Mastodon is my mood board rather than my echo chamber
A note of hope, a note of caution and the return of my clock card poems
For anyone that has been following my substack gripes about the bird site, it won’t come as a massive shock that I’ve joined Mastodon. If you don’t know what Mastodon is, or have maybe found it a bit difficult to access, then the first section is for you. The second section sounds a note of caution about the whiteness of mastodon. The final sections are about what I’m doing on Mastodon.
A brief introduction to Mastodon and the fediverse, if you need it (skip to the next bit if not)
If you’re not in the know, the fediverse is not a social media website in itself but rather a network of smaller servers that can see and communicate with others. Mastodon is a specific piece of software that allows people to create their own servers (or instances) but it is not the only way onto the fediverse. You can join the Mastodon network by signing up at one of the servers. Most of the time, the server doesn’t matter. You can still see the other servers, follow accounts on them and have them follow you. If you do feel the need to leave a server you can join a new server and bring your followers with you. The only thing affected by your choice of server is your local network tab, which allows you to see a feed of all the posts from your current server. The “federated” tab shows you all of the posts across the entirety of the fediverse.
A lot of new users are a little bamboozled by the need to choose a server at the beginning and I wish that the Mastodon head honchos made it easier for new accounts to get over this hump, but a lot about this “hump” is what makes the Mastodon network such a breath of fresh air. It provides a big enough barrier for all the barry032455322 type accounts that helped turn the bird site into the hellhole that it is today. Not only that, but if a server ends up being a home for all the alt-right undesireables, you can block that entire server yourself.
Because this is a network of servers run by different people out of their own pockets and spare time rather than a centralised platform owned by a corporation or billionaire with delusions of social intelligence, there is no immediate need to monetise it. This means there is no algorithm running to repackage content for the sole purpose of selling eyeballs to advertisers. Content finds itself travelling between servers via “boosts” (Mastodon’s version of a retweet) or hashtags. Yes, hashtags have become meaningful and useful again.
It is perhaps because of this that many new arrivals that have been around the virtual block a few times find Mastodon to be reminiscent of the good old days of social media, where feeds were chronological, advertising wasn’t present at all and posts by people you were actually interested in weren’t intercepted and hidden by the algorithm before they reached you. I think that this is one reason that people can feel a bit bemused at first. We have forgotten what it is like to spend time on a social media platform that hasn’t been turned into a dopamine slot machine that monetises our attention for paying advertisers.
At the same time many of the denizens of Mastodon are much more careful in how they don’t want to turn it into another bird site. It’s not just sensitive content that is hidden by content wrappers but also political content that might lead to the usual sudden rush of blood to the head. The norm seems to be for posts of this sort to be appear as an option to read rather than inserting itself into your headspace whether you want it or not. While the benefits of this speak for themselves, I think that there are some drawbacks that I address in the next section.
I think it’s very important to remember that Mastodon isn’t twitter. It has existed for many years and it is currently experiencing a massive influx of users now that the other site appears to be in meltdown. As many of us move over from the bird site, we should be mindful that we are stepping into a space that was frequented by people that didn’t want to be on that site in the first place and might be a bit miffed at us all jumping in and acting like we were still there.
A Note of Caution: Mastodon and Whiteness (please don’t skip this)
I should add that my colleague at London Met, Sunny Singh, has written an excellent article about white flight from social media platforms and how many creators and activists from the global south may suffer because of this. At the same time, the seeming good vibes of Mastodon instances may still be the domain of well meaning white western liberals. Seen this way, I’m reminded of all of those tone deaf articles written by gentrifiers who decide to move out of London after spending years displacing working class people from the city. The move is itself much easier for people of privilege.
I agree with all of Sunny’s points but don’t see how things will necessarily work out for the better on Musk’s platform. The roll out of Twitter’s new paid subscription tier is already threatening to relegate all non-subscriber content to the same purgatory as the posts from bots and sock puppets. I hope that fediverse servers will soon present themselves as better homes for POC and others who currently rely on twitter for activism and promotion. I don’t think centralised media will ever offer a reliably stable platform to those that need it, not in the long term. Until then I think that those of us who are currently on Mastodon should boost content with a mind to creating these spaces rather that the usual performative self-centred posturing.
I’ve also noticed that, as Sunny points out, Mastodon seems like a very white space and I’ve already seen a few instances of POC, some of whom are long time fediverse users, being told by newly arrived white users to simply find better servers or block offending servers when they complain about experiencing racism on the platform. This has the same energy as telling someone to simply find another pub to drink in and that there’s lots of non racist pubs out there.
There is also a problematic aspect to the Content Wrapper element that I was just singing the praises of in the last section. When people are sharing their thoughts on things that they are experiencing, such as racism or other forms of prejudice, they don’t want to feel that they have to censor themselves in the process of doing so. I hate the idea of people sharing their thoughts on racism from their own perspective of a person of colour only to be corrected by a white user who feels that the post is killing the chilled out Mastodon buzz.
What I’m doing on Mastodon
I first set up my Mastodon as a bird site replacement with regard to bringing eyeballs to this substack. I registered on a server that was specifically for writers in the hope of it being a good place to cast out my net for said eyeballs. You know what, I think it did actually bring in some new readers but after a little while I came to understand Mastodon in a different way. For such a long time, social media was something I engaged with in the hope of expanding my audience. It was a necessary ordeal that solely existed as a strategy towards a certain goal. But I started to enjoy the social aspect of the network, which was something I hadn’t done on social media since my previous favourite places entered their algorithm phase.
The writer related server seemed like a nice place for aspiring scribes to find support and form alliances. But I felt a little out of place as a veteran of the London poetry scene. I don’t think it’s the right environment for a jaded almost-was (the tier below has-been) such as yours truly. I have to admit that one reason why I left the bird site behind was because of the nepotism and poorly veiled careerism of the poetry contingent over there. Sure, I was there for the sole purpose of flogging my own tat, but that was resulting in ever-diminishing returns. In my final months on Twitter I was curating my feed and making lists of pixel artists and indie game stuff in order to try and make it more of a garden of respite. To take the metaphor to its tired conclusion, it still wasn’t my garden and I wasn’t the one paying the landscapers.
So, on seeing that the writer server wasn’t my thing, and I really wish the best to all the aspiring writers over there, I instead joined an instance populated by artists of all persuasions, writers, visual artists, musicians and (best of all) game devs. I often feel more inspired in a cross genre and interdisciplinary environment, there seems to be more of an exchange of ideas and mutual sparks of inspiration. When you fraternise too closely within your own craft I often think that careerism becomes more pronounced and style becomes more homogenous.
In short, as you have all deduced from the not-very-cryptic title of this essay, I made my feed more of a mood board than an echo chamber. I draw inspiration from the feed and add to that feed, through boosts and my own toots, with a sense of adding interesting things to the mood board rather than simply being in the business of generating clout. I truly believe that this kind of thing can only be created on federated social media and that it would be impossible to carry off on centralised social media. This is because federated social media exists for the good of its users and centralised social media exists for the good of its shareholders or owners. Current feature additions on substack are not doing anything to allay my pessimism.
The Return of the Clock Card Poems
Speaking of nostalgia for older social media, it’s good to see tumblr having a bit of a renaissance, partially due to them revising their views on adult content as well as the current upheavals on other platforms. I don’t think I’ll be running back to tumblr, but I started doing something that I used to do there.
I’ve been writing little poems on the backs of clocking in cards, the exact brand that I used at one of my old blue collar jobs in the late nineties. I’ll a share a few here but I’ll be posting more most days on my mastodon account. I hope it helps in creating an inclusive and inspiring mood board for others.
Hi Niall, thanks for this. It's a great round-up of much that's good about Mastodon and some stuff that's not ideal.
One thing you don't mention is the fact that the Mastodon software is open source. [I'm sure you know all the stuff that follows, but I'm writing this so you don't have to.] This is important because it means that it's effectively owned by the public, and free for all to see. This makes it far harder to commercialise. If someone chooses to do so, there's no way they can force the rest of the Fediverse to follow suit. So it's a lot more proof from takeover than the commercial social media sites have been. The open source model has been highly successful in things like the Linux operating system, languages like php and python, the apache web server software, and a huge number of other things that underly much of the workings of the internet and applications that run on it.
Sunny Singh's article is an excellent eloquent eye-opener. Very interesting.