I’ve been re-reading some articles about Mastodon from early 2017, right around the time that it started to get some mainstream notice. I signed up for an account on mastodon.social around that time and launched tech.lgbt less than two months later in June 2017. I’ve been a supporter of the community, and have grown to enjoy my time there far more than my time on Twitter, despite having a longer history with the larger platform.
I’ve specifically been reading articles along the lines of “this platform is a fad and here’s why”, which to be fair could still come to pass. I doubt that will happen anytime soon with an additional two years of hindsight and growing communities.
A lot of these takes are reactionary in a way that suggests misunderstanding on part of the writers, or an attempt to garner more clicks for those stories. I can see both as understandable, based on the fallacies presented and the viewpoints that they represent.
Some Common Misconceptions About Mastodon
I’d like to walk through some of the common misconceptions around Mastodon, which generally would apply to a lot of IndieWeb services if they had the same level of notoriety and name recognition.
It Isn’t “True” Federation
This argument is the one that immediately lets me know the intent of the writer who espouses it. The argument is that technically, since Mastodon instances (the different sites running Mastodon software) are allowed to block other sites or control who has access, they aren’t truly federating.
What is Federation?
First, a definition. Federation in this sense is a bit nebulous, as there are a few ideas of what it means. Generally, the idea is that a user can have an account on a site where all of their information lives. You can have accounts on multiple sites if you want to have separation of identity, but you don’t need to. You can then interact with people on other sites, as long as neither side is stopping the other side from communicating.
In my case, that site is https://tech.lgbt/@david and you can contact me from almost any other instance by using @firstname.lastname@example.org. This is similar to my Twitter handle of @DavidWolfpaw, but with the addition of the server name that I am hosted at. I can talk to my friend Chris by sending a message to @email@example.com, which will notify him in the same way that he would get on Twitter. Both of us are on separate instances of Mastodon, but we can communicate freely between them thanks to federation.
What is True Federation?
When people talk about Mastodon not actually being federated because instances can be locked down, or block other instances, I’ve invariably found that they come from a place of free speech absolutism.
Let’s be clear: I am not a free speech absolutist. I say as much in the Code of Conduct for tech.lgbt, where I have some rules set for being allowed to play in my sandbox. This is not unreasonable, and I state as much when I include that myself and any moderators have the sole discretion of what we consider unacceptable speech in our spaces.
I’ve never had anyone in good faith argue to me that I am silencing oppressed minority groups. The argument has only been used toward me by individuals that believe that a right to free speech includes a right to a platform. You can say things that are hateful or derogatory to others, but not on the server that I manage and am footing the bill for.
There are people using Mastodon that I don’t agree with. People who claimed a cartoon frog as their mascot and believe that my blocking their activity on my server amounts to abridging their first amendment rights. Saying that Mastodon isn’t truly federated because I can block them (as I can do on Twitter) is complaining that you want to say things and you want to force other people to listen. This is less a misconception than an intentional misunderstanding and misrepresentation of community behavior, but one that I see a lot of.
You Cannot Secure Your Identity
Another common misconception is around identity in the fediverse (the nickname given to communities connected via oStatus and ActivityPub enabled software like Mastodon and others). I admit, it isn’t something that most people are used to thinking about, given that most of our exposure to social media over the past few decades has been through walled-gardens, siloed off from one another. There is only one person with my username on Twitter, and likewise there are usernames that I want that people signed up for accounts with nearly a decade ago and don’t use that I can’t have.
I use @david as my handle on my Mastodon instance, but there are surely people using @david on instances elsewhere. The inclusion of my instance name is what fully identifies me and separates me from the other Davids out there.
This is more visible than on other platforms, but is not a unique concern. Think of all of the people named John Smith on Facebook. They all get to use the name that they want as a display name and be found by it, but Facebook identifies each of them separately by a unique ID. Or think of email services, which use the same username@domain to identify recipients. There is a firstname.lastname@example.org who is likely different from email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, none of whom are me. With the combination of username and domain name you can identify the person that you want to send a message to. This system is so ingrained into our usage of email that we don’t even consider it, instead calling the full username and domain combo an email address.
You Cannot Bring Your Followers
This can also be described as a lack of portability. Though notably this misconception is less about the portability from Mastodon, which allows you to easily move instances if you choose, and more about the lack of portability offered by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social networks. Their businesses are built upon a locked-in network effect, where you have to use them if you want to interact with others that use them.
Via the settings interface of Mastodon you can migrate your account to another instance. This means that there is a built in way for you to leave one server and move to a different server without loss for whatever reason that you choose.
True, you won’t be able to automatically get all of the people from other platforms to follow you to a new platform, but that’s a network-effect problem that isn’t unique to Mastodon or other federated services. It’s more telling that the issue really stems from lack of interoperability with older platforms than with a service that happily lets you move freely, and allows for multiple integrations like Twitter/Mastodon cross-posters.
There is Poor Discoverability
Related to the prior fallacy of portability, there is an issue with discoverability on Mastodon as compared to sites like Instagram and Twitter which are partly built on being able to search for content. How many people actually use those services in this manner outside of hashtags is up for debate, but it is one difference between them that could be seen as a shortcoming.
By default, Mastodon instances only allow searching via hashtags. This means that someone has to have explicitly opted in to making their content searchable, a key distinction. On Twitter I regularly see people use misspellings and self-censorship of toxic terms to avoid dog-piling that can come from people who cruise loaded terms to find people to harass. There was a time that I did the same, avoiding using the term gamergate directly in any of my tweets, out of the concern that I’d be inviting bad faith interaction.
You can still search for individual users, search for content under hashtags, and on some instances do general searches. But there’s no simple way to do a fediverse-wide search on specific terms, and that’s partly the point. Mastodon is not seen as the place to grow your following and build a brand. It’s still a place to find new friends and rebuild your own networks in a different environment.
One last note about hashtags: you can use them in your profile for discoverability, create and pin an #Introduction post, which is fairly common, and you can also highlight specific hashtags on an instance as an admin, to let others get an idea of what it’s about.
It Costs Too Much
Finally, I’d like to discuss cost, one of the other misconceptions of the older articles that I’d read. As a general user, you can join any number of free instances. The costs are generally borne by the admins of the instance, sometimes helped out by donations, like Patreon accounts (here’s my plug!). There are some instances that are membership only, with or without some sort of dues. Finally, you can host your own instance, which can cost more or less depending on your needs including server performance and number of users.
The cost is not insignificant, but I’m also using Mastodon in a way that is meant to support multiple users. There is a built-in method to limit users of your instance, or even make it a single user instance, so that all activity on it is created and managed by one person. That could run well on the most budget level of VPS. I can imagine that something like mastodon.social can run into thousands of dollars for hosting, but that is a drop in the bucket of hosting costs that are hidden from users by larger social networks.
In my case, I am running https://tech.lgbt on a $15/month Digital Ocean droplet, after migrating recently from Linode. I also pay them for their cloud backup solution at $2/month as a cheap just-in-case extra peace of mind. I pay around $39/year for the domain, which is due to the unique TLD that I’ve chosen for it. On top of these costs I pay for AWS media storage to make it serve faster and cheaper, which I estimate at under $5/month. In total, this brings running the instance to around $25/month, which is honestly around $1/month/user for how regularly active some people are.
A word that I’ve been using a lot recently around various people and modes of discourse is disingenuous. Much of the criticism around Mastodon and other federated platforms has been missing the point or simply incorrect. It’s not that there is no true criticism, which should exist for every platform and mode of thinking. It’s that much of it appears to be coming from a disingenuous place, from those looking to further an ideology of division over one of community founded upon mutual respect.
There are flaws in Mastodon, as in every platform and set of communities. But the above misconceptions are not those flaws, and are misunderstandings that I hope to clear up.
If you have any questions about these services, I can try to help answer them, or at least direct you toward resources that may better be able to help. I’m happy to discuss here, or via your own Mastodon account directed toward https://tech.lgbt/@david. See you in the fediverse!
Next week I’ll give a primer on Mastodon and how to get started with it as a user. Subscribe to get notified when this and other new articles are published.
Edit: That followup is now live!