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The big story occupying space in my mind (and on this blog) is the #TwitterMigration. As Twitter grows troubled and troubling, “Fediverse” technologies in general and Mastodon in particular are successfully attracting many users and providing a pleasant experience. Everyone is wondering out loud whether Mastodon can take the strain and whether it can provide cool new features. What we haven’t been discussing are two ethical questions: First, is it OK to bail out of Twitter? And if bailing out, is Mastodon a acceptable place to land?
Bye, Twitter (OK?) · I confess that this discussion caught me by surprise but I’m glad it did, it’s eye-opening. The voices are those of Black and disabled people (mostly the former) arguing that Twitter has fueled an important flowering of their culture (the hashtag is #BlackTwitter) and become important as a refuge, a meeting place, and a source of power. I’m as white as can be, so probably not your best source on the subject, but I felt educated by Shamira Ibrahim’s Can Black Twitter Ever Really Die?
What has happened is that a few Black people have come over, dipped their toes in the Mastodon waters, and retreated back to Twitter. I have heard three very specific gripes:
Mastodon is missing some necessary affordances; in particular the Quote Tweet, said to be crucial to #BlackTwitter culture. For what it’s worth, this not a technology problem: The platform is perfectly capable of supporting QT.
So far, Mastodon’s implementers have declined to build it, based on a perception that it enables toxic performative dunking. Which could change.
There has been pressure on Mastodon to hide anti-racist rhetoric behind a Content Warning, as it might upset people. (It’s supposed to upset people!) These days I see plenty of posts on the subject without either CWs or responses asking for them, so maybe this problem is being solved?
There are bad people in the Fediverse (*gasp*), with a substantial scattering of racists, chuds, gaslighters, sealioners, TERFs, and… well, you name it. The effectiveness of the moderators varies widely from instance to instance and if a person who is (for example) Black picks the wrong instance, they’re apt to find the worst kind of racist garbage thrown in their face unpleasantly soon. And even on the best instances, it’s not currently possible to keep 100% of the bad traffic out. And obviously it’s not reasonable to expect newcomers to know how to find the safe spaces.
When I found this out, it didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was that moderation on Twitter had apparently gotten a lot better than I’d thought.
Anyhow, given all this, there was a certain amount of anger directed at hyperprivileged people, such as for example me, at their exiting Elon’s territory in pique and leaving behind those who needed that territory to exist.
The debate is fraught. Let’s listen to some Black voices: First, Why I’m not leaving Twitter, by Karen Attiah, from which: “Here’s the thing: In real life, Black women have not had the privilege of retreating every time things get tough or our spaces get taken over by rich, obnoxious White men.” Next, Why I Quit Elon Musk’s Twitter, by Jelani Cobb: “But at least in the interim it’s worth keeping in mind that some battles are simply not worth fighting, some battles must be fought, but none are worth fighting on terms set by those who win by having the conflict drag on endlessly.” Last, For Black Folks, Digital Migration Is Nothing New , by Chris Gilliard and Kishonna Gray (who take opposing positions): “However, there is no platform without the people. It’s a lesson that has been learned over and over on countless apps—if there aren’t vibrant communities willing to provide the “content,” then ultimately it’s just an empty shell. So in that sense, we are all renters in a given technological space.”
I will also note, without recommending, The Whiteness of Mastodon, which has been much-cited by others discussing these issues. I read it and found little to disagree with, but it’s at least three times as long as it needs to be and wordy beyond all tolerance. I think my other references say much the same thing only better.
What, then? · It’s… confusing. And opinions are all over the place. It’s forced me to look in the mirror, and I have, but I still can’t bring myself to make my online home on Elon’s Fascism Farm. I have not erased my account nor deleted my tweets; I do post there, but only to promote my blog pieces and Mastodon. I acknowledge the first half of that is selfish. But I’m not gonna crack jokes or share pictures or links or poems or juicy news. I hope this needle-threading attempt isn’t seen as betrayal of communities who currently need Twitter.
But, here’s the thing: Whatever one thinks on that issue, I remain pretty sure that Twitter is heading for hard times and quite likely there’ll soon come a time when no self-respecting community wants to be there. So I think it behooves privileged geeks like myself to help find and improve an alternate home for things like #BlackTwitter.
At this moment, I think Mastodon (and the technologies that enable it) represent our best bet.
Mastodon’s failings · Oh sure, there are real ones, and they’re important. But let’s blow off bullshit first. I’ve been told multiple times about Mastodon: A Social Media Platform Dominated By Pedophiles & Child Porn. Tl;dr: This article is highly misleading.
It turns out that, yeah, there is a lot of very bad stuff being served by servers using Fediverse software. (Not just pedophilia, but Gab and Truth Social.) But remember, the “Fedi” in that word stands for “Federation”, and any member can choose not to federate, and it also turns out that basically every mainstream Mastodon instance knows about these problem cases and refuses to federate with them. So this stuff is not, in any meaningful sense, part of the mainstream Mastodon network.
An analogy: Every second of every day, there is loads of sickeningly evil stuff being exchanged between willing participants, using email. Would it be fair to say that email is “dominated by” whatever flavor of filth? Of course not. Nor is mainstream Mastodon.
Um, there are subtleties here, which I don’t care to explore, but that’s OK because Ethan Zuckerman did, in Mastodon is big in Japan. The reason why is… uncomfortable. Interesting, but as the title says… ewww.
Late-breaking news · Literally as I was writing the first draft of what you’re reading, this crossed my radar: Mask Network Acquires Pawoo.net, one of the largest Mastodon instances. If you read Zuckerman’s piece you’ll be able to read between this one’s lines.
An an organization described as “The Social Coop Limited (Social Coop), the entity affiliated with Mask Network” seems to be rolling up all the stinkiest pieces of the landscape. Which may actually be helpful to those of us concerned with walling them off.
The moderation problem · We know that there are bad people using Mastodon. Not all of them are on the fenced-off known-to-be-bad instances. We know that they are eager to harangue and doxx and SWAT and throw the X-word for every value of X. Worse than that, we know that some of them are organized, ranging from incel cabals over on 8chan to sophisticated full-time employees of certain national governments that simply want to tear away at our social fabric.
It seems obvious that this is the central issue for Mastodon right now. How hard is the problem, really? For an introduction, I recommend I Was Wrong About Mastodon, by Marcus Hutchins, which explains how the federated architecture works to support moderation. Now, at one level I’m not quite as optimistic as Marcus, because I don’t think he’s really thought enough about organized pack attacks.
But even given that, I’m optimistic. Partly because the problem feels similar at scale to spam prevention and while that’s not 100% solved, most email providers have reduced it to a tolerable level.
Second, I’m looking at the leaps and bounds in ML technology, for example ChatGPT, and I’m thinking this stuff is well-positioned for the building of anti-abuse filters. Third, while I haven’t wormed my way into the community of Mastodon admins yet, I’ve been watching it closely, and they’re doing all the right things. There are rumbles of shared blocklists and other goodies.
Most importantly, since Mastodon is a federation of thousands of independent operators instead of One Big Company, there will be competition. And the most obvious thing to compete on is curation quality: Who can best provide an experience that allows people to be entertainingly salty but stops Nazis and incels. I think this can be done and it will be done.
Finally, personal testimony: I’ve been on a well-managed instance (hachyderm.io) for a while now and haven’t seen an atom of abusive content.
What about scaling? · The final thing people worry about is whether it’s OK to invite the tens of millions in the Twitterverse to migrate en masse if that’s going to cause Mastodon to collapse.
This one I don’t worry about at all. Yes, the software is undercooked and there will be the Masto equivalent of Fail Whales. But computers are cheap and fast these days, this kind of problem has already been solved several times, there are people out there with the know-how, and we’ll get it done.
So, then? · I think migrating is, on balance, ethical. More than that: If you’re a person with the potential to, one way or another, help improve the Fediverse, it’s maybe unethical not to help. Because migration is probably in the future even of people who don’t want to.