Burning down the house

by Sunita

It’s strange to watch a platform with worldwide reach and influence visibly decay with a speed unmatched since MySpace flamed out, but I guess Move Fast and Break Things is one of the perks of being a narcissistic billionaire. We’ve seen these Twitter out-migrations a few times over the years, and there are any number of aspirants which have attempted to replace it. I still get weekly updates from WT Social even though I’ve never used it. I don’t post anywhere anymore, for the reasons I discussed here a few years ago. Except for Mastodon. I don’t go there often (before this week I hadn’t posted in a year), but I’ve returned to it on the rare occasions I’ve felt the need to say something online. Mostly, though, I don’t. I read Reddit and a few other message boards, and I have a private Twitter account where I follow no one but have a list of about 50 people and read that. I’ve found that limiting my active participation to the offline world has been good for many aspects of my health.

But I do like having windows into the online world, so when it started to look like Twitter was melting down in record time (just over a week! it’s been barely ten days!), I went back to Mastodon to see what the influx looked like this time. And boy howdy, it’s different from the 2017, 2019, 2021 waves. For one thing, there are a ton of journalists and even more academics. There are people who have acquired thousands of followers in a couple of days, which is like having ten times that many (at least) on Twitter. For a second thing, people aren’t just showing up and looking around. They’re hitting the ground running in terms of posts (so many posts and boosts and favoriting by some of the really active people) and they’re loudly asking why they can’t have their preferred Twitter features. It’s noisy and a bit disconcerting for those of us who like Mastodon for its non-Twitter aspects, especially the pace and the type of engagement.

I get that losing a critical source of online engagement, expression, and information is traumatic. I’ve experienced that several times in the 30+ years I’ve been online. It hurts, and it’s disorienting, and you just want to fix it with something else. But that’s not how internet platforms and communities work. The internet moves and changes so fast, and platforms are replaced by new variations, not reproductions of the previous iteration. Think about the social media sites that have risen to the top over the last 15 years. They didn’t copy what was already there, they provided something new: Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok all brought something to the table that hadn’t been there before, or at least not in the same way. Mastodon isn’t going to become Replacement Twitter, or not altogether. Some Twitter-like features may be introduced (or gain prominence if they’re already there but little-used), but the structure of the system won’t allow it to become Twitter.

The very thing that seems to be creating the most confusion, i.e., the federated structure that requires new people to choose an “instance,” is the aspect of Mastodon that should make it possible for people who want to avoid the toxic virality of Twitter to keep doing so even if some instances become more Twitter-like. You have to actively seek out people to follow (just like Twitter), and if you don’t follow a lot of people, you can augment your personal feed (your and your followers’ posts/boosts/favorites) with the local and federated timelines. If you’re in a big instance like mastodon.social, the local and federated timelines will be absolute firehoses, but if you’re in a small instance they’ll be manageable and I find them fun to browse.

People are getting hung up on which instance to join, and I agree it’s not that intuitive. It’s also harder right now because a lot of instances have (mostly temporarily) closed to new users because they’re overwhelmed. This is normal for Mastodon! When I first joined, back in the Trump-Twitter exodus of 2017, the big instances were closed and I wound up at a decent-sized general-interest instance based in Germany. It was fine. I got the hang of things, joined some other, smaller, instances, and eventually got an account on the big general-interest one that I’m still on. Three or four of the instances I joined in my first couple of years went away after a year or two, for various reasons. Which is also fine (although I still miss witches.town). But instances are run by individuals, and if their circumstances change, then the instance can too. I was on a book-related instance started by a bookstore, for example. It was probably a half-personal, half-commercial enterprise, and it was never very active. One of the early instances I joined was weirdly aggressive feeling for Mastodon; maybe it was full of people who wanted it to be Twitter. I don’t know, but I left it pretty quickly. It’s still around, so it clearly works for some people. I’ve mostly settled on two accounts, with Mastodon.social being the noisy, public instance.

If you’re stuck as to where to join, see where your friends are, or pick one that says it’s about things you are interested in. Scholar.social is a popular instance for academics, but it’s closed at the moment. But someone started zirk.us for academics, so if you want to have an academic focus as your default local timeline, join that. From there you can follow anyone no matter which instance they’re on, and if your local timeline isn’t that interesting, set up a column with hashtags you want to follow. I have a column with #books, #bujo, and #amreading, for example. The main thing is, don’t expect to understand immediately, or even in a few days, how everything works and what all the possibilities are. You didn’t get that with any other platform, right?

A second key factor that should keep Mastodon from morphing into 2nd Twitter is that Mastodon doesn’t reward performativity, and it’s very very hard to go viral. Even if you do get a lot of support through boosts and favoriting, there’s no public metric to alert people to that. You have to click on someone’s profile and have it open in a separate column to see how many follows and followers they have. There’s no Quote Post function, which a bunch of new people are asking for and which I hope is never deployed across the platform. QTs can have useful functions, but they’re also a great source of point-and-laugh or point-and-sneer engagement, and no one needs more of that.

I can imagine a situation where a particular instance becomes more Twitter-like, with lots of performativity and verbal conflict. But the benefit of Mastodon is that people who don’t want that can block the entire instance and hang out in less promotional and conflictual spaces. Right now mastodon.social is overrun with Twitter people who are mourning their loss, and many of them are trying to deal with that by complaining about what’s not there or hard to figure out and trying to make the Mastodon experience as Twitter-like as possible. I get it! I jumped to Mastodon; they feel pushed out of Twitter. Denial, anger, and grief are inevitable when communities fracture. It’s not fun, but we’ve done it before and we’ll undoubtedly do it again, as long as narcissistic, impulsive billionaires get to run our worlds.