Into the Fediverse: Mastodon, or Mastodon't?

Lately it seems there is only one thing that unites people of every philosophical, political, and religious persuasion: they all hate Twitter. Even the people who use Twitter hate Twitter. In fact, some of the biggest Twitter hate comes from the people who spend the most time on it. After all, who better to know? My feeling is that people desperately want to feel some sense of community, find people of a similar mind, and have enlightening and entertaining conversations with them. But that is becoming increasingly more difficult to do, so they settle for the next best thing, which is shouting at strangers on a computer. Then they get mad at the stranger-shouting app for letting the wrong strangers shout back at them. Or something.

When people get disillusioned with Twitter, they can do one of three things. They can give up social media. They can join one of the many walled-garden Twitter alternatives like Gab or Parler, which tend to cater to the far-right. Or they could sign up for a service on the “Fediverse,” the most Twitter-like of which is Mastodon. The third possibility is what I’m tentatively investigating.

Into the Fediverse

The Fediverse is a collection of decentralized social networking sites that communicate with each other via ActivityPub, an open Web standard that attempts to bring the interoperability of email to services that were hitherto mainly provided by walled-garden commercial sites. Just as you can send email from any email client to any other, and they all work with each other, so can any social networking site send updates via ActivityPub to any other site that adheres to the standard. This, supposedly, will eliminate the problems of having social networking be dominated by gigantic, top-down-administered commercial sites.

The name “Fediverse” suggests (to American ears at least) an organization similar to federalism, in which power is distributed between a central authority and smaller, local authorities. It also claims to be “decentralized,” which often implies that no-one is in charge at all. In fact it is neither of these things, but is more like a confederacy: a collection of central authorities that have agreed to play nice with each other, mostly.

When you sign up for Mastodon, you don’t actually sign up for Mastodon. Instead, you sign up for a server on the Mastodon network. The first page you land on when you sign up from the Mastodon website tells you to choose a particular server, which will be “part of your online identity”. There’s a strong implication that these servers are something akin to local communities, each devoted to a particular interest; the sidebar list categories like “Art,” “Music,” and “Activism,” for example. I decided to sign up for, because it purported to be for people who are interested in open Web standards, decentralization, and “humane tech”.

I signed up via the Mastodon mobile app, and once I was registered and logged in, I wanted to see what other groovy cats hung out on this server. (I already knew about Molly White’s Web3 Is Going Just Great, which I highly recommend.) Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t find a way to get the app to show me only local (as opposed to federated) content. After some Googling I found this GitHub issue that was closed by “Gargron”, the supposedly benevolent dictator behind Mastodon. Here’s his explanation for why this will never, ever, ever, ever be a feature in the mobile app:

The fediverse is diverse because you can follow anyone from any server. The local timeline plays no role in that and doesn’t even exist in ActivityPub as a concept. Being able to choose a different server has always been about trust for the service provider and rules. I’m fully aware that for some people the local timeline is basically like a Slack or IRC chatroom and for this reason the feature cannot be removed from Mastodon in the foreseeable future, but it was never meant to be that, and I see no reason to add it to an app that targets new users rather than existing ones.

So basically, all that stuff about the local servers being devoted to particular interests and part of your identity is a lie, or at best an exaggeration. Gargron has a plan, thank you very much, and it doesn’t include the things that you, the users, have been using it for all this time, but if you absolutely must cling to your antiquated workflows that run afoul of Gargron’s great vision, well, use the damned web app like a savage.

(Fortunately, since Mastodon is built on open standards, there are many alternative clients available. I haven’t explored any of them, but presumably some of them do, in fact, let you view your local instances. Still, it’s clear that the “official” Mastodon app is meant to be the gold standard and the portal through which new users discover the service. The “founder effect” is very strong.)

The seamy underbelly

One of the things that’s supposed to make Mastodon so great is content moderation. Big social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have a problem: there’s just too much content to moderate. So they basically outsource to content-moderation sweatshops, where roomfuls of underpaid workers endanger their mental health by looking at torture porn and beheadings all day. And, naturally, there are going to be a lot of things that slip through the cracks; benign content gets flagged, and offensive content survives. But Mastodon instances are small and light, and each one is responsible for moderating its own content, so they have a much lighter workload and better chance at catching the bad stuff.

The problem here, of course, is that each instance is responsible for moderating its own content. And if someone decides that they actually like content that others find offensive, all they have to do is start their own instance with their own rules. And, thanks to the wonders of federation, this means that people from other instances can see their content as well. Of course, each individual instance can set up a blocklist of other instances whose content moderation doesn’t agree with theirs. But this just brings us right back to the original problem: now, instead of just moderating content for their handful of users, each instance’s maintainers have to look at all other instances and decide which ones need to be blocked. Which can be an overwhelming job.

It only took me a little bit of searching – and not even specifically searching for these things, mind you – to come across posts openly espousing genocide, as well as anime-style drawings of child sexual abuse. The app helpfully gave me a way to report the users, but as near as I can tell, this “report” simply goes to their local instances. And, presumably, the worst offenders are either running their own one-person instances, or sharing an instance with like-minded perverts, so that report is likely to go straight into the trash. I couldn’t find an easy way to report an entire instance; it seems you have to contact the maintainers of your own instance and ask them to block it. Which is a really inefficient way to do things. There is a #FediBlock hashtag that some users seem to be using to try to spread the word about problematic instances, but that seems a slow and roundabout way to approach the problem. Plus, if your own instance’s admins happen to disagree with FediBlock, they can just ignore it.

After some web searching, I discovered that the offensive content I had come across came from servers that are blocked by almost all reputable instances, but not I had thought the “humane tech” in their description indicated something to do with ethics, like not giving a platform to Nazis and rapists. But apparently they’re in the “free speech is an unalloyed good” camp and, as near as I can tell, don’t block anyone. I contacted the server admins via email to ask them to block the offending instances, and I was completely ignored.

Mastodon allows users to migrate between servers, even if the process is a little clunky, so I set out to find a better place for me. It turns out that most instances have an /about/more/ page that lists their rules, values, any instances they block, and the reasons for the block. This is very good, because it makes it easier to find an instance that reflects your values. This is also very bad, because it is a great way for Nazis and pedophiles to find like-minded instances: just scan through other instances’ blocklists until you find a server that was blocked for whatever horrible content you’re interested in, and sign up. Still, I managed to find an instance,, that not only blocks the offensive content I found, but even limits itself (meaning that content from the server will be hidden except from people you’re explicitly following). If I continue using Mastodon, that’s probably where I’ll go.

Concluding thoughts

At least until I stumbled upon the worst the Fediverse has to offer, I found the Mastodon experience to be a lot less anxiety-inducing than Twitter. People could have conversations without fear that someone would bust into their replies to start some sort of asinine political argument, and women and transgender users could exist on the site without constantly fighting off replies that treat them as either sex objects or abominations. However, I don’t think any of these positives have much to do with federation. Most of what seems to work about Mastodon isn’t because it’s federated, or uses open standards, or anything else like that; it’s because it’s small and unpopular. Teenage edgelords don’t know about it yet, for the most part, and if they want to get a rise out of as many people as possible, they’ll go to a more popular service like Twitter or Instagram. I’m reminded of how old-timers sometimes wax nostalgic about how the Internet was so much better in the early 1990s, before the rise of AOL and the September that never ended. The Internet of the early 1990s actually sucked; it was slow and ugly and insecure. But the only people using it were college-educated, technology-minded, and mostly white and male. It was more “civil” because it was a giant echo chamber. In order to have a genuine exchange of ideas, and give a voice to all sorts of viewpoints, you need something that’s big, popular, and well-moderated. Certain types of speech, like harassment, bullying, advocating genocide, or depicting sexual abuse, have nothing at all to do with the free exchange of ideas. In one way or another, they’re actually ways to silence people, or just plain hurt them, and allowing such speech to go unchecked only has the effect of reducing the number of voices that are heard.

How can we thread the needle between a Freeze Peach free-for-all and a clumsily moderated corporate service like Twitter? I don’t have the answer, but I suspect it might be something like this: make the Fediverse (or its successor) actually federal. That is to say, have a number of mostly autonomous servers that nevertheless answer to a central authority whose powers are limited, but who can shut down instances that don’t enforce the bare minimum of ethical, civil discourse. Maybe instances could be elected to the position of federal moderator and serve for a limited term. I haven’t worked out all the details. It’s just a thought.

I’m not done with the Fediverse yet. There’s a lot out there besides just Mastodon. Next up I might look into Pleroma, which looks like it attempts to cover the same ground as Mastodon but is actually community-driven rather than Gargron-driven. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I suspect that a lot of the flaws inherent in letting every instance moderate itself will still be there.

Last modified on 2022-07-27