In the early 80s, my mom worked a couple shifts a month at a little small-town food co-op that smelled like nutritional mummy. She brought home things like carob chips and first-generation Soysage, which remains one of the grossest things I have ever eaten. This was also a real boom time for unsalted Legume Surprise and macrobiotically balanced grain mush that tasted like macrame owl.
This food sold reasonably well to a fringe class of Americans, including many who were rightfully worried about pesticides, animal cruelty, and the health effects of a meat-and-potatoes diet, and also a bunch who were just a real specific kind of nerd. And there was a strong current in the community of scorn for people who were lured into eating junk food when they could be eschewing seasonings until they could properly enjoy the glories of gelled millet or whatever.
To get the background out of the way: Mastodon is a decentralized social network developed in the open and built on the ActivityPub protocol. It was founded by German software developer Eugen Rochko and is presently a German non-profit company. Bluesky is a social networking app built on the new Authenticated Transfer Protocol for decentralized networks, which is being developed in the open by the Bluesky team. Bluesky launched out of Twitter as a project promoted by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and is presently an independent US-based public benefit company headed by Jay Graber (Dorsey retains a seat on the board).
we are not the same
Things got interesting in the Bluesky closed beta this week when a ton of people got let in while the app was still in an unstable state—no block function, semi-working mute function, problems with enormous threads. Posters ran around threatening noted centrist Matt Yglesias with hammer emojis, etc.
Lots of people joined the Bluesky beta and posted about why it worked better for them than Mastodon did. A big chunk of Mastodon responded with a social immune response intended to both warn people away from Bluesky for a very long list of reasons, including its association with Dorsey, its incompleteness and everything that clearly meant about the intentions of the developers, and that it would split the decentralized network vote. Many, many posts that amounted to, “Bluesky obviously won’t ban Nazis, let me repeat an enlightening story about a Nazi bar I’ve heard 400 times.”
Incidentally, when a straightforwardly “I’m a Nazi” Nazi showed up in the beta, people used the report function, and the Bluesky team labeled the account and banned it from the Bluesky app and restricted promotion of the account of the person who invited him. This changed exactly none of the tenor of the Nazi conversation on Mastodon, but it happened.
I have a suspicion that a lot of the defensive maneuvering on Mastodon is happening because Mastodon fans know that the network absolutely cannot compete on user friendliness and basic social functionality, so they’re leaning hard into the things it does get right—and then, in some cases, trying to shame people into not even thinking about trying a competing network.
But about that ease of use problem. Let’s rewind for a second.
bouncing off Mastodon
During the big waves of Twitter-to-Mastodon migrations, tons of people joined little local servers with no defederation policy and were instantly overwhelmed with gore and identity-based hate. A lot of those people, understandably, did not stick around, and plenty of them went back to their other social spaces and warned others that Mastodon wasn’t safe. For people who lucked out and landed on a well-moderated instance, finding fun people to follow was hard and actually following each of them often involved three separate steps, depending on which link you happened to click.
It’s a lot of hassle for a gamble on a network that might not end up being what you need.
Over on Bluesky, by contrast, once you’re in the beta, it’s super easy to sign up, find people, follow them, and participate in conversations. I’m seeing a lot of the people I’ve missed the most since I stopped using Twitter in like 2018, which is a delight, but I’m also not really posting because it’s a chaos machine and it’s still way too early for me to know if I really want to contribute there.
The thing is, networks can recover from even big initial fuckups. Mastodon developers could have made a project of interviewing people who wanted to leave Twitter and then building their needs as a roadmap. Writers and designers could make a great brief visual + textual guide to a few fun, tightly moderated instances to join, with pros and cons and a comparison of moderation and defederation policies, and slap that on the front page of Join Mastodon. Or the team could have taken any of dozens of other suggestions for streamlining. None of that happened.
You can recover from bad product design choices by changing things, but you do have to change things. Neither did the Mastodon core developers take swift action to—well, do much of anything.
Editing on May 1 2023 to add: Eugen Rochko published a new blog post today that discusses immediate changes to the mobile sign-up flow, which should help with both the initial barrier and, maybe more importantly, the initial safety problem of people ending up on bad instances because they didn’t know any better. (Inevitably, lots of Mastodon users think this change is a terrible idea, but I’m not getting into that.)
In what I think is a positive sign, Rochko also wrote:
We’re always listening to the community and we’re excited to bring you some of the most requested features, such as quote posts, improved content and profile search, and groups. We’re also continuously working on improving content and profile discovery, onboarding, and of course our extensive set of moderation tools, as well as removing friction from decentralized features. Keep a lookout for these updates soon.
I’m adding this new context here because I think it kind of leapfrogs some of what I wrote in this post, and I’m leaving the rest of the post intact as a discussion of how things had been going until now. But I’m generally optimistic about these statements, and I hope they mean we’ll see more changes for the good. (end edit)
unfriendly design feeds insular culture
I—a nerd—actually really like Mastodon most of the time, but I would like it so much more and feel like it was doing a lot more good in the world if it were more welcoming and easier to use. When I raise these points on Mastodon, I get a steady stream of replies telling me that everything I’m whining about is actually great, that valuing a “pleasant UI” over the abstraction of federation is shallow and disqualifying, and that people who find Mastodon difficult don’t belong anyway, so I should “go join Spoutible” or whatever.
I hate it that I can’t in good conscience encourage Black friends to get on Mastodon, because I know they’re going to be continuously chided by white people if they mention race or criticize anything at all about Mastodon itself. I hate that “a difficult sign-up process keeps out lazy people with bad culture” is a thing in so many Mastodon conversations. (Fun fact, if you hold this idea up to your ear, you can hear them say “sheeple.”)
I have absolutely zero fortune-telling to offer re: Bluesky. The AT protocol approach is enough of a tweak on existing models that I think it’s pretty much impossible to tell how it’s all going to play out when the technical abstractions meet actual users at scale—most of all, because it remains to be seen whether or how much the team will accept feedback on things that aren’t working (and for whom). In what seems to me like a moderately good sign, late on Saturday, Bluesky CEO Jay Graber posted:
At the very beginning of bluesky I said the tech would be straightforward to build, but moderation, and designing decentralized moderation, would be hard. It is. I talked with a bunch of people about it at our meetup today, but need to get the chance to sit down and write—so, logging off, see you tomorrow, and I hope we can get more of your proposed approaches implemented soon.
Maybe they’ll figure it out, maybe they won’t, but I would love to see even half the kicked-anthill energy being spent hating a closed beta app directed toward making Mastodon better for more people.
the strongest path forward for Mastodon advocates
I haven’t mentioned the simplest and IMO best critique of Bluesky and most other big platforms, which is that they emerged out of venture-capital galaxy brain, which has the moral sense of an AI chatbot. After the past decade or so on Twitter, “I won’t touch anything Jack Dorsey has touched” is a reasonable reaction. “I will only put my social labor into platforms that can never benefit billionaires” is fair.
But the missing step, to me, is when people with principled objections to other platforms are unwilling or unable to make the alternatives of their choosing more welcoming to more people. And there are absolutely people trying to do the work, but they’re dependent on the choke-point of what Mastodon-the-company decides is valuable. (Almost like something…centralized?)
One of the big things I’ve come to believe in my couple of decades working on internet stuff is that great product design is always holistic: Always working in relation to a whole system of interconnected parts, never concerned only with atomic decisions. And this perspective just straight-up cannot emerge from a piecemeal, GitHub-issues approach to fixing problems. This is the main reason it’s vanishingly rare to see good product design in open source.
Great product design is also grounded in user research and a commitment to ongoing evaluation and iteration. For something like a decentralized social network, it also requires letting people from many distinct communities help steer the ship—and building ways to work toward consensus in some areas and accept both conflict and compromise in others. And great design at mass scale requires the core team to value mass adoption and push back—hard and loudly—against the idea that inconvenience is good because it filters out undesirables.
This doesn’t mean that I think Mastodon should necessarily implement full-text search or the whole set of interlocking patterns that constitute Twitter-style quote posts. But particularly given the third-party pressure on both search and quote posts, I think it’s way past time to do full-scale user research and design work on ways to integrate some kinds of search and quotation in some places and in ways that preserve privacy, safety, and autonomy. And to handle the whole nested doll of problems related to sign-up, discovery, and following, for starters.
while I’m opinionating
I feel enormous empathy for tiny teams doing high-pressure work. I think Rochko and his team have pulled off great work over the past six years, and I think the tendency to assume the worst motivations for every action maintainers take is a great example of the way that treating open-source projects like merchants and behaving like enraged customers is gross and destructive. But I also think the best way out of the overloaded-maintainer nightmare is to:
- communicate transparently—and mostly not in unfindable replies to random people,
- to make alliances with people who have capacities you lack, like user research and distributed deliberation, and
- to devolve power whenever you can.
I recognize that that last piece is incredibly difficult to do when you feel like your singular human judgment is at the core of something huge, because judgment doesn’t necessarily scale. But my big hope for Mastodon is that the core maintainers find a way to do it in the very near future—or that other organizations step up to fund and shepherd forks of the project.
If we want more people to enjoy what we believe are the benefits of something like Mastodon, it’s on us to make it delicious and convenient and multi-textured and fun instead of trying to shame people into eating their soysage and unsalted soup.
I hope all of that is actually possible for Mastodon, because a lot of great people very much want it to become a more welcoming place. But the longer Mastodon stays in Linux-on-the-desktop mode, the more likely those people are to take their energy somewhere where it’s valued.