I finally wrapped my head around Mastodon, a social media platform, this past week. On Monday, April 25, I was beyond annoyed by how confusing I found Mastodon to be — and a similar exasperation was expressed by numerous friends of mine. For a while, I embraced this camaraderie of disinclination. But the more I worked to understand Mastodon, the more my perception changed, and my attitude along with it.
Tuesday was still more of the same. By Wednesday afternoon, however, I was quite active on Mastodon, and I began to run into some of those same friends, as well as familiar avatars from other social media platforms. I also met, in internet terms, new folks — and new-ish folks (one introduced themselves as the person who wrote a bot I interact with on another social media platform). That bot-to-human incident is just one anecdote, but anecdotes can be orienting, even if only as stories. The story here was that I’d traversed from a highly public social network to a relatively more circumspect one, and upon arrival I met not a bot but the person behind the bot.
By Friday, April 28, I had emerged as something resembling a Mastodonian. I’d moved through the three common stages of digital adoption: from annoyed through engaged to engrossed. That evening, when a friend casually asked, via a group email thread, if Mastodon was worth paying attention to, I began to reply — and I only finished after unexpectedly writing a roughly 2,000-word explanation to help my friend, along with the other participants in the thread, understand how Mastodon functions. Or more to the point, how I understand Mastodon to function, and why I think Mastodon might matter.
Grains of Salt
To begin with, I can’t say with assuredness that I’ll be sticking around on Mastodon. My general rule of thumb with online tools is to simply sign up and see if it sticks. I’ve tried so many social media tools, and very few have stuck. I quickly ditched Mastodon twice in the past, but it certainly makes more sense to me now than it did then. And since I found Mastodon difficult to make sense of, I wanted to share here my sense of what Mastodon is, why it can be hard to initially comprehend, and how one might go about both comprehending and engaging with it.
Yes, I know the complaint: if a social media platform requires a 2,000-word explanation (more like 4,500 words, as of this essay, which expands upon my original email), it is doomed to fail. I’m not here to say Mastodon is the future. I’m just here to say Mastodon is very interesting — and that while a lot of the perceived bugs may be bugs, and a lot of the conundrums are just subpar design and inefficient communication, some of those seeming bugs are features (or the residue of features), and much of that subpar communication is because of just how different Mastodon is from the current dominant forms of social media. In other words: Don’t miss the paradigm forest due to the bug trees.
If Mastodon succeeds (define success as you wish), it won’t simply be because the service became popular. It won’t even be because a significant number of people got over the same conceptual hump I did in order to understand Mastodon. It will be because an even more significant number of people won’t ever recognize the conceptual hump, because what right now, at the start of May 2022, seems downright odd about Mastodon actually will have become the new normal. That potential outcome is quite interesting.
And if you want to experience Mastodon before reading my attempt at an explanation, check it out at joinmastodon.org.
Reminiscing About the Early Pliocene Era of Computer Communication
Some personal context might help. And you can skip this section entirely. It’s just background on who wrote this thing you’re reading.
I’ve been on enough social media platforms that it feels as if their combined logos could fill a yearbook. My first experience online, broadly defined, was a nascent form of social media: a dial-up BBS, or bulletin board system. This would have been roughly around the time The Empire Strikes Back was released. Back then, I didn’t think much about the “self-enclosed-ness” of the BBS. The notion of dialing into a system and then communicating directly with people on the other end, and only those who had likewise dialed in, mapped easily to the idea of a phone call, even if we were communicating by typing rather than speaking.
The mental mapping from BBS to phone call was all the more easy to comprehend because an actual phone line was required to hook the computer — a RadioShack TRS-80, in my case — up to the world outside one’s home. (This wasn’t my home. This was a friend’s. An extra phone line cost real money, as did the phone call itself. Such expenses were beyond my childhood home’s norms for decision-making. My parents were not entirely clear on this BBS concept at first, but they did tell me about the emergence of phones in their own youth. The idea of a “party line” — or “party wire,” vis-à-vis the Normal Rockwell illustration of that name — helped all of us understand the BBS more than we might have otherwise.)
Then high school and college happened, and I didn’t log on again until the early 1990s (not counting the limited school network, which was just for programming, when I was an undergraduate flirting with being — and then being flummoxed by the demands of — a computer science major). If I had to put a date on it, I imagine I logged on for the first time in April or May of 1993 — so almost exactly 29 years ago. This would have been the direct result of the debut issue of Wired magazine. If archaic phone systems helped me understand social media, then it was paper that helped me go digital.
Two Steps to Understanding Mastodon
As I said at the opening, I had already tried Mastodon previously, since it launched in 2016. Back then, though, I wasn’t frustrated by it. I was simply unenthusiastic. Mastodon’s interface felt as if a long-running food co-op tried to recreate Twitter or Facebook: it all sorta worked, but was utilitarian at best, and mired in complex systems at worst. You could almost smell the carob brownies. The benefits of Mastodon were unclear to me. At that early phase of my adoption, Mastodon reminded me of so many wannabe SoundCloud replacements whose sole apparent purpose was to replace SoundCloud. “SoundCloud done right” is a self-denuding rallying cry. They brought nothing new to the party, and few if any of them gained steam.
I was also reminded of a certain geek ethos, the one in which a computer-minded individual expresses interest in, say, having a blog, but actually takes far more active interest in creating, from scratch, their own blogging software. They never end up blogging. Mastodon felt, initially, to me like it might have been made by people with more interest in making a micro-blog network platform than in actually micro-blogging themselves.
This past week, however, was quite different. This past week I wasn’t unenthusiastic; this time, actual frustration kicked in. And while frustration is, well, frustrating, it can also be an engine of intrigue. I had not been that confused online for some time. It was sort of intoxicating. I’d like to say I simply put concerted effort into “getting” Mastodon, but that wasn’t quite how it played out. At first, all I did was complain, and the variety of responses to my complaints informed my experience. I’m fortunate to have a lot of patient and informed online friends.
Also helping in the process of getting acclimated: user error on my part. I ended up somehow with two different Mastodon accounts. In part this was a hassle, because their URLs were just similar enough that I took one to be an abbreviation for the other. But having two Mastodon accounts, each with its own unique URL, helped me understand something that had not, to me, been obvious previously: there are numerous Mastodon URLs. There is no twitter.com or facebook.com for Mastodon. The concept of Mastodon doesn’t merely contain — as Walt Whitman taught us to verbalize — multitudes, but is founded on them.
The interface can be maddening as you come up to speed. If privacy is a concern, you might find yourself wondering why you can change a public account’s individual posts private or but not a private account’s individual posts public. You might change an account from private to public, and then wonder why your earlier posts remain private. When you try to figure out how your posts show up on some other instances, you may end up looking at a chart, one that a friend has rightly likened to something out of the brain-frying time-travel film Primer (note: I love the movie, and it fried my brain). All these things eventually make sense, but the difference from the widely experienced, carefully designed chutes and ladders of Twitter and Facebook is palpable. I’ll get more into this in the next section, but suffice to say: people would maybe less often confuse Mastodon’s posts with Twitter’s tweets if Mastodon didn’t refer to its posts as “toots.”
Indeed, Mastodon’s current communications really don’t help matters. As of this writing, when you sign up for a new account on the main Mastodon URL, you are immediately asked to choose one of myriad “servers,” which are broken into “categories.” What is not clear is that all those servers are in effect communities and that they are each separate “instances” of Mastodon. (This is stated on the page, but “stated” is different from “clear,” and clear is different from “apparent,” let alone “self-evident.”) Much of the rest of this article will involve unpacking that single word: “instance.” Once I got that word, that concept, everything about Mastodon that had previously been frustrating began, instead, to make sense. I then deleted my two conflicting Mastodon accounts and I started a new one.
As whenever you make it through a thick conceptual window, this experience of finally “getting” Mastodon was fulfilling. For the first two days, my attitude was: this is the stupidest interface I’ve ever used. And then it made sense. To explain how it came to make sense, I retraced my steps. What felt at the time like an extended process of trial and error could, in fact, be reduced considerably. Partially that is because numerous of my steps were missteps, such as those recounted up above. In the end, I think there are two steps to understanding why Mastodon is special.
Step 1 of 2: Mastodon Looks Like Twitter but It’s More Like WordPress
It’s very important to not think of Mastodon as simply a replacement for Twitter. Why? Because Twitter is a single globe-spanning instance of software that every user is inside together. Mastodon, however, is software more along the lines of the way WordPress.org provides software. When you install WordPress’s open-source software at your own URL, it’s its own self-contained instance of WordPress. WordPress is software in a practical sense, whereas Twitter is software only in the sense that it’s a digital service. My own website, Disquiet.com, is on WordPress (I am vaguely familiar with the geek ethos mentioned earlier: from 1996, when I founded Disquiet.com, until 2007, when I commissioned someone to port the site to WordPress, I published the entire site with hand-coded static files, every single .html page, even the RSS feed). If someone posts a comment on disquiet.com, that’s happening in my specific instance of WordPress, not on “WordPress as a single globe-spanning platform.”
So, let’s break this down: Make sure you get the difference between WordPress and Twitter. Now, imagine Twitter not as a company with a single platform, but as an installable-on-the-internet piece of software like WordPress. That’s a step toward understanding Mastodon. Mastodon lets you set up your own self-contained instance of the software, just like WordPress does, and you can run it on your own (server use costs money, and the more users you have, the more it costs; it’s more expensive than WordPress). No one can join your Mastodon instance whom you don’t want as a member. You can set the rules as you like. You can make it open to anyone who wants to read it or wall it off entirely — and even if you make it open to anyone who wants to read, you can allow each of your instance’s individual users to choose to hide their own posts from anyone but the people they choose to see it. (If you’re handy with code, you can even fork Mastodon and make your own version — so long as you post the source code online, per the open-source licensing agreement.) Also, you don’t need to set up Mastodon yourself. You can just join a pre-existing server/community.
This took days to comprehend, and then even when I got it, it took a while to grok it. My head hurt. I got angry. Then suddenly it clicked. A big reason I got angry is there are a lot of know-it-all Mastodon-heads out there who condescendingly ask regularly, “Why aren’t you just on Mastodon?” when people complain about Twitter and Facebook. The answer to that question, as it turns out, isn’t just “Mastodon isn’t easy to understand.” It isn’t even “Mastodon isn’t as clean and efficient as those heavily funded websites that are literally designed to algorithmically reflect parts of our consciousness we’re not even aware of.” No, the more full answer is, “To really use Mastodon, you have to step through a conceptual window that’s akin, perhaps, to, long ago, someone who’s only ever used AOL then trying to use the Internet. Except even harder to comprehend, unless someone is patient and takes the time to explain it.” I’m trying to explain it, first to myself, and then to anyone who wants to read this.
Step 2 of 2: Mastodon Communities Can Easily (if Currently Clumsily) Connect with Each Other
This is where Mastodon gets interesting — like, really interesting. It’d be enough if Mastodon were just “WordPress for self-contained social media groups.” But before talking about Mastodon’s built-in interconnectedness, let’s return to the concept of blog comments above.
Do you remember a piece of once ubiquitous online software called Disqus? (I’m not sure how broadly utilized it is anymore.) Disqus provided connective commenting between separate blogs and websites. For example, if I went to some experimental-music blog, and someone said something interesting in the comments, I could click on their avatar, and I’d see other stuff they’d commented on all around the internet. So if they had commented on another blog, I could then click through and see what they had commented on. Maybe I’d discover another experimental-music blog, or maybe I’d find out they also like recipes for Estonian cuisine, or maybe I’d come upon the music made by the very person who possesses that avatar.
The phenomenon of Disqus was more than blogs cross-linking through so-called “blogrolls.” Disqus was also more than a portfolio of blogs owned by one company and using a shared platform. This was seemingly truly (but not actually, as I’ll explain in a moment) ad hoc — and it was exciting. Disqus just happened: you show up on one blog, and there’s your avatar — you show up on another, same. (Now, it wasn’t quite as easy as I describe, which is part of the reason it didn’t take off as much as it might have. Which is part of why what I’m getting around to describing about Mastodon is so interesting.)
I once saw one of Disqus’ two founders, Daniel Ha, give a talk, early on in the company’s existence, and he made a comment I think about a lot to this day. He said something along the lines of how comments people made online were just as valid a form of publishing, of self-expression, as was the writing of a post or article. That’s not quite how he put it, but I feel like much of the subsequent explosive growth of social media shows just how accurate his observation was. (If this seems self-evident to you, I will note this was not a widespread perception at the time.)
You may be thinking, “Well, that’s cool, but how is that blog commenting scenario different from Mastodon?” The thing with Disqus was it was centralized. You had all these different blogs, but the only way they connected was through Disqus. You had little to no control as a Disqus commenter. If someone started saying crappy stuff to you or just crappy or inconsequential stuff in general, you couldn’t unfollow them or hide them on blogs where you might stumble on them (at least when I used the service — it may have gained such functionality). There were issues for blog owners, too, but let’s just pause there and move on. The key thing was it was centralized: if Disqus went down, all of Disqus went down. If Disqus made a big change, it immediately impacted the entire network. Had Disqus ever gone under (which it hasn’t), it might well have disappeared.
A cool thing about Mastodon is the software is created so that anyone on any single Mastodon instance (like, say, mastodon.social, which appears to be the biggest one, or post.lurk.org, where I eventually signed up, despite me not totally liking the somewhat creepy tone of the word “lurk”) can still communicate with people on other Mastodon instances. Even as I type this, I can’t quite understand how it works, but it does. (A friend explained to me helpfully that the underlying protocol, ActivityPub, which Mastodon and other online services, can be thought of as “kind of like two-way RSS,” which is to say the protocol most of us know as a way to track a bunch of blogs through one tool, such as Feedly, Inoreader, or the sadly defunct Google Reader. I don’t know much about ActivityPub, but I’ve been reading up. And I put this section in parentheses to emphasize that when you start seeing terms like “RSS” and “ActivityPub,” it’s a bit beyond the technical literacy — even the technical curiosity — I’ve assumed for a reader of his essay.) If I log onto post.lurk.org/@disquiet in the morning, I might see replies from other Mastodon accounts at places like digforfire.org or queer.party or cybre.space or merveilles.town or mastodon.art or metalhead.club or kith.kitchen or sonomu.club, all real unique Mastodon instances, and I can communicate individuals who call such places home. I can even, in a subtly signaled way, see who in my feed is part of “my” home instance (i.e., post.lurk.org) and who isn’t: accounts that share my instance appear by their avatar names, whereas accounts from other instances appear with their avatar name appended by the name of their alternate instance (e.g., I appear as @[email protected] on the feed of someone at any Mastodon instance other than post.lurk.org; for anyone on post.lurk.org, I appear simply as @disquiet).
If these other accounts turn out to be bots or merely inconsequential to what I’m interested in focusing on, I can mute them. If I find that a particular instance of Mastodon (like ihate.ambient — not a real instance) is filled with bots or hateful humans, I can save myself the Whack-a-Mole effort and just mute the whole instance — and, this is another clincher, I can do so as a user. Read the previous clause again: as a user. I don’t need to depend on the Mastodon instance in which I am located to filter whom I communicate with.
Think about it this way: each Mastodon instance can become its own little community without necessarily being cut off from the broader world. (The term for this sort of arrangement is “federated.” The word, which predates Mastodon, is one that the service features repeatedly on its joinmastodon.org home page, even though the same page offers no definition for curious newcomers.) The managers of a given instance can certainly say, “You can only chat here, and the rest of the internet can’t see in unless they have an account.” However, the real power of Mastodon is how you can have your own little instance for a distributed community of individuals to discuss folk dancing, or living at sea, or modular synthesizers, or vintage sports equipment — likewise, you could have one for your family, or your college class, or your neighborhood volunteer clean-up group — and the participants can connect with each other as well as with users beyond your instance, as each user sees fit.
Witnessing these varied instances of Mastodon communicate with each other is kind of amazing. I do a lot of stuff online, and I love being online. I still think of IMAP, an internet standard protocol that powers a lot of email, as magical. Mastodon is cool on that order of magnitude. It’s science-fiction cool.
The Next Steps
That was really helpful for me to type out, because doing so helped me understand Mastodon more clearly through explaining it to myself. This documents my experience and perception. Like I said, I passed through a conceptual window this week, as far as Mastodon is concerned. And a funny thing happens after you pass through a conceptual window: you can’t always see clearly back through it. It took almost as much effort to retrace my steps as it did to take those steps in the first place, albeit minus any of the frustration. (Fortunately, I have my sequence of tweets from that week, and the trajectory is pretty clearly delineated if you read them in order.)
So, will Mastodon take off? It’s done well during the current Twitter-evacuation, or at least current “Twitter trial separation,” but Mastodon still needs to do a lot of hard work. It needs to work on that interface. It needs to infuse its “federated” underpinning with deeper meaning and purpose so that the term is unifying and clarifying rather than merely vaguely differentiating. And Mastodon needs to do a much better job of explaining to new users how it works. It needs to help newcomers start off. As mentioned earlier, when you show up you have to blindly choose a community — and it doesn’t explain clearly that it’s an arbitrary choice, to some degree, because you can communicate across instances. The whole concept of inherently interconnected instances is not self-evident, or easy to immediately comprehend. To understand the solution, users must first appreciate the problem. “Getting off Twitter and Facebook” is a problem for many, but it’s not really the problem that Mastodon is trying to solve. Per my comment about SoundCloud earlier, it doesn’t do justice to what Mastodon (along with other experiments in federated and decentralized social networks) is pushing toward.
The issues aren’t merely about language. If you’re on mastodon.social and I’m on post.lurk,org, and I “follow” you, this is how it plays out: first, I jump through a few somewhat opaque hoops to follow you, and then on post.lurk.org it shows that I’m following you. However, anytime I happen to find myself back on your mastodon.social page, I’ll still see a big “follow” button, which naturally makes me wonder whether or not I’m following you. This is not a big problem at first, but I don’t know how sustainable it can be in the long run when I and a growing number of people are following a lot of accounts. This sort of disconnect may just become an accepted online norm, or it may provide just the sort of cognitive dissonance that keeps a service from reaching a broader audience.
And that about covers it. As is clear, after these nearly 4,500-ish words, those being a revision of a nearly 2,000-word email, the qualities of Mastodon hold a lot of promise and appeal to me. I spend a lot of time online, and I don’t do so alone. I joke regularly that Facebook is where I realize how little I have in common with my friends, while Twitter is where I realize how much I have in common with people I don’t know. I’m not sure where Mastodon fits in that formulation, and I’m slowly sorting out that a whole new formulation may be required.
A lot of my online imagination is tied up in the Disquiet Junto, an online community I’ve moderated since 2012, and it was preceded by a half decade spent organizing online collaborations between musicians. The Junto isn’t a “place,” not even a virtual one in the sense we think of virtual places currently. It exists on numerous platforms, key among them: SoundCloud, Slack, Twitter, and lllllll.co, the latter an instance of Discourse, another online discussion platform. (This platform diaspora, so to speak, largely occurred following the suddenness with which SoundCloud, many years ago, removed its “groups” functionality.) Using Mastodon has helped me understand how that current constellation of online Junto locales may not be truly “federated.” Part of me wonders if a Disquiet Junto instance of Mastodon might be worth pursuing, but right now the onboarding process (both practical and conceptual) is too arduous. I want the Junto to be welcoming, and Mastodon isn’t welcoming — at least not enough, and at least not yet.
Both through speculative interest and practical application, online networks are where I spend a lot of time. Six years into its existence, Mastodon registers as a potentially important step forward. Perhaps some service other than Mastodon will have eventual widespread, ubiquity-equivalent success with this “federated” model. Perhaps some even more autonomous identity — closer to an email address or phone number — will arise in the process. (This lengthy post is not in any way comprehensive, but if a lingering question is “Would it help to have more than one Mastodon account?” then the answer may relate to the question “Do you need more than one phone number?” Not everyone does, but there are work and life circumstances when it may be useful, and even necessary.) Perhaps the internet will achieve something even more “decentralized” than a “merely” “federated” model — which is to say, a situation in which no one need “join” a server, and can simply participate (one hedge would be a groundswell, I imagine, of usage such that everyone has their own individual Mastodon instance, but that feels more like a hack than an intentional system).
No matter what comes in this regard, it will have been Mastodon that helped rewire my brain for such things. Rewiring can be a painful procedure, but it was worth the effort.
In any case, if you do join Mastodon, you can find me, at least for the time being, at: https://post.lurk.org/@disquiet.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Todd Elliott, Kamen Nedev, Matt Nish-Lapidus, C. Reider, and Jason Wehmhoener, among others, who helped me get on Mastodon, helped me sort out Mastodon, and/or read this at some stage of draft form, and to Bart Beaty for having asked the initial question via email. Any broken metaphors or just plain incorrect information is my fault alone.