March 12, 2020

Future Tools: Mastodon

Mastodon is a federated social network that offers an alternative to platforms like Twitter or Instagram, by providing users with the autonomy and choice to connect to other social media users on terms they can choose.

Future Tools: Mastodon

An open source federated social network

Mastodon is a federated social network that offers an alternative to platforms like Twitter or Instagram, by providing users with the autonomy and choice to connect to other social media users on terms they can choose.

As a federated social network, Mastodon is decentralized. Anyone can create their own server, that can connect to the federation, and be able to share content and engage with other users. Each server is a kind of vessel, out in space, able to set their own rules for how they are governed. This fits the maritime metaphor mentioned in our review of Unassailable.

Mastodon also evokes what we imagined as a federated artificial intelligence, except this may be the pre-requisite to system we described. It helps people learn what a federated network could look like, how it might operate, and what it means to be in control of your own data and ability to collect or share it.

Here’s an overview video produced by the software’s developers:

I remember first hearing of Mastodon when it was launched in 2016, and then again in 2018 when the techlash started to pick up steam and people began seeking alternatives. However I resisted signing up as I assumed I would not know a lot of people on these platforms.

I’m also the kind of person to create my own mastodon server, which has never appeared to be that straight forward. Certainly in the context of our Future Tools series, and as part of Metaviews growing network, I should, however given that only two of you responded to the reader feedback request, I’m not convinced there’s the demand. (Plus we may still experiment with Matrix).

Instead I joined the EasyDNS Mastodon server. It describes itself as “Clean, civil, clueful Mastodon instance for easyDNS members, techies and weirdos.” and I am all three of those things.

This concept of a federated network is appealing. There’s a growing range of servers you can choose to join, as a means of connecting to the growing fediverse, which is the federation of federated social media (a future Future Tools issue no doubt).

Some other notable Mastodon servers include freeradical.zone which has an interesting list of rules and nodes they block or filter. This provides a great example of the differences that can exist between servers, where the EasyDNS server is relatively laissez-faire, the freeradical.zone takes more of an effort to configure according to their constituencies needs and desires.

Spinster.xyz is an example of a feminist configuration of Mastodon, and Switter.at, which appears to be the third most popular Mastodon server is configured to be friendly for sex workers. I imagine one could write a newsletter or produce a podcast that was just focused on exploring the various kinds of servers and communities that exist.

Perhaps the primary benefit of this decentralized model is that you can find a community that works for you, and still be able to connect with the wider world. You can live with friends, but still travel and engage with strangers. Here’s a tool that can help you find a Mastodon server that meets your desired configuration:

However what do you do when far right extremists create a neighbourhood of their own, or in this case a Mastodon server of their own?

When Gab migrated to Mastodon, that content threatened to spill into the larger platform. Mastodon is organized into a “Fediverse,” which means that users on one instance can follow and interact with users from another. It helps make Mastodon feel like a single community, but by default, it could make users from one instance vulnerable to trolls from another. Fortunately, administrators can block instances, too, keeping out any posts or users from that server.
So far, that’s been the default response to Gab. Mastodon’s official site will only list instances that follow the Mastodon Server Covenant. The covenant mandates “active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia” — which pretty much nixes any contact with Gab. For Rochko, it seems like the clearest way forward. “The software that powers Mastodon is released under an open-source free software license, which means anybody can use it,” he says. “And you know, that offers a great number of benefits — but some disadvantages.”

Part of the appeal for Gab, in embracing Mastodon, is that it initially helped them get around bans in app stores. While Gab itself was banned, Mastodon, as an open platform, not only has tons of servers, but also tons of apps, that make it easy for people to connect on their own terms, using their own desired platform or device. By moving to Mastodon, Gab was initially able to get around bans, by essentially hiding in the herd of other federated users.

While most of the server admins in the Mastodon ecosystem moved to disconnect themselves from Gab, they’re not in a position to restrict what Gab does with the software. Similarly, because Gab claims to have almost a million users, they initially ranked at the top of Mastodon server listings.

Gab has since “forked” Mastodon to run their own version of the software, independent of the larger Mastodon ecosystem. They’ve also done this with a number of apps that make it easy for people to connect. I can’t tell if Gab is still part of the broader Fediverse, but I’d imagine they are, just suppressed so they don’t show up in listings and rankings.

It raises an interesting issue, but it is also encouraging to see how it was handled. Gab is still able to exercise free speech, and yet it is not amplified or promoted. They benefit from the existence of the software, but are otherwise excluded from online communities that wish to exclude them.

There are still concerns around potential abuse and harassment on the platform:

However from what I’ve seen, in the 18 months since that post was written, efforts have been made to introduce better controls and measures to prevent toxic behaviour.