Au revoir, Masto

A little over a year ago I, like many others, finally had enough with Xitter and left.

There weren’t a lot of options at the time, it felt like, and I landed on Mastodon. Bluesky was a twinkle in Dorsey’s eye, Meta had yet to release Threads, and everyone had been going on about jumping to Masto. So, I jumped with them.

Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe it wasn’t. All I knew at the time, and all I know now, is that it seemed like a far cry better than joining another major platform hellbent on tracking my every move.

I spent quite a bit of time crawling through the different instances available. Wherever I ended up, I wanted to make sure that their values and policies were largely in-line with my own, because I didn’t want to go through the hassle of restarting again should I unintentionally run afoul of any rules. I also didn’t want to invite too much potential for harassment and abuse.

For me, has been a wonderful, largely hands-off community. Seb and the moderator team, Troed and Tellyworth, struck the balance I was looking for. Everything I’m about to say does not apply to their instance, in so far as I’ve interacted with it. There are many instances like out there; quiet and unassuming places with a few hundred or few thousand people on them. I’m happy in my choice to be a part of their instance and will continue to maintain my account there so long as it continues to maintain that balance.

The promise of the fediverse, for me, was end-user control. That I could make an account anywhere and connect with the vastness of the fediverse. That it was up to me to decide how I wanted to interact with this new world. That people on the various platforms were adults who could use their better judgment and allow for nuance in conversations. It was a return to an Internet I Knew and held the promise of the Internet I Want to See.

As time has gone on, though, I feel less like I interact with the fediverse and more like I interact with just Mastodon.

In a large part that’s because anyone leaving Xitter was looking for a replacement for it. Mastodon, as a platform, fits pretty much all the criteria and feels like an improvement upon the old: longer character limits, no rage-baiting algorithm, dunking is discouraged, and basic accessibility tools are a feature. What’s not to love?

The culture.

This may be where we all disagree and have different opinions based on how we’ve interacted with the platform. That’s entirely valid. We don’t all have the same use case.

There are definitely some things I love about the culture of Mastodon. Alt-text is not only of benefit to those with vision difficulties, but it’s also an enjoyable challenge to convey what I can see in a way that not only describes but also delights. Content warnings can be helpful in allowing me to decide when I’m ready to engage with a topic. Wholesome hashtags are such a relaxing way to get a daily hit of dopamine and a way to celebrate the world around me. Communities that sprung up around hashtag games are creative spaces with interesting people from all over the world.

It also, finally, scratched an itch I had: real-time updates for breaking news events. One of my fondest memories of the former Twitter, from back in 2011, was how easily I could find information when I needed it on breaking news in my country.

At the time, I was in Japan. The 3/11 Fukushima earthquake had just happened. I was stranded outside Shinjuku, far from my apartment on the outskirts of Tokyo, and wearing shoes that would’ve surely given me blisters had I tried to walk all the way. The trains had been shut down, busses were crowded, and taxis were hard to flag down. With my phone battery dying, I put out a desperate tweet to the universe, hoping that maybe someone local or that I followed might be able to help.

My research mentor responded within minutes and invited me to stay the night at her place. She was a five minute walk away from where I was. We grabbed food from the combini, listened to the French-English language news radio, and rode out the aftershocks all night. A beautiful memory of the Internet That I Knew.

That was the magic of the internet that I wanted to recapture. It’s what I thought Masto could offer.

When I first joined, I did see a lot of that collaborative and helpful spirit of the internet again. You could pose a question and people would respond with thoughtfulness. It seemed like a culture of good-will and understanding was beginning to develop, something I was yearning for.

Then came the next wave of Xitter exiles. Then fediblock. Then Threads and fedipact. Each event slowly eroding the trust I had that we could engage with one another with at least some basic sense of good intent up-front.

Lines began being drawn. Instances started defeding from others over how they used or didn’t use things like CW’s. People would scold you for forgetting to use alt-text on your photos. One of the largest LGBT instances was defederated from the largest Artist instance over moderation differences. Meta’s vague clauses about collecting data of non-Threads users caused chaos for moderators having to decide to federate or not.

To me, it looked like rage baiting had re-entered the chat. Declarative posts began “doing numbers.” Vague posting and subposting have poked their head out of the ground. I began seeing the same handful or so of names being reposted again and again. Thought leaders were emerging; some of them had already been thought leaders on Xitter, some of them were brand new to the attention.

A personal example on how the culture has changed: When I first started out, I had asked a technical question about a program I was having an issue with. Someone very kindly pointed me in a direction to get started. Fast forward a year and I asked if anyone was working on a project to create a Masto version of nomadic identity/universal profile. I got told I was telling devs what to do with their time and forcing them to develop to my use case.

Basic, sure, but it was an alarming change for me.

A simple conclusion would be that as Mastodon brought in more people, their bad habits from other social media came with them. If they were a scold on the old site, they’re still a scold on the new one. Reactionaries gonna react and make sure you know about it, no matter where they are. In the morass of noise, people always flock to the most self-confident voices in the room.

It’s also not new. To be clear, I don’t want to sound as if I expect the internet to be a perfectly toxically positive space 100% of the time. I’ve been around. I was born into the internet, molded by it; I know exactly how easy it is for any conversation to turn into a flame war.

I guess I had hoped, somewhere deep inside, that after a good nearly two decades of social media being ever present in our lives we’d be trying to resist our baser raging instincts.

I began looking around for other tools to try, something that would allow me just a bit more control over things. Hiding boosts, muting, and blocking users or whole instances are all fantastic tools but I needed something more. If I could just clean up my home timeline a bit more, I reasoned, maybe these issues I was seeing would naturally fall away – or at least out of sight until I could or wanted to deal with them.

As with all worthwhile endeavors, I had to ask myself if I was contributing to this problem. Was the way that I was using the platform bringing this sort of content to my doorstep? Taking a step back, I determined that, yes, as much as it is a platform/culture issue it is also a me issue. While microblogging can be useful in certain, emergent, situations…it isn’t always useful when it comes to personal situations.

Plenty of people have spoken before about the “dangers of microblogging” and how microblogging platforms have made us all a lot more angry. Those takes have existed since Twitter took off. I don’t disagree with them, though I do disagree with the idea that the solution is to get rid of microblogging wholesale.

In my mind, it feeds into the 24-hour news cycle mentality. It’s why doomscrolling became A Thing (but bless Bloomscrolling, we need more of that.) It’s useful when something really is happening in the world; I saw its merits again during the New Years 2024 Earthquake and the Brazillian coup. The issue, at least for me, is when we apply this mindset to our lives and feel the need to update everyone on every small moment of a day. I’m guilty of this too, both Twitter and Masto have been my venting tools in the past.

People will always quibble over this too. It’s ok if you use your microblogging platform of choice this way. There’s no solution that is one-size-fits-all (hell, one-size clothes barely fit all anyway) and I make no moral judgments. It’s just that for me it doesn’t actually help.

All the above being said, I didn’t want to abandon Masto outright, but it needed more fine-tuning than the stock UI could give me.

Following hashtags is a nice feature, for example, but it can quickly clog up a home feed if you follow too many. From the stock UI there’s no way to rope those off into their own list, you can only do that with users…who you have to already be following. Boosts are a fantastic way to share things, but again, too many of them and the feed feels overwhelming. It also contributes to the sense that there are thought leaders when you see multiple different people you follow boosting the same one person over and over again.

This is where began to shine for me. After stepping back and reassessing my contribution to the problem, I realized I needed a way to filter out all the noise going on in my home feed. Phanpy gave me the tool to, finally, create a list of sorts for all the hashtags I follow. Now I could lump things together in like categories and check on them when I wanted to, instead of being bombarded with them every day on my home feed.

It also allowed me to see who among the people I was following were the most egregious boosters. By lumping boosts together in a carousel style, it cut down on the endless scrolling I felt like I was doing. I could also just skip all those boosts and move directly on to the next new post with ease.

Their tagging system is also excellent. Sometimes you see a post and you have no idea why it’s in your feed to begin with. At a glance, Phanpy allows me to see what hashtags triggered it’s inclusion into my timeline, so if I needed to rope off another frustrating hashtag I could more easily identify it.

I also just prefer the way it hides filtered words. Instead of just a gray bar with a “show anyway” option, it at least tells me who the author of the post is. This allows me just a tiny bit more control of deciding if I want to risk the click, because sometimes the people I follow talk about the things I have muted and I’d hate to miss out on their thoughts.

Basically, Phanpy is the real MVP here.

Also, in admitting that I’m contributing to the Internet I Don’t Want to See, I have to change my habits too. I’m guilty, I tell you, guilty! Wicked and repentant!

I’ve hooked this blog up to the fediverse thanks to the wonderful ActivityPub plugin for WordPress (there are still some bugs to work out, so thanks for being patient.) While I’ll maintain my account, it will be for boosting and promotion only. I will face my temptation to boost or post short declarative opinion posts, I will permit it to pass over me and through me, and when the temptation has passed, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the temptation has gone there will be nothing, only I will remain.

With the Friends and Enable Mastodon Apps plugins, I can still respond to anyone on the fediverse that wishes to interact with blog posts moving forward. It’s one step closer to my end goal of nomadic identity/universal profile.

As far as content and posting goes, expect more long-form things like this. You’ll always be able to find them with the “Deep Thoughts” category on my website. There will be brevity, don’t worry, and plenty of personal tales. It will just be a bit more thought out and less off-the-cuff posting.

I’m not sure if this will change much. I definitely know it wont magically bring about the Internet I Want to See. It’s just a start. An experiment.

I hope you’ll experiment too and try creating the Internet You Want to See.