November 2022 Archives

Critiques of Mastodon and its culture

For a while it seemed like Mastodon was the clear successor to a dissolving Twitter. Both had a similar mode of operation, so was familiar enough to people coming from the blue bird site. This wasn't the first migration wave from Twitter to Mastodon (I was involved in a 2017 effort) but it definitely was the largest. The wave is receding now, and with it we're seeing well reasoned critiques of Mastodon and the culture there. About that.

The main complaints look to be:

  • Cultural:
    • Overly prescriptive culture around the use of content warnings.
    • Lack of awareness of the needs of marginalized communities of color.
    • Too many reply-guys
  • Technical:
    • Only one 2FA technique, but no WebAuthN, SAML, or OAuth options.
    • Lack of unified identity across instances.
    • No concept of quote-tweet.

Cultural issues

This isn't the first time I've been part of a community that suddenly got swarmed with a whole bunch of new people who only sort-of speak the same cultural language. The Fediverse community responded the same way those older communities responded, by codifying in real time the unwritten social contract they'd been following and presenting it as de-facto policy written in concrete. If you've ever joined a community and got yelled at to READ THE FAQ BEFORE POSTING, you've seen this in action. In my opinion, this tendency drove a lot of the discontent behind content warning discourse.

Yeah, getting yelled at to READ THE FAQ BEFORE POSTING drives off new comers. It always does. It always will.

The arguments regarding lack of awareness of the need of marginalized communities came as part of the content warning discourse. "I shouldn't have to content-warn my lived experience" being the top argument against use of warnings. The second most common argument against is "I shouldn't have to content warn all political posts, because my living in this world is a political act."

The second argument came as a bit of a surprise to me, because I understood the "content-warn for politics" contract to mean, "Fediverse is a global community and not everyone is in the US, so flag your US politics posts so non-US people can skip them." It definitely was not "content warn anything that could be construed as politics." I attribute this misalignment to real time codification of social contracts getting it kind of wrong, and being taken as long standing policy by new folks. Hand in hand with this is a guideline to CW your tech-posts, because not everyone is in the tech industry and would like to skip them.

As for why content warnings are there at all, Christine Lemmer-Webber posted a brief explainer for why we have them and not another system.

Christine advocated for Tumblr-style tags, not a feature that would hide content requiring a click to view. Christine also pointed out that prescriptive rules for the use of CWs are kinda bad, and yeah they are. The CW system is a poorly defined feature that leads to a lot of confusion. The argument to "treat them like LiveJournal/DreamWidth cut-tags" is entirely accurate, even if most people these days don't know what that means.

The reply-guy comment is somewhat inherent to the subcultures that tried to move to Mastodon. The instance I'm on,, has one of the biggest open-source software instances on silence ( because the maintainer got tired of all the reply-guys coming from there. So when I see people piling into the new free software focused and start complaining of all the reply-guys, I'm seeing a trend. A trend that isn't exclusive to Mastodon, in fact. Reply-guys are endemic in tech social spaces and it takes effort to redirect this reflex. Effort and assistive technologies like limiting replies to posts to the explicitly mentioned, or who are already followers of the poster.

Technical issues

Mastodon was designed for hobbyists to spin up instances and run on their own, and definitely not designed to be a scalable architecture for a kajillion users on the same instance. It can get that dense, as and prove, but it takes skilled engineers to keep it going.

Second, Mastodon is fully open source without a corporate backer trying to make money on top of it. This means there isn't a security department, just a community of security minded volunteers who try to get the project to adopt new techniques. Sometimes they make it in. Sometimes the maintainer doesn't want to merge the commits for whatever reason. This is a volunteer project.

Both of these mean that top tier corporate network security techniques like WebAuthN aren't there. They may be in future versions, but they're not there now.  This also means there isn't a unified identity across instances, because it was intentionally written to be a federated system with islands of identity.

As for quote tweeting, the maintainer has mentioned many times that he has no intention of adding them, and considers them actively harmful. He argues that quote tweets are used by griefer armies to direct hostility at victims, and quote tweets promote one way discourses rather than conversations. Because the maintainer doesn't want them, he won't accept merges that add them. Simple as that.

Quote-toots are indeed a tool with many uses, some good, some bad. Some of the twitter migrants want them back because they were using them to create conversations about things, and found value. Quote-tooting preserves attribution in a way that in-line quoting simply can't. Quote-tooting also gives the original poster feedback that their messages are circulating in new, potentially hostile communities, and to take actions.

Mastodon is a different community. The nature of federation means that the Fediverse has more structural separation between some communities than Twitter allows, which comes as a frustration to some and a blessing to others. Your view of the Fediverse is filtered by the instance you're on, and two instances will see different things. This is unsettling to many used to centralized social media systems.

I like it, but I also know it fills a somewhat different niche than Twitter or Tumblr do. Nor is it a true like-for-like replacement for either.