Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

The Mastodon Hunters

Well, I didn’t expect this, though I probably should have: A huge wave of former Twitter bluechecks and their followers have descended upon the Mastodon Federation, and–sunuvugun–they’ve started throwing spears at each other.

First of all, for those who have never heard of it: Mastodon is a social network modeled superficially on Twitter. It’s distributed, in that anyone can create a server instance of Mastodon, and connect to other Mastodon instances through an underlying protocol called ActivityPub. It’s very cool in its own way, and brings other (ancient) distributed social networks to mind, like Fidonet and Usenet. Within a server instance, members can post and read tweet-ish things called “toots.” Theoretically, any Mastodon instance (there about 7,000 of them) can trade traffic with any other Mastodon instance. Content moderation, codes of conduct, and control of what other instances can share traffic are entirely under the control of the members of a given instance. There is no centralized management. Each instance governs itself.

So NPR’s Adam Davidson set up a Mastodon instance called, mostly targeted at journalists fleeing Twitter. The instance now has about 1,600 members, though that number doubtless changes hourly. I’ve cruised some of the posts, and it looks a great deal like the sort of stuff we’ve always seen on Twitter: some interesting, some blather, and some complaining about the indiscretions of others. Here’s the weird part: Almost immediately, fights broke out.

Maybe that’s not weird. Maybe that’s just how social networks operate. In this case, it had repercussions: A great many Mastodon instances, told by one malcontent or another that was transphobic, decided to block entirely. If you read Twitter, look for posts by @ajaromano, a bluecheck journalist who’s been trying to figure out why is being blocked so much. There’s a threadroll here. She’s trying to pin down what makes transphobic, and so far she got nuthin. Someone linked to a transphobic NYT article? Seriously? The NYT?

What this leaves us with is basically a Twitter-flavored forum with 1,600 members, shunned by all the other major Mastodon instances. So much for having 75,000 followers.

Now, why? I seriously doubt did anything transphobic or Aja Romero would have found it by now. I think the problem is much simpler and more mundane: Longtime Mastodon users think the wave after wave of Twitter refugees are ruining the neighborhood. The federation network can’t crash, but massive activity spikes can slow things down enough so that it might as well have crashed.

I’m not sure why it should be so, but I’ve read that Mastodon leans left. So in a way it’s the perfect solution for people who hate Elon Musk enough to bail on Twitter, leaving their blue checks and their thousands of followers behind. Alas, right now it looks a lot like Mastodon’s fediverse is the Holy Roman Empire of social networks: thousands of dukedoms, city-states, and strange little scraps of intellectual backwaters and walled fiefdoms that just don’t talk to anybody else and occasionally start throwing rocks.

What happens next? Nobody’s saying it out loud, but I’ll hazard a guess: They’ll soon be back on Twitter. How soon? A month or so. We won’t know for sure because they won’t want to admit it, but Twitter is successful because it’s big. Musk will eventually figure out how to make it pay. The real interesting question is what shape the Mastodon fediverse will be in come the new year. What’s the sound of one instance banning?

Silence. Heh.


  1. Bill Meyer says:

    The whole social media thing is … strange. More often it seems to be anti-social media.

    I was on Facebook for years, but left years ago after one evening in which two of my private messages were intercepted for violating “community standards.” PMs. To single users. Community? And worse, the content in both was identical, a link to a Catholic website.

    Too much computing power in the hands of ignorant zealots is a dangerous thing.

    Haven’t even looked at Mastodon. Thought they were extinct? heh

    Twitter is crazy enough. With all the enlightened explaining that Trump would be death to America, and failing to see the tidal wave of Trump fans pouring in. I’m not arguing for or against, just noting the insanity.

    As someone said, free speech is not courteous, not nice, not friendly, not politically correct. All of those qualities, to one degree or another, impinge on otherwise free speech.

    Just as no one has ever successfully defined pornography in objective terms, rendering an objective definition of hate speech is impossible. The eye of the beholder.

    Or, to put it differently, being offended is not a career path.

  2. James R. Strickland says:

    I think there’s a fundamental flaw in your analysis of the Mastodon situation, Jeff, and it’s this: When Twitter bans you, you’re *banned*. If you’re on an instance of Mastodon that bans you, you can just go find another instance. The lack of centralized power disempowers the groupthinkers and busybodies who think they know best for *everyone* simply because other instances need not agree with them.

    Will it fragment? Probably. This is why it will succeed Twitter, IMHO. Twitter desperately needed to fragment, but was incapable of it. Mastodon allows the audience to fragment naturally into communities.

    1. The group dynamics here are fascinating. It’s tough for an outsider to get the details, but from what I’ve been able to find, there’s a sort of social contagion going on among Mastodon communities, with whole communities banning on the basis of what may be an unfounded rumor. People could conceivably just find another instance, but the whole point of journa was that it served journalists. I’ve not heard of another Mastodon instance doing that, and if the journalists formed a new instance for themselves, the whole damned thing would probably start again. There’s a palpable animus among long-time Mastodon users against the flood of journalists and other people storming into their cozy circles.

      Then there’s the issue of “reach,” i.e., how many people will read your posts. A well-known person on Twitter can reach literally millions of people, while on Mastodon there are hard limits in the mid-thousands even before you consider communities blocking other communities. The people who created Journa wanted Journa to become a destination for people who wanted to read news. Even if plenty of other instances (many of which are quite small) maintained contact with Journa, its reach would be modest at best.

      A lot of instances are invite-only. Even more require applications for admittance. So there’s no easy way to get into any arbitrary instance, and if you just have to take what you can get, your reach will suffer tremendously. This is not only due to raw numbers, but also in the number of readers willing to join or read an instance that might have only have forty or fifty journalists rather than thousands of them. We might think of this as “diluted reach.” I’m sure it’s a problem.

      One way to think of banning here is that instances (often managed by an “inner circle” that holds all the power) are banning people by the hundreds (or in Journa’s case, thousands) in one swoop. This wasn’t what the Twitter refugees expected, and it’s why I predict that they’ll be back sooner than they think.

  3. Thom Denholm says:

    I applaud Mastodon for lacking something that has frustrated me for a while – the Algorithm.

    On Mastodon, I could follow an author and see everything they say. I can also follow a hashtag and get information that those authors thought fit that hashtag – and probably a few that don’t, but okay.

    Twitter and Facebook don’t show me everything by the folks I follow or friend, but they do show me things that they think “might interest me” – in addition to advertisements.

    Put another way, Mastodon is microblogging, which is where Twitter started – and I like that. I’ll nose around and find things that interest me on my own, thanks.

    Still trying to wrap my head around bans, server bans, trolls and the like – definitely a more complex topic. If people don’t get “news” from these sites, they wouldn’t need “disclaimers” to correct errors – the flat earthers could happily huddle off on their own corner of the plane together. Might ultimately come back to – what are the reasonable limits on free speech?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *