Why I Love Mastodon (and why I won’t be running my own instance)

In December, I moved from Twitter to Mastodon. It’s a lot quieter, but the interactions feel like Twitter’s early days – friendly, more interactive, and not overwhelmed by news and ‘trending topics’. There’s a feeling people are still figuring out how this works, how best to use the medium. It’s going to be some time before I have a network as engaging as the one on twitter, but Mastodon has great potential.

(I still have the Twitter account as a way of receiving messages and contacting people, but my day-to-day posts are now written to my mastodon account)

A lot of Mastodon’s calmness comes from its design. Mastodon works more like email than a big social media site – your account is managed by a particular instance, which can interact with other instances. If an instance has poor moderation, or a large number of undesirable accounts, that entire instance can be disconnected from your own.

I like that Mastodon is a protocol rather than a platform. In the early days, Twitter had elements of a protocol, with a powerful API that allowed people to produce their own clients and websites based on it. Over time, Twitter restricted the power of the API, in order to protect its revenue. Eventually, Twitter began the transformation into a media company, privileging engaging (or enraging) posts over communication between friends. Now, all traces of openness of Twitter have gone as Musk recently closed down many third apps.

One great thing about having local instances in Mastodon is that each one can set its own local rules ,as described in a vice article. There is a server that only allows registrations at specific times, so new people can be welcomed. There is oulippo.social, which enforces constrained writing, with people banned from using the letter ‘e’. This is made up for by dolphin.town, where people play at being dolphins and are only allowed to use the letter e in messages. (Matt Webb wrote a brilliant essay on interactions between oulippo.social and dolphin.town)

Local instances also means moderation can be applied locally. Hate speech can be banned completely, rather than suffering arguments with moderators about what is appropriate. If you don’t like the choices made by your local instance, you can move to another one. There’s no need to suffer anything like Instagram’s awkward (and shifting) definition of art as pornography. You can ban nazis, TERFs and trolls from the local instance.

Local instances also means that you become part of a community. I joined mastodonapp.uk since a friend had decided to use it, and that saved me working out where to sign up. But I now feel a responsibility towards the instance. There are server fees to be paid, and moderation takes energy. I follow the site owner’s account to keep in touch with what’s happening.

I had thought about hosting my own mastodon instance, but I’m now aware of the work required for that. Most of all, I don’t want to take on the responsibility for moderation. Looking at the threads discussing moderation and the list of banned servers, there are some horrible people in the world. I don’t want to even have to think about the existence of paedophile mastodon instances, let alone be responsible for protecting a community from them. There was also a good essay On Running A mastodon Instance, which looked at some of the challenges (and joys) in running an instance.

For the moment, mastodonapp.uk seem happy to absorb the impact of maintenance and moderation. Moderation is essential, but it is expensive and hard, as we’ve learned from the mass social media platforms. I quit Facebook in disgust at how its poor safeguarding had led to genocidal behaviour in places such as Rohingya. Mastodon makes the problems of moderation more explicit, making each community responsible for it. That is both a challenge and an opportunity.

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