I am 100% serious with the title, despite the appearance of click-bait. Mastodon has a serious structural rot that is only worsening as time gets on. I think this is for a few reasons which I will outline below.
Ironically, I don’t feel safe posting this directly to the fediverse because of the very forces I’m about to describe. I’m not worried about the cancel crew, I just don’t want to deal with hostile interactions right now. I might link to this post but it’s less likely to get hate mail I suspect if I do it that way rather than write this all up in a giant thread on fedi.
What I am presenting is largely anecdotal opinion, although it has been gathered from countless others (I’m not going to name any names, they deserve better than harassment or people trying to change their views and in the process merely reinforcing them).
Background on myself
I’ve been on Mastodon since April 2017. I was on “fedi” (well, the ostatus fediverse) before that, on long-gone instances I forgot the name of. I was on Mastodon in the very early days of its development, when content warnings were brand new, blocking/silencing was seriously broken, and fedi was just getting exciting due to press coverage. Before this, I was on IRC since 2005 and an IRC operator on a small network (it’s not glamorous, trust me).
Fedi has a problem as the title says: it’s crumbling. It’s a lot less vibrant than when I joined up, even back when GNUSocial roamed the earth (it was a pile of shit trying to imitate Twitter and mostly filled with people banned from Twitter for GamerGate and going too far, even for Twitter’s lax standards of the day).
It actually baffles me why so much of the Mastodon userbase can be traced back to the Tumblr/Twitter leftist crowd, when Fedi’s beginnings were on a network largely consisting of ultra-right people thrown off Twitter. I can only speculate, but I suspect the main reasons are they believed they would be safer (which is a joke), and many themselves (or their friends at least) were banned from those platforms for similarly shitty behaviour.
But it’s a mistake to believe that Fedi is safer at all. In fact, in many ways, it’s worse.
Fedi is the least safe place around
The thing about Fedi is that due to its nature, it has a low bar to entry. Anyone can make an instance at any time for not a whole lot of money. There are tons of far-right instances littering the place, and few admins can truly keep up (the worst-kept secret amongst Mastodon admins I would say). Most of the userbase just blocks them on an ad-hoc basis and moves on (or doesn’t notice them), but the fact that the Nazis haven’t really taken over the place is only by their mere incompetence.
To illustrate the problem, I will tell you about this: the largest instance on the Fediverse.
Oh, no, not mastodon.social. They’re big, but not as big as the largest. The largest is Pawoo, with around a million users last I checked. It’s owned by Pixiv, a Japanese company (think Japanese DeviantArt). And if Fedi knew even a rudimentary level of Japanese (this would require widespread non-Western cultural awareness they do not possess), they wouldn’t have joined in the first place. Japanese nationalism is everywhere on Pawoo, and the admins largely don’t care (granted: I don’t pay much attention to it and filtered it a long time ago, this may not be the case any longer). There is a certain irony I love about the largest Fedi instance being a commercial entity, despite the English speakers of the Fediverse largely eschewing corporations and brands. They also allow loli and (fictional) artwork of children, which is not banned in Japan but is a grey area in the US as advised by legal counsel for IF (I personally don’t want to test it, if you want to, have fun, leave me out of it).
Pawoo mostly sits there, under the radar, because they don’t speak English, and many instances blocked them a long time ago (I remember the great Pawoo discourse of 2017). There are tons and tons of other instances that most people don’t even know about that spew things that are far worse. We at mst3k actually have a pretty big list, and it ain’t even close to how many are actually out there. I just block them as I see them. Granted, many of those instances are long-gone, but there are many more to replace them.
The faux-woke crowd is making fedi less safe
I know this one is going to get me flamed and called racist or whatever the fuck, but so be it.
Now, full disclosure: I am partially Romani, Native American, but mostly (and certainly culturally raised) white, but I’ve listened to what other PoC have to say on this matter.
Fedi has a really bad problem: race-based trolling. There is a huge contingent on Fedi that is taking advantage of white guilt to troll the ever-loving fuck out of people.
I know this sounds like an amusing thing and is very much a “so what, they’re white” moment. But I assure you, it’s anything but funny, and it’s causing minorities to be shed from Fedi.
Let me give a specific example: in mid-2020, a Jewish non-binary person was harassed by a member of one of the instances that host many of these trolls. People were still reluctant to do the right thing and block the instance, because they didn’t want to be called racist. The thing is, you can be a minority and still be a fucking dickhead, and you can also still be racist (without even realising it!) and act in bigoted ways against other minorities (go look up the Cherokee freedmen controversy for a really, really, really bad look into how far this can go). But nothing about your skin colour or ethnicity says “I can troll whoever I want.” Anyone who tells you otherwise is a troll and you should block and report them. If their admin won’t do anything, remove them.
The thing is, these kinds of games cheapen real racial justice. These people are less interested in racial justice for all and more interested in getting a rise out of people. And people are too afraid to stand up to it. This is a cancer silently driving people back to Twitter. I don’t think it’s the only thing stacked against Fedi, but it’s a huge one.
The cancel crowd
I’m going to say it: the canceldon crowd are obnoxious. They’re a holdover from Twitter and Tumblr. I won’t go into the whole “why cancelling is a waste of time” thing, but suffice it to say: cancelling doesn’t really fucking work, and it’s just a nice way of saying “doing what 4chan does to people it hates, but poorly.” Which is to say, harassment and trolling people. And of course people think it’s okay, even when they fuck up and sometimes cancel the wrong person or have bad info or got led on (this is never discussed, of course, and there is never an apology).
These people are literally making Fedi inherently less safe for everyone, and are no better than the crowd that used to be on Fedi (and still are to an extent) before Gargron decided to co-opt the Fediverse for his own gain.
The people who write the software are fucking dickheads
I’m going to be honest with you: Gargron (the guy who makes Mastodon) is an asshole. His reputation precedes him, so I won’t go into detail. However, I found out from a former IRL friend of mine (who will remain nameless) that he once asked her if he could continue to refer to her by her dead name. Said friend referred to Gargron as a “shitty liberal,” and I do not mean in the US sense.
The people at Pleroma are not much better. I mean, Alex Gleeson, enough said.
The only two relevant pieces of Fedi software are Pleroma and Mastodon. ActivityPub is such a horrible protocol, and Mastodon has butchered it so much, it’s impossible to make an interoperable implementation without man-months of work. To reimplement Mastodon from the ground up would be a nightmare. And forking Mastodon sounds great, but you’re up against a huge pile of technical debt. You could fork Pleroma, but then you’d have to know Elixir (a language few people know).
Also, the last time a major fork happened in Mastodon (aside from Glitch), it was mostly a group of non-developers who hoped they could cult their way into a dev team. It didn’t work.
I wanted to fix this problem but I decided it wasn’t worth it, and you’d have to be up against a community who is watching your every mistake and will find a reason to pillory you if you fuck up.
“Mastodon” never developed a culture of its own
You know, if you leave a container of yoghurt out for 4 years, it develops a culture. That’s more than can be said for the Mastodon part of Fedi, which has never outgrown being an offshoot of Twitter and Tumblr.
This is to its detriment, as it’s not a compelling place on the surface. People come in waves, and most leave again when Twitter and Tumblr rights its wrongs. I’ve seen this happen multiple times.
Mastodon users would do well to stop treating Fedi as Twitter, but of course, Mastodon and Pleroma as platforms basically both treat Fedi as Twitter expanded universe. It’s no coincidence Gargron has joined Twitter’s federation initative. I have no hopes Fedi will develop a meaningful distinct culture before its too late.
The tools to protect users are rotten fruit in an opaque bag
Note: this was edited in after the fact. I meant to include it in the original.
I’m going to say what many admins lack the bravery or vision to say: the tools to protect the users of Mastodon are inadequate. Pleroma got this better, but many Mastodon users cancel any Pleroma user on sight (as I explain below).
The filtering sucks (it displays “filtered” unless you choose to permanently delete any posts containing a keyword). The default guide for setting up ElasticSearch (the thing that enables search) had (may still have for all I know) no mention of using a firewall or listening only on localhost (Gargron pushed back on requests to mention this), which would enable anyone in theory to connect to the database and search any post if it wasn’t secured, was outright appalling. Mastodon can’t be configured for a whitelist-only mode, although awoo.social notably uses a fork that whitelists by default. The fact there is no real shared blocklist support for blocking instances is a gaping hole that means each instance sort of ad-hoc blocks what it finds or gets recommended (I do have to admit, given the current culture this could be used for brigading and real shitty behaviour). There was a blocklist run by someone named dzuk, but the partiality of that was questionable at best, relied on one person maintaining it, and was still a manual process to update.
I think this deserves its own mention too, despite the controversy I know it will generate: the CW system is inadequate. People often abbreviate things, which assumes a native command of English and a knowledge of the lingo used on Fedi. This does nothing to help current users. Tagging posts as sensitive and filtering by at least hashtag would be a better answer (as well as using a CW), but this would require users to do it. Right now, users are told to simply use a CW and that’s the end of that. A lot of people open the CW’s without realising, often on knee-jerk or not knowing what they meant, getting more than they bargained for. I myself have fallen victim to this many times. It’s really not a great state of affairs and there has to be better. Of course, pointing this out usually leads to being ignored at best, or at worst cancelled, because how dare you attack the most sacred and perfect of Mastodon features (/s).
We truly can do better on this front, with not much difficulty, but it would require Gargron’s cooperation. I can assure you, this is extremely unlikely.
Cancelling people for using different software is uncool
Note: this was edited in after the fact. I meant to include it in the original.
The so-called “cancellation” of people using Pleroma has to end. It is self-defeating and has the general feel of “well my shit don’t stink” (as I mentioned above, Mastodon certainly has many issues of its own).
Now, I will also concede the userbase of Pleroma has a lot of toxicity in it as well. This is a side effect of absorbing the GNUSocial crowd I mentioned above. But tons of Nazis and awful people run Mastodon instances, too. I don’t want to name examples as to not give them the search engine points they crave, but the blocklist at mst3k as I linked to above has a lot of them.
I know this all sounds like “whataboutism,” but really. Plenty of legitimate users who are definitely not shitheads (including BIPOC, trans, and non-binary users) use Pleroma. There is no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater, except for silly tribalism and a sense of false superiority for using a piece of software that has a reputation for leftism only by its use by lots of leftists (certainly not its creator).
The mindset is toxic
Fedi politics are like all politics: awful. It’s a bit like being at a leftist version of the family Thanksgiving, listening to Uncle Scott go on this year again about how we need to abolish the police, that what the world needs is to run exactly like they think the Internet works, listening to Grandma go on again about IPFS, Aunt Debbie going on and on about Free Assange.
The thing about family Thanksgiving though is that it ends. Fedi’s blabbering does not end.
But we have a solution! We can content warn (CW) our posts. Of course, there’s a problem. The same people who insist you CW anything about sex (or not even post about it) feel the need to post politics without a CW. I am absolutely not against CW’s (I think they could be a vastly better system than they are now, but that’s outside the scope of this article). It grows tiring having the same shit shovelled into your face day after day. Filters are hardly a substitute (and those work horribly anyway).
Follow my example: I try to CW all my politics. Because I know this can grate people badly. It isn’t out of respect for Nazis or centrists or whatever. It’s out of respect for my friends who maybe don’t wanna hear about my thoughts on reverting welfare reform and raising the poverty level or something.
The bottom line about the politics is this: people grow tired of it. It’s one of the big reasons people leave. Just, please CW your damn politics. It isn’t that I don’t care, it’s that I’ve been a leftist for a very long time and I already have heard it all before. Even if I agree, I try not to circlejerk too much.
Fucking with Wesley Crusher wasn’t really that cool
Yeah, Fedi ran off Wil Wheaton a while back. They thought they were hot shit for getting rid of a celebrity. They were right, minus the hot part.
Too bad he was the most minor of minor celebrities. Most people don’t even know who he is. He didn’t really deserve that harassment or be told “shut up Wesley” repeatedly.
There ain’t much to say here, it speaks for itself. Harassment isn’t cool, kids. Y’all need to grow up if you think it’s okay to just harass someone like that.
Can it be fixed?
I don’t know if Fedi can be fixed.
It will continue to crumble as long as something is not done to address the problems. I’d be sad to see it go (it has been a wonderful support network for me for the past few years, as I’ve battled homelessness and job loss). But I already see the writing on the wall.
I guess I could always do what thousands already have and just go back to Twitter. But please don’t make me do that.
Maybe a replacement for Fedi will come along and help with the shortcomings.
Nothing will ever be a panacea
My expectations for a social network are not for it to attain perfection or enlightenment. I know a perfectly safe environment online is a pipe dream. I also know that you can’t get rid of every shithead.
But it doesn’t have to be this bad. There’s no reason for it. There’s always room for improvement, but the gap shouldn’t be so wide you could fit a country through it; that’s the gap between Fedi and perfection right now.
I dream of a better world, not a perfect one. This is the one reason I still use Fedi, despite all of this.