Mastodon is not the solution, but yet another problem

We all know that big tech has a problem, from unfair policies to monopolistic bullying behavior. Back around new year 2018, I finally had enough and made an account on Mastodon – a federalized, not-for-profit-but-for-good kind of Twitter alternative. I’d be a trendsetter, I invited all my friends, some of which joined as well – but very quickly I was back on twitter again, anyway. What happened?

I didn’t know back then, but I think I do now. Part of the problem was the network effect, with just more interesting people being on Twitter than Mastodon, but the other part is what I want to talk about here:

Mastodon has some inherent structural problems.

  • Instances are fragile & exploitable
  • Trust & safety is awful
  • The UX gets sacrificed for band-aid fixes.

Let’s tackle these one by one.

Fragile Instances

Mastodon runs on the idea that there is no central server, but instead a federated bunch of servers owned and operated by random people on the internet (including yourself, if you want to). This “fediverse” is somewhat interoperable, so you can follow and talk to people from other instances. There’s some caveats to this, to which we come later.

“random people on the internet” doesn’t sound trust-inspiring, and this is because it isn’t. A quick scroll to shows that some 73% of the instances listed have been shut down again. Why? Probably for the same reasons why most personal website projects die: Lost interest, too expensive, too time-consuming to maintain. If you host your own instance this is fine – it’s yet another personal project after all – but if you have users, this is a problem: As a user, I cannot count on my social media profile to still exist tomorrow. This is in stark contrast to any of the more established social media websites and honestly, even the most chaotic of startups, where you generally can count on being told that they’re closing shop a few weeks before the lights go out.

No trust, no safety

Trust & Safety (TnS) is a catch-all term for the teams at websites that write and enforce community guidelines, combat fake news and spam bots, moderation and stuff like that. Since Mastodon is federated, this team often consists of one person: The instance owner.

I have had my fair share of volunteer TnS work over the years, and I can tell you: This stuff is very time- and soul-consuming. The community you run has certain expectations on what content is and isn’t shown on the server and will both yell at you if your rules and enforcement is too strict, and also if someone broke the rules while you were asleep and it was able to stay up for a few hours. For more subject-focused matters it’s often somewhat more forgiving – very few people will show up on a model train subreddit or discord server with the intent to post anything but model trains. But Mastodon generally doesn’t work like this, rather, you, as a user, choose your home instance (possibly the same one your friend uses) and once you have it, you post whatever. And “whatever” ranges from porn to gore to CSAM – child sexual abuse material.

In which case you, as the instance owner, already are in hot water, hosting CSAM will get the cops to your door sooner rather than later. For companies like Facebook and Twitter, this is part of their calculations. They can hire content reviewers and – in theory anyway – take steps to ensure that these people don’t break from constantly watching the worst part of humanity. For a mastodon instance, the best you can do is get volunteer moderators – untrained, unaware how bad it can become – and hope for the best. Or shut down the instance once it becomes unbearable.

Blanket banning

There is a small ray of light for the TnS matter though: Likeminded people tend to be on the same instances. By simply blocking any interactions from an entire instance, an instance owner immediately can get rid of a large chunk of potentially problematic users…. Or the entire country of Japan. The owner of one instance I’m on felt compelled to essentially block all mastodon instances ending in .jp to not have to look at lolicon content – sexual drawings of young girls, something legal in Japan and some other countries, but deeply illegal in many others.

This kind of blanket banning has some degrees of severity – maybe images from these instances won’t be served, maybe posts from these instances won’t be shown unless you follow someone, maybe all interactions are banned. Whatever setting the instance owner chooses, it directly affects the experience of the users, from “I have to leave my timeline to look at this image” to “I actually need to have a second account on another instance to interact with a friend”.

User experiencen’t

Mastodon, being an open source thing, of course comes in many forms and colors. Some instances try to emulate twitter’s (now: old) design, some try to emulate tweetdeck, some instagram, some are non-browser-based standalone apps, and so on. But as far as I can tell, they all have in common that they leak abstractions – especially this be language about “instances” when moving accounts, or usernames being @username@instance.tld. It also doesn’t feature a real search function (if you want random people to find your content, use a hashtag) or a quote-retweet equivalent (because it encourages people yelling at each other). You can’t even just join mastodon, you first have to jump through the hoops of understanding what instances are and then doing even more research to find which one suits you.

In the face of the aforementioned I can understand some of these decisions, sort of. Alas, I don’t think they’re particularly good decisions. There are tools which can be used for TnS in a federated system – shared blocklists, a CSGO-overwatch-like system, and more – which would do a better job than the current systems. Putting UX last is ultimately what made me stop using Mastodon:

  • It’s hard to sign up and get friends to sign up.
  • It’s hard to find interesting things.
  • It’s hard to share interesting things you find and add commentary.
  • And all in all: It’s hard to have fun.