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 that same month, and relaunched it 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 @david@tech.lgbt. 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 @chris@mastodon.chriswiegman.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.

Screenshot of Twitter thread about Mastodon instances blocking other instances.
A screenshot (since Twitter isn’t forever!) of this thread on instance blocking

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 david@hotmail.com who is likely different from david@aol.com and david@gmail.com, 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 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.

Mastodon instance hashtags
Hashtags can show up as topics on the intro page to a Mastodon instance

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.

Final Thoughts

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!

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I’m currently reading Gretchen McCulloch’s new book, ‘Because Internet’, which serves as an overview of linguistic study of the evolution of written (and sometimes spoken) communication brought about by the mass adoption of the internet. Both McCulloch and I implement one of the changes noted earlier on: the word internet has lost its capitalization over the years, with the AP style guide making it “official” in 2016.

But the question that I want to address isn’t the correct usage of capitalization, or even correct grammar in general. After all, I’ve been known to start sentences (or even full paragraphs, as is the case here) with conjunctions, and I’ll propose that ending with a preposition is where the written word is going to.

Instead, I want to discuss my usage of double quotes around the word official above, emphasizing my usage of the word, and providing a big no-no, at least according to Weird Al.

What is Official Usage Anyway?

While the thrust of my argument is that language rules are nothing more than convention, I’ll buttress my credentials in making this claim. I studied linguistics as part of my degree, though I did not take it nearly as far as McCulloch or professional linguists. Language as a concept has always interested me, as we are exposed to the spoken and written word at almost all times and don’t often stop to give thought as to why things are the way they are. Only when something is egregiously incorrect do we consider how a statement could be made more clear.

I imagine that it’s a stereotype that I got interested in computers because they are predicatable in a way that other humans aren’t, and that they are understandable in a way that language so often isn’t. Nuance can be hard to grasp over the myriad inflections, intonations, cadences, rhythms, pitches, and all other vocalizations that I’m forgetting. Try asking several people how they are feeling, and see if you can identify the differences in each utterance of “fine” that you receive in reply.

I can’t speak to the experiences of a large portion of the world who grow up in multilingual environments and intuit the rules in a different way. Human language is taught to be the same as programming languages when it comes to translating and learning while in higher education. You take a phrase, break it into component parts, find the right words, and consider the rules on order and variant usage. Sometimes you luck out with cognates, sometimes you have to think about the parts of speech in theory more than you ever do in your first tongue.

The difference between language spoken in public versus what you’re taught in school can be huge. The rules that are followed can help while learning, but you’ll quickly realize that humans abhor authority when expression of meaning can only occur when directly contradicting many official usage edicts that are passed down as if they were always in existence.

Decentralization of the Meaning of the Written Word

The internet (and the lowercase-w web, while we’re at it), have done a great deal to increase proliferation of alternative writing. This includes abbreviations like wtf, lol, and ftw, which serve the purpose of expressing a longer thought in fewer letters, a boon to slow typists and fat-fingered phone users alike. This also includes the introduction of new concepts and phrases, or words becoming untethered from their original meaning to give us entirely new abstractions. Snowflake used to describe a hexagonal formation of ice crystal falling from a storm, not as a derogatory term towards someone who is being sensitive.

For the supposed purists that cannot get behind the figurative use of the word literally, or the addition of new words like bougie and rando, please explain to me why we bother with flammable and inflammable, both words that predate the internet and signify that something is going to catch fire.

No one is waiting for permission to update language for the present and future based on but not being bound by the past. As McCulloch points out, many conventions, especially in English, come from historical conquests and infighting, as well as an embarrassment of the language as a second class citizen among other languages that were perceived as more civilized.

If there is concern over the descent of communication due to the visual nature of the internet, consider that children and teens are being exposed to more written and spoken language than at any time in the past, and are likewise writing far more than at any point in history. You may argue that status updates aren’t a replacement for the Great American Novel, with it’s capitalized gravitas, but you are unlikely to have penned ‘Moby Dick’ before making such a declaration.

I find some validity in the concern that language practices could cause a bifurcation of meaning, but only in short spurts. Sure, there are some higher profile differences between lol signifying “laugh out loud” versus “lots of love” depending generally on age, but that makes my point even more clear: decentralization of language doesn’t belong to the youthful internet denizens alone. It belongs to anyone who is unafraid to take a leap of faith with their phrasing, and embrace when others likewise reciprocate with new meaning of their own.

I haven’t been doing a good job of recapping most of the WordCamps that I’ve been to. I did a recap of WordCamp Atlanta back in May, but since then I’ve been to Jacksonville and Montclair. I also have a few coming up, including Denver this weekend. My goal is to better do write-ups of things that I’ve learned at these events. Hopefully I can pass along some useful information to you, or at least remember the events better for future me.

With the number of WordCamps that I’ve gone to this year and the number still coming up, I’ve opted to make trips a bit shorter to better fit my schedule and budget. I’m immensely grateful to SiteGround for making it easier for me to attend WordCamps as an ambassador, not least because I am already a regular user of their hosting and services, and recommend them at our Meetups.

Travel

I flew into Boston on Friday and left Saturday evening after the full day of sessions. I did miss a few talks that I wanted to see on Sunday, which is even more disappointing considering the quality of the talks that I saw on Saturday. It was easily one of the best collections of talks I’ve attended at any event over the past few years.

WordCamp Boston 2019 venue

I started the morning off with a train ride from my hotel to Boston University, where the event was held. The transit that I used was pleasant and affordable, and it makes me wish that we had a more robust system in Orlando for public transit. While I know that I should use our bus system before complaining about it, the inconvenience is immense. I’m grateful that I don’t have to rely on it regularly. I have to make the decision to drive 15 minutes or take three buses over the course of 90 minutes (which leave only once per hour) to join my weekly blogging group, and that doesn’t include the mile of walking to get to and from those buses.

I arrived early with the intent on getting coffee and some pre-event work done. I was derailed by the coffee shop that I was going to opening an hour later than expected. I took the opportunity to take a walk through the neighborhood, sitting in a shaded park for a bit to just think and look at animals that we don’t get in Florida. Boston was going through a heat wave, which amounted to a pleasant autumn day in Florida.

Sessions

The first session that I attended was “The Future: Why the Open Web Matters”, delivered by Aaron Campbell. Aaron walked us through a bit of history of the web, some of the challenges that it faces, and what we can do about it. Considering that I was delivering a talk about IndieWeb later in the day, I knew I’d want to see what he had to say. After the talk I spent a bit of time chatting with him, where it became clear that even when a problem can be agreed upon, solutions aren’t quite so easy.

Aaron D. Campbell delivering his presentation "The Future: Why the Open Web Matters" at WordCamp Boston 2019
Aaron D. Campbell delivering his presentation “The Future: Why the Open Web Matters” at WordCamp Boston 2019

Following that talk, I went to see Kathy Zant deliver her presentation, “The Hacking Mindset: How Beating WordPress Hackers Taught Me to Overcome Obstacles & Innovate”. Kathy shared her experience getting started in security, some common mistakes that people make, and ways to fix them. She made a great point that WordPress is so large that you’re going to be regularly attacked just for using it on your site.

Kathy Zant delivering her presentation "The Hacking Mindset: How Beating WordPress Hackers Taught Me to Overcome Obstacles & Innovate" at WordCamp Boston 2019
Kathy Zant delivering her presentation “The Hacking Mindset: How Beating WordPress Hackers Taught Me to Overcome Obstacles & Innovate” at WordCamp Boston 2019

I also spent a bit of time at the Happiness Bar helping with website issues, as well as the hallway track of chatting with friends and sponsors. Some of my favorite conversations come from these moments where we have a chance to dig deeper than we do in online conversation. I do sometimes get deep into a conversation and realize that I’m missing a talk that I would otherwise have attended, but the memories and actionable advice that I get during these impromptu chats are just as important.

The final talk of the day stood out to me most. That was “The World-Wide Work”, delivered by Ethan Marcotte. He touched on some of the same topis that Aaron and I did, but focused even more about biases encoded into design, both intentional and unintentional. He similarly bemoaned the darkening of the web, and what he sees as a potential path forward. Ethan was unfortunately cut off near the end as he ran over time, but I would have loved to discuss the points that he brought up at length. Alas, I was unable to stick around for long or attend the trolley tour, as I flew out a few hours later.

Ethan Marcotte delivering his presentation "The World-Wide Work" at WordCamp Boston 2019
Ethan Marcotte delivering his presentation “The World-Wide Work” at WordCamp Boston 2019

My Presenation

Again, I’m thankful for the opportunity to attend so many events, meet new people, share ideas, and receive support for doing so from SiteGround. I try not to swoop into events just for my portions, and prefer to stay and interact for the full duration. It is nice to be able to spend the night in my own bed after giving a talk though.

My slides for my presentation, “WordPress and the IndieWeb: Why You Should Own Your Voice”, are available here: WordPress and the IndieWeb: Why You Should Own Your Voice. I welcome conversation about that here, via Mastodon, or on Twitter.

Let’s work together to make the web a more open, equitable place for everyone!

I’ve been attending WordCamp Atlanta since 2013, and it’s been one of my favorite annual WordCamp events. It is larger than WordCamp Orlando, with an average of 600 attendees to our 350, but it rarely feels large with the sensible layout of the venue and separation of spaces. Everything is in one building across two floors, and all of the rooms are near each other.

The ease of getting around, and the proximity of hundreds of WordPress people without a feeling of claustrophobia makes it an ideal setting for conversations. We call the space between sponsor tables and session rooms the “Hallway Track”, since it can be a valuable session space itself. I can talk with friends that I see a handful of times per year, or find out what other companies in the space are up to.

WordCamp Atlanta 2019 Sponsor Area

My Workshop – Building a Plugin

Recently I’ve been having success at events teaching attendees how to build their own plugins and themes. I was under a new constraint this time, of offering my plugin workshop in a 50 minute time-slot as a lecture, where it’s been a two to three hour workshop in the past. Treating it as a lecture meant no hands on, one-on-one help, but it let me present the information at a comfortable speed.

The questions that I got, both immediately following my session and throughout the weekend, indicated that I was able to help some of the attendees. I was told by three separate people that they attended the getting started workshop the day before, and my lecture put that information in place for them in an understandable way.

I’m not always confident when I give presentations, as listening to myself drone on for more than a few minutes feels excessive to me, and I can only imagine what others think. Having thoughtful followups made me feel that I provided value.

Code for my workshop can be found on my Github.

Sessions

WordCamps are a great place to learn more about WordPress, but also to learn about related topics, such as SEO and marketing, running a business, or developing applications. We hold a unique position in tech in that our tool serves users at all ends of the technical spectrum. The lower barrier of entry to starting your first WordPress site coupled with the flexibility and extensibility of the platform makes it an ideal way for people of various skills to interact on a common ground.

I only attended a handful of sessions other than my own, preferring to spend time in the Happiness Bar offering help, as well as the aforementioned conversation time. Here are a few of my highlights:

  • Getting confirmation from Tom McFarlin, a developer who I greatly respect, that WordPress can serve as an application foundation. I’ve wasted some time that I could have been working on a variety of projects wondering if I’m just trying to fit a peg into a WordPress shaped hole, forgetting that getting something done at all is better than an optimized nothing.
  • Being reminded by Adam Walker, co-owner of Sideways8, that routines, habits, and processes are key when it comes to managing your work life. I’m impressed with the number of projects that he handles while maintaining a balance that leans favorably toward family and personal life. Sometimes you just need to hear the same message in a new way or for the tenth time before it sinks in. I’m making some changes based on his presentation, which he shared on his site.
  • Getting some ideas on ways to automate my development workflow from Chris Wiegman, a personal friend and team lead at WP Engine. This is one of the places that I feel that I could improve most when it comes to my processes. Some of the tooling that Chris uses is beyond me currently, but I want to expand my toolset. Chris also shared his slides on his site.

The rest of the event

I got to hang out with lots of WordPress friends and meet a few new people this weekend. I try not to only talk to people that I already know, since that leaves out all of the people who would be good friends if I took the time to get to know them now. I also shared dinner, lunch, coffee breaks, and walks around town with fellow attendees.

The real value of these events for me is the personal connection, where I get to talk one-on-one with someone a step ahead of or behind me in the business and product building process. We’re all learning this as we go, and it’s good to be reminded that no one comes in with all of the knowledge, and no business starts fully-formed.

WordCamp Atlanta 2019 Tips and Tricks Boards

WordCamp Atlanta made these great boards for people to post tips and tricks around business, WordPress, and life. I wish I’d gotten a picture at the end of Sunday!

On the secondary value front, I won an IKEA gift card from the folks at GoDaddy Pro! I don’t usually enter contests at WordCamps, but I’m glad that I entered that one and was still in town during closing remarks. We’ve been talking about getting a new couch at home for a while, and this is the push to make that purchase happen.

A big thanks to SiteGround!

Finally, I want to thank SiteGround yet again for helping to sponsor my trip. I realize that I haven’t yet written a post on the SiteGround Ambassador program, which is something that I’m going to fix now.

I met three members of the SiteGround team that I haven’t yet had the chance to meet, spent some time at their booth, and discussed SiteGround services several times during the event. It’s very easy to do when the conversation comes up from whoever I’m talking to with general interest, and I don’t even feel like I’m giving a sales pitch. That said, I’d do a sales pitch anyway, since I truly enjoy the service and level of support.

SiteGround team at WordCamp Atlanta 2019
The SiteGround team is always a great WordCamp addition!

I also got to chat with Francesca Marano, the WordPress Community Manager at SiteGround. We chat online regularly, but in person opens up new space for the kinds of conversations that don’t regularly come up online. Again, these events are a great way to catch up and form deeper connection with the people who help make this community worth sticking around for.

I greatly enjoyed WordCamp Atlanta 2019, and look forward to another fantastic event in 2020!

I’m happy to announce the release of David v3.1.0!

As with any minor version update, some new, backwards-compatible features have been included since the last minor release. Among these are:

New features are constantly being added, and original developments refined. The timeline for release this year looks promising. I’ll keep you up to date when further information is available.

Thank you all for making the latest release possible, and for your support through the ups and downs of prior release schedules!