Herding My Thoughts

I've been on Mastodon for about a month and a half now, which is plenty of time to have formed some ✨ opinions ✨ about the platform. As I've previously mentioned, this isn't my first dalliance with the Fediverse, but it is the first time that one of those services has become a part of my day-to-day routine. I'd say it took just over two weeks to overwrite my muscle memory and become the first app that I reach for when I pick up my phone (I leave it up to you, dear reader, to determine if this is a positive or a negative outcome overall 😉). A large part of that success is down to the people that have flocked[1] to the various Mastodon instances, but that only accounts for why I tried out Mastodon in the first place. It was the app and surrounding community that I've stuck around for.

The Good

For starters, it was incredibly refreshing to find that Mastodon doesn't just have a PWA option, but that it's as feature-rich as the main site, and arguably a better experience than the first-party native app. For a platform built on the web, for the web, this is absolutely how it should be, but just take one look at any of the other competitors in this whole "who will be the new Twitter" race and you'll see how rare such an attitude actually is. It definitely still has some quirks – feeds will often fail to refresh properly, or will be overly keen to pull in hundreds of posts, rather than just scrolling you back to the top – but many of those issues have also improved with the recent 4.0 release. Plus there are loads of quality-of-life features. An edit button for the masses, with public history logs? Awesome! Following topics directly via hashtags? Superb! First-class bookmarking? Excellent!

It's also brilliantly customisable. It took very little digging to work out how to set a light mode (yes, I am still one of those people) and I discovered a whole host of other little gems in the settings as a result. Best of all, those settings seem to automatically sync across devices, which was great. You can really tell that a huge amount of thought, care, and attention has gone into the user experience of Mastodon, and whilst I don't always agree with the solutions that they've settled on, that effort has reaped some massive rewards. Whilst I'm unlikely to ever use them, granular control over keyword filters, blocklists, and content warnings are all really nice to see, as are "self-destructing" posts (though how well they actually self-destruct would be interesting to know). Better yet, because Mastodon isn't actually three advertising platforms in a trenchcoat, the default settings are meaningful and put users' privacy and protection first, which shouldn't be as refreshing to discover as it was, but that's the web we live with in the year of our saviour 2022.

That sense of privacy-first decision making has also led to some interesting user experience choices, particularly around the availability (or lack thereof) of certain interaction methods. I've been surprised at how often I end up reaching for a "quote tweet" option on Mastodon, only to remember that it doesn't exist. I have some complex thoughts on that topic which I won't dive into now, but I will say that, whilst I don't think I agree fully with their decision, I do respect the way the community consistently reinforces its reasoning behind it and can understand where that logic is coming from.

Over the past month or so, the same "suggestions" and talking points have cropped up time and time again, as people bemoan the lack of a certain feature, or claim that Mastodon won't "scale" without considering certain adjustments. Each time, I see veteran denizens of the Fediverse pop up and (politely) walk the other person through their reasoning. The joyful part of that is how consistent the answers are, and how often sources are cited from active discussions on various technical channels or feature requests. As I've said, Mastodon isn't perfect, but the features it does have feel well thought through, and the same can be said for the ones that it lacks, as well, which is incredibly refreshing!

On top of which, the ability to follow people across the broader Fediverse is just great. There may not be many other platforms right now that I desperately want to dive into, but I've been enjoying how much content from Pixelfed (the Fediverse's answer to Instagram) has been making its way into my timeline, and I definitely see this as a show-stopper feature. I have many more thoughts around how you might tweak this model to provide a single place to subscribe to a person, and then pick which service-level feeds you actually see (e.g. Mastodon, Pixelfed, etc.), rather than having to follow multiple accounts to see one person's content, but that will have to wait for another time[2]. For now, all I'll say is that cross-platform discovery is a massive advantage and something I really hope to see explored more in the future.

The Bad

Of course, it isn't all peaches and cream. Whilst I think Mastodon's community and UX are genuinely impressive achievements (and a breath of fresh air), the underlying protocol doesn't feel as well thought through. Plenty of people have pointed out how the ActivityPub standard can be used to effectively DDoS people, even without meaning to, and instances do not seem to scale particularly well. Some may argue that this is a feature, not a bug; that it forces instances to stay smaller, where they are more manageable to maintain, more likely to promote civil discourse, and generally prevents a "one instance to rule them all" pseudo-monopoly. I'd respond to that by saying that there are probably more efficient (and generally better) ways to achieve that same goal without the added burden that the current system requires.

Deduplication is another area that feels sorely needed, but here I think there is hope for progress. Right now, I will often see the same post multiple times. Let's say I follow Person A and Person B. Person A posts something, which appears in my feed. A day later, Person B boosts Person A's post, and so it appears in my feed again. A week later, Person C boosts it into my feed for the third time. Perhaps this post becomes quite popular, so when I look on my Explore tab, I see it there as well. Heck, I've even happened upon a post from someone I follow (that I've already read) in the Local feed a couple of times. All of these feel like redundant noise. If I already follow someone, the platform should suppress boosts of their posts. They should be removed from my local and federated feeds (including Explore). I am not battling an algorithm on Mastodon; the system can make a fair assumption that I see all of the posts from the people that I follow, direct from source, so the rest can be safely ignored. Similarly, if both Person A and Person B boost Person D's post (who I do not follow), I do not need to see both boosts. This feels inherently a little harder to deal with, but it should still be achievable. At the very least, do not show me boosts of posts that I have already liked or boosted!

The duplication issue is more than just an annoying bugbear: it actively breaks my ability to use my feed. I like reading my feed. I deliberately keep the number of people that I follow low so that I can read it. All of it. My aim when using Mastodon (or almost any other feed-based platform) is to reach inbox zero. But unlike email, there is no "read/unread" dichotomy with posts. I have no way to place a bookmark to show me where I've read to. Instead, I've trained myself (and have been trained by these platforms) to look out for posts that I've seen before, and know that once I've hit them, I'm done. As a result, for the first week or so of using Mastodon, I would routinely miss content that I have literally subscribed to, because I had hit a duplicated boost, failed to notice that the account boosting was different, and closed the feed. Sure, this is user error, but when I'm quickly scanning through a feed I'm not going to notice if a given post is original content or boosted content, nor will I remember who has boosted something before (and nor should I need to). Deduplication would solve this issue. As would read marks, which might also have other benefits in terms of how people approach feed-based content consumption. (And because Mastodon is all chronological, read marks do make a kind of sense.)

And then there are the feeds. I'm a big proponent of chronological feeds. I fully understand that some people genuinely prefer algorithmic feeds, and in some places (such as YouTube) I agree. But on microblogging platforms (and macroblogging ones, too) I prefer time-based timelines. Mastodon should therefore be my ideal setup, but it pushes this approach to an extreme that I actually quite dislike. To start with, the "firehose" feeds are awful 90% of the time, and brilliant the other 10% of the time. I've had some fascinating conversations with people from just scrolling around the Federated and Local timelines, and there's a kind of serendipity which feels much more pleasant to those interactions as a result. But most of the time, you just get a stream of pointless banality[3]. I'd actively prefer some level of algorithmic sorting on these feeds, just to try and sift things to the top. It doesn't need to be too fancy, and I'm happy to keep a reverse-chronological timeline, but even a preferential surfacing of posts with hashtags that I've interacted with positively in the past would be better than what we currently have. And don't tell me that this isn't possible: I can already choose to ignore posts in other languages, or apply custom filters to my feeds, and the Explore tab is clearly using some kind of algorithm based on engagement, so the building blocks all clearly exist.

Ultimately, when met with hundreds of posts a minute (which seems to be roughly what I average on my Federated timeline – a name, by the way, which is awful tech gibberish 😂), these feeds cannot serve much purpose, which is a shame, because they're the main source of discovery and community cross-pollination that Mastodon has. And as the platform becomes more popular, we're already seeing the inevitable growth in noise. From people that post hundreds of times a day, to grifters espousing their latest #solopreneur tips (🤮), we're inching closer to losing all value from these features. Hopefully the lack of an algorithm will temper people's desire to try and game the system, but I doubt it. Where there are eyeballs, there is money, and where there are people, there is clout, so the rest will ultimately follow.

The chronological aspect of the feeds also hurts conversations, particularly on my home timeline. I'll often be scrolling down a disjointed mess of people talking to one another, getting increasingly confused and annoyed until I find the original post that started it all off. Then I have to reverse-scroll back up to work out why people said what they did, and what the context of each reply was. In theory, this should work the same way on Twitter, but for some reason it seems extra frustrating on Mastodon. Perhaps Twitter automatically groups replies together in your feed – that certainly feels like an excellent quality-of-life improvement over what we currently have! Alternatively, I quite like the way Discord shows a reply with the original comment or post superscripted above it, particularly as this acts as a link back to the original conversation. Either approach would be beneficial, in my opinion.

Finally, I'd love to be able to exert more control over my feeds. I really want to use the "lists" feature to recreate the value I used to get from Twitter's "topic" feeds; I think this would become a fantastic/key piece of functionality for me! But alas, in order to add something to a list, you have to subscribe to it (which is fine) and that means it also appears in your main feed (which sucks). What I want to be able to do is subscribe to a person or hashtag and then "move" them into a List. I don't want them to appear on my home feed; I only want to see them if I explicitly open that List. That way I could quickly set up over-populated Lists of wildlife and nature photography; palaeoart; scientific news; information about my local area – all without drowning out the posts from people I really care about. Yes, I could also set up a "VIP" List and just ignore the home feed entirely, but that is the feed that comes up when you launch the website. That's the feed at the top of the navigation. The feed that new followees get automatically added to. It's the feed that the whole platform is designed to push you towards, and I know from experience that trying to bend a platform into a different shape is never a fun experience in the long term[4].

Similarly, I really dislike the emphasis on boosting (and not just because of the dumb name 😅). To be clear, I think that encouraging people to actively engage with one another is a good thing, and I very much agree with how boosts are handled on my various feeds, but I wish that either favourites were more powerful or you could silently boost something without it going on your profile. I'm not particularly happy with how cluttered my personal, outgoing feed has become, and I find it irritating when I land on someone's profile and have to scroll through dozens of boosts to find any of their own content. I'd prefer the default profile view just to be original posts, and then have a tab for boosts as well, similar to how replies work now; that would feel much less noisy and would allow me to quickly get an idea of whether someone is worth following or not.

It has also led to a slightly odd pattern of behaviour. Because boosts spread posts beyond the walls of your specific garden, whilst favourites purely alert the author to the fact that you liked their idea, it seems like most people abuse the former and ignore the latter. This strikes me as a great shame. Letting someone know that a thing you have read is interesting, funny, useful, or in some way valuable/appreciated should be encouraged. If everyone is just screaming into the void, it's nice if the void occasionally gives you a high five or thumbs up back! And I like being able to dole that affirmation out, but I don't want to have to spam my own followers with every inane post that I see. Nor do I particularly enjoy the idea that I am somehow being forced into becoming an algorithm replacement, which almost feels manipulative; a kind of trick to gain work from your users without payment 🤔

I'm happy to boost content that I think other people ought to see. Maybe it's a particularly good, well-reasoned take, or something I particularly agree with (or wish I'd thought of first 😉); or because it has inherent value to the kind of people most likely to see it (anyone that follows me or shares my server). Occasionally, I might fan girl a bit and boost something (or someone) that I want to see spread and that I feel deserves greater recognition. But I do not want to subject everyone to everything. Boosts should be curated; they are as much a part of my feed as my own voice. So instead, I will liberally favourite and aim to show my appreciation that way. Not doing so feels aloof and uncaring, which is not the spirit I see touted as that of the Fediverse. And yet that's the UX they've prioritised? 🤷‍♀️

And The Community

Let's leave that negativity aside for one second and talk about Mastodon's greatest strength: the people that use it. Whilst there are plenty of technical features that I've come to love about the platform, the community there has been an absolute delight. Now, of course, as this is a federated and decentralised social network, my "community" is going to be very different to someone else's community, but I want to be clear that I'm not explicitly talking about the instance that I'm on. Indieweb.social has been great, and our admin, Tim, is a great bloke that has built a healthy social hub for people to chill out in. But the reality is that I don't actually follow all that many people from my own instance, so the posts I tend to see and interact with are from a much broader snapshot of the Fediverse itself. There's still a distinctive "bubble" effect, but it's far less restrictive than I had feared.

So what is it about this community that has been particularly interesting or exciting? That's honestly hard to pin down. I've been impressed by the general sense of neighbourly-ness that some instances have to one another, and it's great to see so many people actively taking the time to help onboard new users, offer help and guidance, and also come together to protect specific aspects of Fediverse culture. A great example of that was the fallout around the Raspberry Pi account (🙄). Brands are broadly distrusted on the Fediverse, but R-Pi had been going about things the "right" way:

  • They had hosted their own company instance on their own hardware (a Pi4, of course);
  • They were actively engaging with individuals, as individuals, rather than as a faceless corporate entity;
  • And they were boosting other community members whilst keeping their own marketing to a minimum.

And then they went and posted about hiring an ex-cop and surveillance specialist. Now, I'm no ACAB. I have good friends in the British police and I genuinely believe that the majority of Officers have chosen their specific career for positive reasons. But I also fully support efforts to fundamentally reclassify the concept of "police work", and would happily see the entire institution defunded and replaced with (in my opinion) more useful alternatives. That said, I can also understand why a community of people with a history of persecution would have a broadly ACAB stance, so I think it was more than fair that several people pointed out that this may have been a poor choice of framing. R-Pi then doubled down and came across as jackasses in general, proving beyond any doubt that "main character syndrome" had officially entered the Fediverse. But that's not the bit that I thought was particularly great. The really positive aspect of the whole saga was how people from multiple sub-communities and instances bandied together to politely try to educate and explain their positions. Then, when R-Pi chose the path of violence, they found themselves swiftly defederated and blocked across large sections of the network.

Elsewhere, I've seen a strong emphasis on trans-allyship (and broader support for the whole LGBTQIA+ rainbow); meaningful political discussions; and a good amount of grassroots organising. Several charities that I like have joined the service and seem to be benefiting from it, to varying degrees. And, of course, the core concepts of federation and community governance are deeply rooted in anarchist philosophies, which are an encouraging foundation. Are there still plenty of issues? Absolutely. I think it's clear from the demographics alone that Mastodon has an issue with racial equality, and likely class equality too. I also do not doubt for one second that we'll see an ongoing pendulum-like swing of incoming grifters and marketers being met with Twitter-like (and unhelpful) forceful rhetoric, back and forth, for so long as the platform continues to grow and attract the eyeballs of everyone trying to make a name for themselves. People are people, after all.

But, for now, that core sense of community values and a (roughly) shared culture of tolerance and fair assumptions, backed up by swift action and no-nonsense moderation, feels like a welcome change. People somehow seem friendlier, and that has led to me feeling far more comfortable jumping into conversations, resulting in a much greater degree of personal benefit and knowledge gain. I've seen at least one person point out that Mastodon, unlike many other social platforms, rarely fills them with a sense of dread, and I wholeheartedly agree. Yes, there's still news and heavy discussions (as there should be), but there is something about the way those things are portrayed and discussed which takes the rage-baiting edge off of them.

With that all said, though, I've had an absolute blast for the past month or so, and have definitely found myself much more engaged with (and by) Mastodon than I've been with Twitter for many years. I'm sure part of that is a honeymoon-phase, but so long as enough other people that I care about stick around, I don't see myself drifting away any time soon. Whilst I heavily dislike the JavaScript reliance introduced by the latest version of Mastodon, I'm also very intrigued with where the standard/platform evolves from here, and because it is open source and has an active community, I don't think that excitement will wear off any time soon. But above all else, it's just really nice to be somewhere that feels like it is actively adding value to my life, once again.

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  • <p>After a month on the Fediverse, what parts have I grown to love, which parts would I like to see changed, and what has surprised me the most.</p>
  • Murray Adcock.
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