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.
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