The Two Camps of Mastodon

Alternative titles: when two sets of people appreciate very different things, vs the world, desperately trying not make this about facebook

If you haven’t noticed, there are two sets of “ideologies” sharing a community called mastodon. It’s come to a bit of a boil lately, so here’s a brief overview of the two different schools of thought, and my read on the latest bit of fediverse drama.

Camp Twitter 2.0

Camp Twitter really likes the interoperability of federation. Rather than having communities siloed by incompatible protocols, you can reach anyone you’d like regardless of which instance they’ve set up on. You can also distribute operation costs, so it doesn’t require venture capital levels of money to set up a home for facebook, twitter, etc. numbers of users. Also, it’s nice to start fresh with a new set of social norms rather than having to work off of the cesspit of modern social media.

Camp Small Communities

Camp small communities really likes the control that federation provides. You have a great moderator to user ratio. Moderators can actually take meaningful steps to block bad behavior as it comes up, regardless of whether there’s a consensus on “bad.” (eg, an eating disorder support instance can preemptively silence a cooking instance. Nobody did anything “bad,” but you can still protect your users). Vibe-wise, you can see the same people on your local timeline every day which is great for building connections. As I once saw someone describe it, it’s like hanging out in someone’s living room, vs twitter’s oft-touted “town square.” You don’t have to yell to be heard, and if things go bad, you can always leave.

An Uneasy Coexistence

Neither of these ideologies is inherently wrong. In some ways, they’re both quite useful to have. The main difference, in practice, seems to be risk-tolerance. Camp Small Communities prioritizes user safety, choosing to defederate/silence to protect their users from harassment at the cost of audience size. Camp Twitter prioritizes reach, seeing defederation as a last-resort to be used against exceptionally bad behavior. Depending on your priorities, you can pick an instance that falls on one side or another, or even maintain multiple accounts, using them for separate purposes.

It hasn’t been a perfect coexistence. The recurring point of tension seems to be that Camp Twitter believes that the tradeoff they offer between risk and audience is adequate, but for people of color, this tradeoff falls short, failing to protect them from harassment. The disagreement extends beyond just a matter of moderation choice into failures to provide the tools like automatically updating blocklists and defederate-by-default to better preemptively protect people from harm.

Boiling Over

The arrival of facebook on the scene has thrown an even sharper divide between the two camps. Camp Small Communities is very aware of how facebook has failed to protect its marginalized users and finds the integration absolutely not worth the harm. On the other side, Camp Twitter sees opportunity for greater reach as well as “legitimacy.” There’s a lot to be said about this, but I am already failing to Not Make This About Facebook, so let’s just say that the question of facebook has made people have to more obviously state their side, which has revealed the ideological differences, which has in turn caused some arguments.

The arguments themselves are a pretty funny phenomenon, because on one side, everything’s fine. On the other, not so much. For Camp Small Communities, the ideological differences are just part of the package. Federation and ActivityPub gives them the tools to make choices according to their risk tolerance and move on. (There are concerns about whether the protocol as is might cause leakage into facebook’s data hoover but I am once again failing to Not Make This About Facebook). For Camp Twitter, this opting out of the network is...inconvenient. If the thesis is “you can talk to anybody,” this starts to apply less if more people defederate to maintain safety standards. But largely Camp Small Communities consists of instances that are--you guessed it--pretty small, so Camp Twitter can mostly ignore it. Until, of course, vs the world

So, the wonderful thing about is that it is The Mastodon Art Instance and, even at 6k+ active users, it’s in Camp Small Communities.

And this makes Camp Twitter’s irritation about Camp Small Communities into an aggravation. Because is full of awesome artists filling the timeline with art, poetry, music, and more. Many, many people who create art have chosen to make their home, and when defederates from Camp Twitter to keep their users safe, the users on Camp Twitter servers lose access to the content that makes mastodon worth coming back to. It wasn’t a big deal when a couple of random people on a bunch of tiny servers go dark, but when a good portion of the network’s artists do, there’s an obvious hole in your social network, one that doesn't exist on networks that can force people to play by their moderation rules.

So Camp Twitter gets angry. Their argument isn’t completely out of line: defederation does limit the reach that these artists might have. But if you’re an artist and you’re concerned about that, well, you can always join another instance, maybe one that leans more Camp Twitter. But that largely hasn’t happened. Artists have decided that yeah, being free from harassment is worth slightly less “engagement.” The continued inhabitance of directly states that, despite the difference in moderation policy, artists are happy with this tradeoff. Some of it might be inertia, but that inertia is also another statement: the prospect of greater reach isn’t worth the effort.

Bewilderingly, turns out that people don't make art for the audience.

Fuck it let’s talk about facebook

So, up til this point, there was nothing stopping Camp Twitter and Camp Small Communities from coexisting. Prioritizing feature requests has and will be a problem, but those are the sort of things that can be solved--Camp Twitter 2.0 can just choose not to use those tools and Camp Small Communities can deploy them as they see fit. It’s not necessary or inevitable that Camp Small Communities would have to use those tools on Camp Twitter. Those bridges could theoretically stay open, but they do come with conditions. Protection from harassment. Privacy. Consent. Acceptance of the differences in the ways we all live. In such a world, we might have the best of both worlds: everyone using social media that gives them safety, control, and the world at their fingertips.

But now facebook is in the game, and the stakes have been raised. Facebook has a long history of trading user and social wellbeing for profit and growth. The vectors by which it might affect the fediverse are varied: leaks in the protocol might expose user data to a company that is all too happy to sell it on to advertisers. Development of the protocol might warp to suit a huge user base hungry for engagement over safety and consent. Social norms of content warnings, alt-text, and assuming good intent (okay, that one is a wishlist from me) may erode, either directly or indirectly via new norms introduced from facebook’s new users. Once upon a time, I thought it might be possible to for Camp Twitter to come round to Camp Small Communities’ set of priorities and then collaborate on growth together, but with facebook watching and waiting, I think that opportunity has passed us by.

tech mastodon social fediverse