Mastodon was created in 2016, and the site still harkens back to its origins, a time when Gamergate and the atrocious harassment of women in tech on Twitter was still very fresh in our minds. The platform was in a way a reaction to that and the rising toxic atmosphere on social media. At the time, Twitter was also in the throes of dealing with the side effects of a Donald Trump candidacy and subsequent presidency. As such, one of the primary features of Mastodon was to stamp out hate and harassment. It’s a laudable goal, and very much needed in today’s technology landscape. There’s a problem there, though, in that Mastodon seems to define itself, at least in part, as the anti-Twitter.
But because so much news happens on Twitter — and because Twitter itself is such a news story — the social network symbolized by a tiny bird casts a very large shadow over the social network named after a giant prehistoric beast.
Users of Mastodon spill a lot of digital ink writing about what is commonly referred to there as “the bird site.” The overall environment on Mastodon is very meta. It’s social media about social media.
You would be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Mastodon is an overcorrection for the sins of Twitter. Joining most Mastodon instances (servers) is an exercise in immediately learning what types of people and speech they will not permit. Literally, that’s the screen that appears first. The prohibitions list usually consists of made-up pathologies you might find in a fake DSM. Ever heard of a terve? If I have to look up the meaning of words just to know what is tolerated, I’m not super likely to join. From what I’ve seen, Mastodon users and moderators seem more interested in policing speech they don’t like than in having interesting discussions with diverse viewpoints. It doesn’t initially sound like much fun.1
You have to apply for membership in some Mastodon servers. It seems pretty exclusive. Presumably, if Steve Rubell lets you behind the velvet rope, then you are in the Studio 54 of social networks. However, you need to watch what you say. Many Mastodon users seem to spend their time trying to get each other banned. From the article in the NYT quoted above — on journa.host, a user was banned for referring to someone trying to get him banned as an “activist.” The woman who successfully got him banned was shortly thereafter banned herself. It all sounds a bit like an early season of Survivor, minus the lush tropical surroundings. If the goal is not to get voted off the island, you have to play a very political game.
More recently, there was a firestorm of controversy around Raspberry Pi hiring a guy who was a surveillance officer in a previous life. When people objected, the Raspberry Pi folks were dismissive, calling the accusations “childish,” and telling people who were critical “bye bye.” As a result, the agitators worked to get Raspberry Pi “defederated.” To be defederated in Mastodon terms is to have other servers in the fediverse refuse to talk with the one you are on. It’s the modern equivalent of being excommunicated from the techno-church. This GitHub Gist outlines the chain of events that led to Raspberry Pi getting defederated. It takes the stance that users who objected to the company’s hiring decisions were “insulted.” It also implies that those making the complaints were made unsafe by the responses.
The business instance being defederated will be a huge blow to any reach that might have been gained, as administrators and moderators seeking to ensure safety for their users are able to remove tens of thousands of their users in a few clicks.
This is a part of a growing phenomenon, whereby people are framed as being put at risk by exposure to speech with which they disagree.2
Mastodon is still defined by its relationship to Twitter
In a sense, Mastodon seems frozen in time, a reactionary monument to an ugly moment in internet history. Now that Twitter is trending toward becoming more of a right-leaning network, Mastodon, in defining itself as the anti-Twitter, seems on the way to becoming more left-wing. On both networks, users that don’t follow the dominant belief system there are getting “blocked and reported.” It’s a shame, because people from different perspectives interacting is what we need more of, not less. As these spaces become even tighter echo chambers, the extent to which we spend time in them may govern our view of those on the other side. We already know that partisans on both sides have vastly unrealistic views of those on the other side. If social networks keep people from straying outside of their comfort zones by purging users, polarization is only going to get worse.
I remain mindful, though, that it could also be protective if you have been exposed to harassment somewhere else on the internet. ↩︎
The extent to which safety is a functional concern is almost never actually discussed. ↩︎