On the Crumbling

Okay so the article we are talking about here is, “Mastodon is crumbling—and many blame its creator” by Ana Valens, published on Daily Dot.

Let us start with the title:

Mastodon is crumbling

No, it is not. This is just “$X is dying” clickbait, nothing new. Authors often do not pick titles for the pieces they write for sites, so I will give this a pass.

and many blame its creator

Okay now we are getting somewhere. Let’s move on to the actual article.

It starts with:

It’s 9am on a Tuesday, early morning by cybre.space’s standards. Few have logged on to the microblogging social network, and it shows: A follower feed filled with more than 31 users updates at a snail’s pace. It’s much slower than one would expect on Twitter. But then again, cybre.space isn’t Twitter. It runs off a decentralized social media software called Mastodon, and is part of a much larger network of Mastodon communities.

I guess the author is trying to set the scene but there a couple issues with this paragraph.

Maybe the feed is moving at a snail’s pace because people are asleep, working, busy, don’t have anything to post or for any other reason. Not all of us us have an intravenous two-way drip to our social networks. Being able to take in social media at the pace we want is one of the many reasons use this network.

Also, your own feed is not representative of the entire social network. Maybe try the federated timeline to get a better idea of what the network is like.

Over on Twitter, users post jokes about President Donald Trump, this time of a fast food feast he prepared for the Clemson Tigers football team amid the ongoing government shutdown. But the words “Trump” and “shutdown” only appear once each on cybre.space’s “local timeline,” which shows posts on the site and any other connected “instances,” or Mastodon communities. It’s even more barren on this reporter’s home timeline: No one is talking about hamberders.

Hey, so consider this for a moment: maybe people do not want to talk about US politics for any number of reasons. Maybe because they are exhausted from talking about it. Maybe they want to talk about something else. Maybe they are not American and don’t really have an opinion on current US politics other than “AAAAAAAAAAAA” (that’s me).

Posting works differently on cybre.space than Twitter. It’s much more like living in a queer house, one that prefers to talk about political theory over current events. Some users chat about democratic socialism and queer identity, while others talk about games, music, fandom, or their difficulties navigating trans healthcare. One user posts a message that reads “re: hrt” with a few lines about their hormone replacement regimen hidden underneath, accessible only via the “show more” content warning (CW) button next to it. Another boosts a post praising Tallahassee by the Mountain Goats, calling it a “visceral experience.”

This is a mostly alright paragraph. Though “political theory over current events” is a bit wack as it is a false dichotomy. One can sometimes talk about political theory *and* current events. Many of the marginalised people in my timeline talk about political theory and how it relates to their current political situation. It is not an either or.

Cybre.space has just over 2,000 users. Over on Mastodon’s flagship community, Mastodon.social, there are over 300,000 users. But despite the larger userbase, discussions are even less political. On the community’s local timeline, one user troubleshoots installing a Linux distribution. Another shares a news story about a man who tried to turn his home into a restaurant. A third links to an article about Gearbox Software’s Randy Pitchford. Here, Trump is not the sun; tech, gaming, and the occasional NSFW post largely prevail. It’s as if the outside world doesn’t exist.

Again, I’ll reiterate what I said in the paragraph about US politics. Many Mastodon users are acutely aware of the “outside world” (WTF does this even mean really? What is the frame of reference?).

Visiting Mastodon feels like strolling through the first “apolitical” social network. There’s no urgency to talk about the Trump administration’s policies or break down ongoing political events—but while that may seem like a pleasant reprieve, it’s actually an indication that all is not well on Mastodon.

Mastodon has long been hailed as a friendly and inclusive safe haven, one by and for people who want the far-right out of social media. But instead of losing the far-right, the platform has lost all politics entirely. That’s a problem for its queer userbase, who cannot be apolitical by nature. Being queer isn’t a hobby; it’s a political identity. And so while Mastodon seems fine on the surface, there is a much larger schism at play across the social media project regarding who should run it: its community, or its creator.

Mastodon has never been ‘apolitical’, nor will it be ever be ‘apolitical’. Mastodon’s very creation is rooted in politics, its initial user base of  marginalised people was and continues to be very political.

The platform has not lost all politics entirely. This is just hyperbole.

Being queer is not a hobby – correct but it is also more than just a political identity. Many of the queer people on my timeline want a place where they can be themselves without every word and action being considered political because of their very identity. It is exhausting.

From here on, I’ll be skipping some paragraphs and quoting those that I want to respond to.

Mastodon’s former project manager, Maloki, founded a separative community that criticizes Rochko’s “Benevolent Dictator For Life” (BDFL) model for negatively impacting “already vulnerable and marginalized people.” Many queer critics feel Rochko implements features into Mastodon that make it easier for users to discover—and by extension, harass—people of color, queer posters, women, trans folks, and other marginalized groups.

The problem with the BDFL model of F/OSS project governance is by no means a new topic and is not unique to Mastodon. It is worth talking about it in relation to Mastodon but the concept needs a better introduction and/or explanation.

On that I will defer to alana’s excellent thread about it (click through to get the full thread):

But Mastodon’s politics are more complicated than merely banning Nazis. White, queer, middle-class tech workers migrating to Mastodon treated it as an escape from the outside world. CWs effectively hid politics from plain sight, and to this day, the occasional Trump conversation is concealed and tagged under the warning “uspol.” This turned Mastodon into an apolitical space, one where users debate queer theory but try to keep the outside world’s happenings out.

Content warnings do not turn Mastodon into a ‘apolitical’ space. It allows its users many of whom exist in horrible and inhumane political realities to deal with the politics in their timeline on their own terms instead of having it shoved in their face every time they log on.

Mastodon’s apolitical approach reflected larger problems at play on the platform. One early Mastodon adopter named “voz” left the platform in February 2017 after feeling increased alienation from Mastodon’s predominantly white userbase. Voz, who is a brown queer trans woman, considered Mastodon “a very white space” that gradually mirrored real-life versions of gentrification: White users made the service “more and more hostile to the Black and Brown users” that were among Mastodon’s initial adopters.

“Whiteness insists on hiding itself, and a veneer of respectability given by ‘banning (overt) Nazis’ is really just a kind of fig leaf for the more mundane white supremacy at work there,” voz said via Keybase.

This is worth talking about. As a person of colour myself, the common meme “Mastodon too white” has rung true for far too long but the situation is getting better thanks to the vocal efforts of Areoh over at playvicious.social among others.

That said, there is still a sense of defensive hostility and unease amongst the white people of Mastodon when PoC talk about how they feel alienated on the platform.

There are more of us (that I can see) than when I first joined (and when I suspect voz joined) and some of us are very vocal and here to stay. I will take solace in that for now.

My concluding opinions

The rest of the article’s three sections regarding Mastodon’s governance model and its interaction with various people over its past is worth reading on your own and forming your own opinion on. I don’t have much in the way of critique there.

I will let the author summarize it for you:

Raphen and Rochko’s beliefs are at Mastodon’s core, and yet they are fundamentally in conflict with each other. One wants a community-driven government system to protect vulnerable users. The other believes only a BDFL can efficiently maintain Mastodon and promote its decentralized, open-source fediverse structure. Both are hopeful for Mastodon’s future, and yet, they represent diverging paths that Mastodon can take.

My overall opinion of this article is that it starts off quite weak, and some of its initial premises are based on faulty assumptions. The good stuff is only the last three sections of the article, and it is a generally decent overview of the Mastodon historical meta discussions, many of which could be article topics by themselves (hey there is an idea).

Useful if you are new to Mastodon, old hat if you have been around for a while. I fall in the latter category so this article got me going, “yeah, so what is the point of this?”.

Meanwhile, Mastodon’s users can’t even agree on how Mastodon should function, let alone whom it should serve. Figuring out an answer will decide Mastodon’s future—and whether its marginalized userbase has a place to call home.

I hope we figure out the answer because if Mastodon is not a place for its marginalised user base to call home then it is not a place for me.