriptions on images – and not boosting images that don't have alt-text. Even though the software continues to have problems when used with assistive technologies, a vibrant accessibility community has emerged on Mastodon. Community-related resources include
- Changeling’s Guide to Mastodon for Screen Reader Users
- The highly-accessible Pinafore web client, created by Nolan Lawson. Lawson's What I’ve learned about accessibility in SPAs discusses some of the key learnings from this client, and acknolwedges accessibility expert Marco Zehe's "patient coaching" and comments on the Pinafore GitHub repo as a "treasure trove of knowledge."
- Sarah Quigley's An oversimplified guide to setting up Mastodon (including detailed screenreader instructions)
- The toot.cafe fork, with better support for underlining links
However, Mastodon's mainline code has refused to accept the fixes for underlined links, so most instances only support underlined links in high-contrast mode, not in the default themes. As Adrian Roselli pointed out in a heated 2019 github discussion this means that sites running vanilla Mastodon are in violation of WCAG guidelines – and aren't usable for a lot of people.
And Mastodon's mainline code is still not fully accessible. Important improvements like providing another option besides hovertext to see alt-text haven't been addressed for years. Running a simple accessibility checkers like the axe DevTools plugin reveals many easily-fixed errors that could affect screenreader use.
"In 2019, after a white passing person and Black person had a public run in with one another, several issues came to the surface. Misgendering, white women/femmes making comments to Black men that make them uncomfortable, the politics of white passing people as they engage with darker folks, and slurs as they are used intracommunally—these are not easy topics but at some point, they do become necessary to discuss."
– Artist Marcia X, Ecosystems of Abuse
For several years, Playvicious.social was the highest profile Black-led instance on Mastodon. In Sean Captain's Can Mastodon be a Twitter refuge for marginalized groups? (2022), playvicious moderator Artist Marcia X recalls that the instance was under attack from its founding in 2017, but then harassment escalated in 2019 and again after the George Floyd uprising began in mid-2020.
"It’s one thing to have people say ridiculous things in your mentions, but it was a proper harassment campaign—stalkers, cyber stalkers, bots scraping my accounts, people squatting on your timeline and taking screenshots of it and posting it elsewhere. Our safety was starting to become a real risk and also our mental health for that matter.”
Playvicious.social shut down in late 2020. From weirder.earth's Goodbye Playvicious.social statement from early 2021:
"Playvicious was harrassed off the Fediverse.... The Fediverse is anti-Black. That doesn't mean every single person in it is intentionally anti-Black, but the structure of the Fediverse works in a way that harrassment can go on and on and it is often not visible to people who aren't at the receiving end of it. People whom "everyone likes" get away with a ton of stuff before finally *some* instances will isolate their circles. Always not all. And a lot of harrassment is going on behind the scenes, too."
PlayVicious co-admin Are0h has just started telling the story; I'll update this section with more links as they become available.
Does Mastodon really prioritize stopping harassment?
I’m on Mastodon, begrudgingly.... My harassers are also on Mastodon; some have multiple accounts. The blocking feature is like horror house anxiety game- I block when I see their new account, hoping I’ve now blocked all of them but knowing I probably never will. Because it’s a federated system, and you can have accounts on multiple servers, it means there’s multiple accounts I have to block to create some digital safety and distance.
– Caroline Sinders, I’m @Sinders on Mastodon but I’m not giving up on Twitter, yet, October 2022
For a platform that supposedly prioritizes anti-abuse Mastodon's lack of progress on this over the last several years is really striking. Of course, harassment and marginalization isn't fundamentally a technology issue. Still, software can help to mitigate problems. Even though Twitter is filled with racist, ablist, and anti-LGBTQ hate and harassment, improvements like being able to limit replies and tools like Block Party have made a huge difference to Black Twitter, disability Twitter, and activists. Mastodon still doesn't have any of these improvements.
And not to sound like a broken record, but Mastodon intentionally doesn't support local-only posts. By allowing people to prevent their posts from shared with other instances (who might have harassers, terfs, nazis, and/or admins or software that doesn't respect privacy), local-only posts significantally reduce the risk of harassment and pileons – and avoid the privacy risk of messages being shared with other instances. As Hometown maintiner Darius Kazemi notes on Run Your Own Social , local-only posts are also useful from an enforcement perspective because they create "serious social repercussions for violating rules to the point where you're kicked off of a server." This functionality has been available in forks since 2017, but Mastodon's BDFL has blocked them from the main codebase – and admis of almost every large instance (with the exception of infosec.exchange) choose not to run forks with this anti-harassment protection, so it's not available to most users.
There are also examples where Mastodon has decided not to implement functionality. In Cage the Mastodon (July 2018) Rochko wrote
Mastodon deliberately does not support arbitrary search. If someone wants their message to be discovered, they can use a hashtag, which can be browsed.
Rochko made this decision early on to reduce the risk of harassment. Considering possibilities for abuse before implementing functionality is an important principle. However, here's public and unlisted posts are by default being accessible to other instances, search engines and bad actors, protection is limited (see Mastodon privacy: you can’t really opt out of search engine indexing for more discussion). These kind of speed bumps can be helpful for reducing harassment, but also can lead to misset expectations – leading people to believe they're safer than they really are. As What does AUTHORIZED_FETCH actually do? on the Sunny Garden Hub describes, Mastodon does support mechanisms that can provide more protections, – but the implementation has unfortunate (and in some cases completely unnecessary) side effects, so once again most large instance admins don't prioritize protecting their users.
Rochko has also chosen not to include any quoting feature because in his view "it inevitably adds toxicity to people's behaviours." This decision has led to a lot more conroversy, and for good reason. As Dr. Andre Brock discusses in Distributed Blackness, Twitter's quote tweets are a key affordance for allowing Black users to engage in digital equivalents of long-standing cultural practice like call and response and playing the dozens. elizabeth veldon notes that some autistic people also find quote tweets valuable for communicat empathy: "we do this by relating an incident we feel relates to or, to some extent, mirrors the experience of the person we are talking to. to deny us this is to limit our ability to communicate."
It's certainly true that quote tweets can be used for dogpiling and other kinds of harassment, but as the examples here illustrate the absence of quoting certainly hasn't made Mastodon immune to these problems! As Hilda Bastian says in Reflecting on Twitter, White Flight, & “Quote Tweet” Tensions at Mastodon
"From what I’ve read in github discussions on potentially developing a quote boost affordance, though, it doesn’t look as though data, formal experiments, and wide community participation have played a major role."
The view from 2022
Like a lot of people, I got involved again this year as a result of Twitter's new management. The Fediverse's decentralized, open-source, ad-free model remains appealing, and there's a sense of excitement with so many people tasting the possibilities of social network that's not run by surveillance capitalists using deceptive design and algorithms to maximize ad revenue. If you're on a well-moderated instance and not the target of harassment, Mastodon in 2022 can be a good experience (albeit confusing for many, including me, and still very white) – especially if you like talking about Mastodon, which continues to be the most popular topic there! So it's been great to meet interesting new people, econnect with other "old-timers", and connect with people I know from Twitter.
Mastodon 2022 has a lot of similarities to Mastodon 2017. Some of this is good: Mastodon's queer-friendliness continues, with long-running instance tech.lgbt an important hub; community-contributed tools like fedifinder.glitch.me, Debirdify, and Movetodon have played an important role at helping people reconstruct Twitter networks on Mastodon.
But some of the similarites are depressing ... and infuriating.
"It took me eight hours to get a pile of racist vitriol in response to some critiques of Mastodon."
– Dr. Johnathan Flowers, The Whiteness of Mastodon
And "CW discourse" rages on. Content Warnings are an excellent feature; opinions differ about which posts should be CW'ed. The dynamic Hart described of white people using CWs to "restrict the domain of public discourse to only those things which made them feel comfortable" remains; as Flowers says
"[S]ome of the arguments for content warnings, or at least the majority of them, at least in my view, come down to an attempt to preserve a particular white entitlement to comfort or freedom from racialized stress through the ways in which whiteness is held center as an inheritance of the platform....
Part of the conflict over content warnings has motivated some of the responses of “move to your own instance where you can use content warnings however you see fit.”
"Move to your own instance" is often combined with a suggestion that "once there are some Black-led instances that'll solve the problem" It's true that the instance you're on has a huge effect on your experience, and the existence of sites like blacktwitter.io is a very good thing. But neither of these suggestions reflect the realities of racism on Mastodon and in the broader fediverse. As Ehh (a Black woman who like so many other people in the fediverse chooses not to use their "real name") says, it's a VERY weird experience that so many white people are suggesting segregation as a tool for solving the problems that Black people are encountering here – and it's "nefarious to tell people who’ve been systematically oppressed via segregation to use it as a tool for safety."
Dr. Chandra Prescod-Weinstein, who was welcomed to Mastodon with racist abuse just like Creatrix Tiara was in 2017, identifies yet another depressingly infuriating continuing pattern.
That said, there are also some very important differences in Mastodon 2022. For one thing, many of the critical voices I've quoted here have stayed involved and continue to work towards more inclusive and equitable solutions, so there's a huge amount of expertise available. And the infosec community has been on Mastodon for years, so who knows, we might actually get end-to-end encrypted direct messages one of these days.
Not only that, as the Twitter hellscape increases the urgency of finding alternatives, the latest influx is bringing a lot of people who care passionately about creating anti-oppressive spaces. As well as the work that people like Flowers and Costanza-Chock are doing to highlight Mastodon's challenges and opportunities to do better, there are enough new Mastodonians with anti-oppressive design and UX skills that rapid progress is possible.
Culturally, it's very hard to change norms on a development team run by a BDFL, so it's likely that forks will continue to take the lead. New implementations compatible with Mastodon are also possible; Bonfire, for example, has been in development for a while, and Tumblr is planning on supporting ActivityPub. As EFF says, The Fediverse Could Be Awesome (If We Don’t Screw It Up).
It's also very hard to change norms and introduce more diversity on social networks As Twitter's evolution shows, it's not impossible: originally very white and very male, it evolved to play a key role in the #MeToo movement and become a home to Black Twitter. Of course, deeply-rooted inequities and norms never go away; racism, transphobia, and sexism on Twitter remained huge problems even before the new management decided to double down and make them the selling points of "Twitter 2.0." Still, for a while it was pretty darn good in a lot of ways, and Mastodon could follow a similar path.
Then again, whiteness resists change. As Are0h says
"It's culture. And whiteness, as Du Bois identified years ago, is committed to fighting to assert itself in yet another new space."
Unfortunately a lot of the dynamics of the Twitter exodus risk reinforcing power inequities and racial disparities on Mastodon in the broader fediverse. One obvious factor is the high-profile examples of harassment of people of color (especially women and non-binary people), combined with so many white people talking about how much better they like Mastodon and giving less-than-helpful advice to POC. The failure of many instances to block sites that are well-known for shitposting and harassment makes the problem worse. And even after mistakes have been admitted, and promises made to do better, the high-profile suspensions of women of color on flagship instances run by Rochko (including Tracy Chou, creator of Block Party!) also send a signal to POC that maybe Mastodon isn't the place for them.
And those issues are just the tip of the iceberg.
- How many of the journalists looking at Mastodon as an alternative are even talking about the racial and gender disparities and the long history of marginalization?
- How many instances recommendations of who to follow are mostly white and mostly male?
- While community-contributed tools like fedifinder.glitch.me, Debirdify, and Movetodon that let people find folks they know from Twitter on Mastodon are extremely helpful, bulk-importing contacts risks magnifying racial and gender disparities. White people are mostly following other white people, and research on other platforms show that white people are more likely to amplify white people, so one likely outcome is steadily-increasing disparities.
- And of course there's the longstanding issue of white users telling people of color to put content warnings on discussions about race. As Flowers says:
"Insofar as instances inherit whiteness, the content warning conversation, at least in my view, is an argument over whether or not Mastodon should continue to maintain its inheritance of whiteness because as Ahmed says, “One of the challenges for white people is rejecting this inheritance.”"
And it's not just whiteness; the same's true for cis-normativity and ablism. So maybe Mastodon and the Fediverse as a whole won't evolve. We shall see.
More positively, though, new instances like blacktwitter.io and dair-community.social are having an impact. Black Aziz Ananzi's #BlackFriday #BlackMastodon #BlackJoy hashtag activism is extremely encouraging. Project Mushroom foregrounds justice, and has paid moderators. So whether or not Mastodon evolves, the most exciting potential path forward is for sites with anti-oppressive values to form a loose coalition – an extended version of the "alliance" that toot.cat admins discussed back in 2017 – with relatively-strong connections internally and much more limited connections to the broad fediverse.
If white-led sites are willing to follow the lead of sites with BIPOC leadership, and there's funding for diverse BIPOC-led teams to drive improvements to Mastodon and/or new decentralized software platforms (as well as moderation; Costanza-Chock and Kazemi have both proposed moderation collectives), that could lead to a great outcome.
However it plays out, an honest look at Mastodon's history is vital for acknowledging, correcting, and making reparations for past harms – and understanding how to do better going forward. So let's close with one more quote from back in the day that's still remarkably relevent.
"As it stands, Mastodon is not well-equipped for serving disparate communities’ needs. There is but one version of the software, with no established means of extension; there are no advocacy positions or research projects by which communities can make themselves known; the development pipeline seems hardly attentive to or even aware of the specific communities which its product serves. These are all things which will have to change for the project to be able to accommodate anything more than its loudest majority."
– Allie Hart, Mourning Mastodon, April 2017
- ongoing: minor fixes and additions in response to feedback and as I discover new links
- December 1: add new section on Mastodon and the Fediverse, and per-year section headings
- December 3-4: add new sections on ActivityPub, Playvicious.social, and accessibility; rework the View from 2022 section
- January 14 2023: add link to Mastodon WTF timeline
- June 28 2023: changes to the Does Mastodon really prioritize stopping harassment? section
* rot13.com is a handy ROT13 decoder
** additional implmentation in December fixed some important loopholes related to boosting and replies. Darius Kazemi's Hometown page on local-only posting traces further evolution of this functionality.
This feature is based on the work of Renato Lond, which is itself based on a feature in the Mastodon Glitch Edition fork. Third party application interactions were redesigned based on the suggestions of @lostfictions. The idea for an emoji triggering a local post comes from Mastodon Glitch Edition, and the idea for it to be a custom emoji called
local_onlycomes from @email@example.com.
*** The ActivityPub standardization process was challenging; in A better moderation system is possible for the social web, Erin Shepherd describes it as "4 years going around in circles arguing with each other about minor details" and "a working group divided" that "produced two families of incompatible social networking protocols." Christine Lemmer-Webber's On standards divisions and collaboration and the Standards for the Social Web section in Amy Guy's On standards divisions and collaboration have more on the dynamics.
- Everybody who gave feedback on earlier versions. Some people specifically asked not to be credited by name, so I'm not listing specific folks yet ... but I greatly appreciate all of your feedback!
- Are0h, elizabeth veldon, christina d'ache, and everybody else who gave me permission to quote their Mastodon posts
- revenant dyke for help with the timeline on initial implementation of local-only posts, and Artist Marcia X and Ginny for clarifying the origin of #FediBlock.
- all the community members and journalists who wrote and spoke about these issues over the years
- the admins and moderators on toot.cat, wandering.shop, and scholar.social for all the work over the years to create good online homes
- most of all, the volunteers who helped create something that while very imperfect is still pretty amazing.