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Five years ago I created an account on
mastodon.social, riding some wave of Trump-era Twitter dissatisfaction whose particular triggers I no longer recall. I never really understood the system, and wandered off after just a few days, dismissing it as just another well-meaning but uncompelling Twitter clone.
I returned to Mastodon last week, still at my old
email@example.com account. Unlike 2017’s little lunchtime walk-out, this feels like a permanent shift in my online attention. I have put the effort into understanding what makes Mastodon different from Twitter—radically different, in fact—and it fills me with mingled curiosity and hope.
A lot of friends have joined me—and I hear tell that the makers of Tweetbot, my favorite twitter client, are making a Mastodon app. While I plan to continue lurking on Twitter for the time being, I have put more active creative energy into Mastodon’s fediverse.
What I am not doing: getting an account on Hive, or Substack, or Cohost, or any other monolithic, siloed service. Mastodon might fall short of a pure IndieWeb solution—you’re still posting content using someone else’s computer—but it does avoid the death-trap that was always in the cards for Twitter, and which so painfully tore into it last month. I expect a similar fate to meet every single-owner, profit-seeking Twitter-like, sooner or later: if not purchase and privatization by a ridiculous revanchist, then continuous redefinition into increasingly user-hostile directions as it scrounges for novel revenue streams. Mastodon, run by countless independent operators and literally impossible to commercialize, escapes this doom.
Not to say that I expect Mastodon to simply breeze through this long moment! It has quite a lot of growing up to do, and it will feel chaotic and even painful while its rapidly inflating userbase shifts its center of gravity—no, centers of gravity around, tumbling and colliding. I feel quite optimistic that it will end up someplace good, with room for everyone: an inclusive space, but not at all a symmetrical one. I have few predictions about this, but I do expect that it will become a huge, weird, wonderful blob of gnarled-path neighborhoods, unevenly bridged. Boston, not Manhattan.
While all this is going on, I intend to adapt some old, good habits. I hope to keep by my old Twitter rules for a diverse but uncluttered personal timeline, following with care and muting liberally. I will also continue to practice Peter Sagal’s rules about limiting posts to what interests, amuses, or delights me—and excluding what merely angers or disgusts.
I plan to not worry too much about inter-instance politics. I get the impression that
mastodon.social is seen as a refugee camp, at best, among experienced Mastodon users, too swollen and anarchic to treat in good faith. At least one close friend’s preferred instance has recently “defederated” it, making our posts essentially invisible to one another. I do intend to relocate to a smaller and homier instance in the near future, one run by an organization that I trust with long-term technical stability and community care.
But once I do that, I hope to settle in, and not stay on the alert about who is defederating whom. That seems like a recipe for constant anxiety to me! If so many instances cut ties with my own that my experience of meaningfully using Mastodon starts to degrade, I suppose, then that would become a cause for concern. But it doesn’t seem particularly likely, and worst comes to worst, well… one can always migrate again.
I don’t know what’ll happen with any of this, let alone my part in it. I’m just feeling my way forward, because that seems like the right direction. This really does feel like a profound second chance for all of us to get this right, and not just by naively walking down the same path.
Further reading: I Was Wrong About Mastodon, by Marcus Hutchins, goes into much more technical detail about the very interesting potential of a federated social network—from the perspective of another former Mastodon skeptic.
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