I joined twitter in December of 2006. I’ve found good friends and partners there (when people ask what dating app I use, my answer is always “twitter”), I’ve gone viral, I’ve built a reputation for myself. When I write about christofascism or homeschooling or parental-rights extremism there people listen and share. It has been a powerful tool for community organizing, and with the pandemic, became an even more important place to keep up with how people across the country and world were managing the isolation and to get the TL;DR on the latest public health data. It was on twitter that I saw the very real impacts of systemic racism and learned how to deconstruct my own prejudices. I have a “lane” on twitter, and I know the bounds of it.
Twitter has been going downhilll for quite some time. Between Gamergate and QAnon it became a home of harassment and discrimination as enforcement of the TOS was lax and mostly used against marginalized folks. The introduction of the Verified mark meant it was more difficult to get some of the biggest bigoted accounts spreading misinformation removed. When Melon Husk took over a couple weeks ago he poured gasoline on the trash fire that twitter already was and brought back or un-suspended accounts that had previously been banned for egregious hate speech. He fired so many twitter employees that he is being sued for violating the WARN act and dangerously close to violating international labor law.
I joined mastodon.social in 2016, when it was early and just came out. This is the biggest (and possibly first?) server running mastodon, it’s managed by the person who created the platform. It’s most people’s entry point into the magical world of decentralized social media (running on ActivityPub). I won’t go into all of it, you can read a little about it here.
I come from the web of the 00s, when the blogosphere was a thing and we were all running our own silly HTML websites. The idea of using a social network that could be personalized like mastodon can be because it’s open-source was (and is!) really appealing to me. A place where advertisers and simple-minded mediocre white men with the most fragile egos can’t singlehandedly erase the privacy of every individual on the platform seems great.
Mastodon.Social was big and chaotic, so I found a smaller server and moved there. The blessing and curse of a decentralized & federated network is that every instance has its own rules, standards, and cultural norms. That doesn’t really exist on mastodon.social, and what you’ll get when you join mastodon and follow folks from servers with specific cultural norms is a bit of a clash — because not everyone has the same rules.
For example, one of the servers I tried was really adamant about policing the use of Content Warnings (CWs)to include a CW in any photo involving eye contact. Whenever I posted a selfie or a picture I drew with eyes in it and forgot the CW I would have someone in my mentions correcting me. I left that server because I respected that was the culture they wanted to have in that community but it was harmful to me because it brought back a lot of guilt about having a body as an adolescent that I was struggling to work through. Feeling bad about having my eyes open in a selfie was just something that I couldn’t deal with, so I moved to a different server that didn’t have that rule and everything was fine.
Leaving servers (and bringing your followers/following list with you) is really easy on mastodon. This is why everyone is saying not to worry about choosing your (first) server. It takes time to find a place that feels right for you, and freedom of movement between systems is the point of a decentralized network.
With the mass exodus from twitter to mastodon, Discourse(tm) has made it to the timeline and most of the discourse is around the norms of using Content Warnings. CWs in mastodon are like a subject line that hide the rest of the toot under a see more button. People frequently click through and boost posts with CWs so it doesn’t feel like censorship to me. To me, it feels like a courtesy when you’re doing something like dunking on transphobia or talking about violence, because I see so much of that unfiltered all the time and I need a fucking break.
However, to a lot of newcomers it does feel like censorship because communities who have enforced the use of CWs to whatever their server standards are, are of course, trying to enforce it on people who just showed up and don’t understand the nuance of their use. It’s a cultural clash, and it’s normal.
Because mastodon is a decentralized network, norms of using CWs vary drastically. Everyone has takes on it and many of them are valid. I like them, other people hate them, some people feel they (can) uphold or enforce racism which is definitely a problem in any space with any toolset. There’s not a right or wrong way to use CWs, and there is not a universal consensus about it.
My personal advice is: don’t be a dick about it. Use CWs when you feel they are appropriate (i.e. when dunking on transphobic takes or disinfo, talking about violence in detail, etc), and don’t police other people’s use of CWs. If you don’t like people talking about a certain subject w/o a CW, there are tools for that.
There’s a new update coming that will make filtering content easier if you don’t want to see anything within a Content Warning or anything outside of one. Mastodon is open source so if you don’t like the way your instance runs and can’t find another that suits you, you can always make a fork and create a version you do like and join the fediverse with everyone else too. That’s the beauty of having a decentralized and open-source network. Make it what you want and you still get to see everyone you want to see.
Of course there are imperfections and serious problems on the platform and in every server. Almost every instance is run by a handful of volunteers (this is the open-source community, not a company). You’re probably not going to agree with everything your admins do (unless you’re the admin), you’re probably going to have problems with other people on other servers, and there will be conflicts on how to handle bad actors inside and outside your instance. But tools are being developed to improve the user experience and keep this network from becoming a rage-fueled advertising machine like twitter & facebook have become.
Mastodon is not a panacea for twitter or social media at large, it’s not meant to be an exact replica of existing platforms. It is not inherently a safe space; racism and bigotry still exist, fascists can run their own instances (although they get defederated pretty quick), and harassment still occurs. It contains an ever-increasing internet full of human beings looking for another void to scream their thoughts into.
We will have all the joys and problems that being around a bunch of humans brings, but with (hopefully) better ways of interacting, growing, and learning from each other.
The Feelings Tho
So here’s the thing. There’s a lot of feelings. People who’ve been on mastodon for years feel overwhelmed by the new influx of people from twitter (even though more people is what we want!), and people migrating off twitter feel lost and confused by this new system and the loss of what has been our internet home for many many many years.
The first thing I want to say about it is, it’s real. The feelings of being displaced and lost and like all your friends are dispersed into the ether is real and it is terrifying. Watching the reactions to twitter’s demise feels really similar to how I felt when I landed in Berlin 9 months ago. Adrift in some strange world I don’t recognize, trying to find a place I belong in an environment with different structure and customs. It’s rough.
Many of us, myself included, have built our livelihoods on twitter. We’ve been through recessions, elections, and an ongoing pandemic on twitter. We’ve organized protests and counter-protests, we’ve livestreamed government meetings that people otherwise wouldn’t have access to, we’ve done a lot of good and accomplished a lot of things through using twitter as a tool.
And now that’s going away because of a Tool who’d rather burn something to the ground with unfathomable amounts of money in debt than take responsibility for his own actions.
Being upset about that is valid. Having to emergency find a new place to go while trying to keep the communities we’ve painstakingly built over many years fucking sucks. This is why I still have this blog. I maintain it, I pay for hosting, I have backups, it can’t be taken away from me unless I make that choice. We don’t have that choice with twitter, or facebook, or instagram, or tiktok.
With mastodon your instance shutting down is still a risk, but it’s easier to mitigate because there are other servers to join and you can bring your community with you easily.
For the people on mastodon who are overwhelmed by the influx of new people who don’t know the ropes, I also get it. It’s been a small place for quite some time and now it isn’t, and that is an adjustment. Even though ultimately the goal for mastodon is to grow into the mainstream, that doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be growing pains and mixed feelings and frustration at the chaos of answering the same questions over and over again. It is an Eternal September and if we want the network to thrive, we have to be cool with that.
The internet is big and there’s plenty of room for more neighbors on my timeline.
My Unsolicited Advice:
- Just Be Patient
- the people running the smaller servers are doing so out of their own pockets and in their free time, so sometimes things take a while because they need to eat and sleep too!
- Be Kind to others
- QTing is intentionally not a thing because dogpiles actually are not conversations.
- Share things besides bad news. Do a #CatCheck, share what makes you happy!
- Remember mastodon is not twitter, it’s not facebook, and it’s not a social media panacea.
Mastodon isn’t going to be for everyone just like twitter and facebook, etc, aren’t for everyone and that’s okay.
If you want to join and have a good time I suggest joining literally any server besides mastodon.social, that server is the main one and it’s just too overwhelmingly huge to have a good time. It’s a good temporary server while you find your footing but it’s not a fun place to stay.
If you’re queer and love cities, I’m an admin on towns.gay and you are free to join us there, it is a much much better time. mastodon.art is a rising instance for artists and mastodon.lol is a large general instance for queers & activists & anarchists, etc. Some servers turn open registrations on and off to deal with the load but they always link to places to find other/similar servers, or you can wait until they open up again (see #1).
There some good getting started (and beyond) guides for folks leaving twitter for the first time that I’ll drop here:
Everything I know about Mastodon — Notes from a data witch
How to Join Mastodon, the Ad-Free Social Network Billionaires Can’t Buy — Gizmodo
I’m happy to answer questions or point to resources or whatever on mastodon or in the comments or in my twitter DMs for however long that lasts. If mastodon isn’t for you and you wanna find me on places besides my sporadic posts here, I’ve got a list that I keep updated: Where to Find Me on the Internet
What we are all experiencing right now is a huge loss, and it’s okay to be sad about it. Be gentle with yourself and others.
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