Open space behind the Parkhouse estate

If you are as extremely, tragically Online as I am, you’ve been seeing the rapid decline of Twitter as the new management aggressively makes decisions almost as though he is trying to lose $44 billion on purpose.

Like many of my fellow Extremely Online people, I’ve started the migration to Mastodon. While I will gleefully shitpost on Twitter until the servers are literally no longer operational (whether that’s because the service collapses under its own weight without enough engineers to keep it humming or because the FTC seizes the servers is a toss-up right now), it seems prudent to move my primary social profiles elsewhere.

Having now been getting my feet wet in the fediverse for a week or so, here are some initial thoughts:

Read more: The Inevitable Mastodon Post

Decentralization is a major shift to get used to.

A lot of the initial pearl-clutching from some people who are accustomed to having a large following on Twitter was really about not understanding that the decentralization is the point.

“You mean, the admin of whatever server you’re on can just… kick you off?” …Yes? Much like Elon Musk has been booting people from Twitter for being too good at mocking him?

“But… they can see my DMs?!” …Did you think Twitter admins couldn’t see your DMs?

“An entire server can just be blocked?!” Yes, but each server admin/mod team has to make that decision for each server. So when the Nazis set up their own server, everybody else just… blocked them. But that was up to every individual server operator.

Granted, I get that on a commercial service like Twitter, we get accustomed to making certain assumptions about the motivation and behavior behind moderation decisions, and when you’re talking about volunteer server admins, operating instances out of their own pockets, there are potentially other motivations and trust issues in play. Plus Twitter has been under that FTC consent decree for a good long time now, and Mastodon instance admins have no such restrictions put on them.

But far from this producing a bunch of mini-Musks, as one prominent pearl-clutcher put it, I suspect we’ll see a whole spectrum of admin behavior. Some instances will be run well and thoughtfully, some will be no-holds-barred, some will have capricious moderation.

Which brings me to my next thought:

Instance choice does matter.

Weighing out the possibility of bad behavior from mods I don’t know and other users on the same instance, against the possibility of running my own instance and then taking on the moderation headaches myself, I decided the federated experience I want is to run a small instance, and allow only a small number of people I know personally and whose behavior I can trust to join it.

Basically, I want to hang out with friends I can trust to not embarrass me in front of the other servers, and who I can trust to take it well if I have to speak to them about something they did. Also I’m a bit of a control freak.

Standing up your own Mastodon instance is a bit of a lift; I realized as I went through the instructions that a reason WordPress became the juggernaut it is is because of the early attention to the 5-minute install process. Even in 2004, I was able to get WordPress set up and running myself, using the GUI tools provided by my web host and an FTP client, because the installation scripts were good, the documentation was clear, and because all the dependencies were things web hosts commonly provided, even before pre-installing WordPress became a thing.

Mastodon’s setup is… not at all like that. The instructions are basically one step above, “To set up your own server, first salvage a motherboard from the 2008 Dell tower still in your parents’ garage…” If I’d had to install a database server package from the command line in 2004, that would have been the end of my WordPress career and my life would be very different.

About that Content Warning thing…

On the other hand, the efforts not spent on onboarding and installation have clearly gone into timeline management; Mastodon provides tons of ways to avoid seeing stuff you don’t want to see, has deliberately made choices against virality, and provides multiple levels of intensity for removing things from your timeline you don’t wish to have there.

Which is what makes the Content Warning discourse so frustrating. If you haven’t followed along, it’s burning up threads as more Twitter people set up shop on Mastodon, and it basically boils down to two main schools of thought:

Side 1: “Hey, look, those of us who have been building community on Mastodon for a long time are often marginalized users: disabled, queer, living with trauma, and we did not LIKE the aggressive culture of Twitter, so you should fit in with us and use CWs if you’re posting anything that could upset someone else.”

Side 2: “Um, y’all aren’t the only people with trauma, and the stuff you want me to censor with a CW is my LIFE, and I’m not going to have YOU tell ME that my experiences are making you uncomfortable. If you feel uncomfortable, maybe you should sit with that instead of trying to cultivate a bubble where no one ever says something you find upsetting to think about. Or mute me, because no one is making you read this stuff.”

Broadly speaking, I come down on Side 2: People experience racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. in their daily lives and they shouldn’t be expected to cover it up with a CW just to make it easier for someone else to look away.

All that said, it is ALSO true that one of the things I have liked LEAST about Twitter is that in my desire to read about and understand what’s going on in the world, I have more than once found that the doom scrolling was causing me to spiral, and I’m not trying to transplant that part of the Twitter experience, either.

So my general rule of thumb for CWs is to use them if I end up posting about the kinds of things you can’t un-see or un-read: Violence, abuse, really triggering topics. I’ll use them for media spoilers, because that’s just courteous. But I’ll also use them if I’m just rage posting about national or world events, just on the chance that it keeps somebody else from spiraling.

But what I’m not going to do is lecture anybody else on making me uncomfortable with an entire menu of ways to manage my own experience.

It’s going to be what we make it.

Last thought: Some people are finding it kind of boring; discoverability is a challenge, the enforced peacefulness of it can make it feel a bit like a library. But I am old enough to remember Twitter when it felt like just a handful of people were on it. I think this, like any other community space, is going to become as lively as the people populating it, and it’s just a matter of people moving in and becoming comfortable there.