Irreconcilable Differences

Recently the Mastodon project launched a first-party iOS app. The app’s visual design itself is mostly uninteresting, it looks like a clone of the first-party Twitter iOS app (not a bad thing) and covers most of the basic functionality of the Mastodon software.

What is interesting however and what has caused a great deal of consternation and frustration among certain segments of the fediverse is what is missing. The current version (as of July 31, 2021) is missing two basic features that are currently present in the official Mastodon web app and in other third-party iOS and Android applications.

The two features are:

  • Posting in the ‘unlisted’ visibility [Unlisted meaning – the post visible for all, but not in public timelines, i.e the local and federated timelines]
  • Ability to view and interact with your Mastodon instance’s local and federated timelines

Going forward I am going to assume that you understand how post privacy works in Mastodon and what the local and federated timelines are. If you are not familiar with these concepts, please go read the section on it in Noelle’s excellent guide to Mastodon and then continue reading this. If you are not familiar with Mastodon at all, her guide is a good read in its entirety.

The Solution To Confusion Is Not Deception, It Is Education

The reasoning that Mastodon’s lead developer Gargron provided for the lack of these two features was the following: It would be confusing for new users. The official first party Mastodon iOS app is targeted towards new users and having those two features present in the app would be confusing for said new users.

This particular reasoning is faulty on the most basic premise of it, the confusion. Removing two extremely basic features in Mastodon that are present in the official Mastodon web app for many years will cause more confusion for new users not less. New users are unlikely to only use the iOS app as they become more comfortable with using the fediverse. They are going to start using it on their desktop/laptop machines and that means they are going to be eventually interacting with the official web app.

Now when that happens, instead of being familiar with the most basic features in the software they have been using, they are going into the web app with an incomplete idea of how Mastodon and the larger fediverse works when it came to post privacy. In short, they have been deceived. The iOS app has not been entirely honest with them. Such deception is going to leave the user with an inherent distrust in the software that is supposed to be an alternative to the garbage deceptive behaviours of proprietary microblogging networks like Twitter.

If the problem with those features were that they were confusing to new users, the correct solution to that would have been teaching the user about them. You know, an onboarding process. Which by the way is also another thing that is completely missing from the iOS app at this moment.

Upon first launch, the user gets presented with two buttons – Sign Up and Log in. If they tap on Sign up they get asked to pick a server. This is done with the app not explaining what a Mastodon server is and what it means to pick one. Picking the right Mastodon server can be the difference between a user staying on the fediverse and a user getting turned off and never coming back. To present the choice in such a haphazard way is honestly just terrible design for an app that is supposed to be for new users.

Local Timelines Are Your Network’s Lifeblood Even If You Don’t Like Them

The second problem is what has been left unsaid in the reasoning provided by Gargron and what is a source of frustration for many current users of Mastodon. Which is that Gargron himself doesn’t really understand how the fediverse is used and why certain features are more important than he realizes.

One of them is the concept that local timeline is vital to community building for small instances. Local timelines are an opportunity for users on the same instance to find each other and socialize. It is key to building a sense of community and therefore it is vital to keeping users on the fediverse. If users feel a sense of community on their instances, they are more likely to continue using the fediverse long term. The Hometown fork of Mastodon goes even further and adds a local-only privacy setting to encourage this style of community building.

It is a matter of perspective, from Gargron’s perch atop, he doesn’t see the the value in the local timeline because the large size of makes it so that it’s ability to create a sense of community is non-existent. When there are thousands of users in the local timeline, it becomes useless. So it is little surprise that Gargron thinks of local timelines as useless, a vestigial part of the software that needs to be hidden away from the newcomers.

This is where the title of this post comes from, to many users of the fediverse, many of whom are on small instances (50-100 users), the local timeline provides a way of socializing with the rest of their instance without having to follow each other. It is a vital feature to them. To Gargron, who I remind you is the lead developer, it is a feature to be hidden away, something to be ashamed by. These two perspectives are fundamentally irreconcilable with each other.

Shouting At An Uncaring Void

For those of us who have been using Mastodon for a while now (2017 for me), getting frustrated and angry with Gargron’s decisions is nothing new. Gargron has consistently been in conflict with a certain segment of the Mastodon user base for as far as I can remember. People who have pushed back on Gargron’s singular vision, many of who are prolific users of the network. Many who have long since given up on getting involved in Mastodon development because for them it is an exercise in banging your head against the wall. Some who have left the fediverse entirely.

For those of us old timers that remain, we stay because of the friends we made and for all its faults, Mastodon is still better than the cesspool that is Twitter.

The problem that has become acute over time is that we have increasingly become a minority amongst the much larger Mastodon user base. A vocal minority but one that is increasingly easier for Gargron to ignore. Vestigial like the local timeline he hates so much. We were vital to making what made the fediverse what it is now, but Mastodon has gained enough of a user base to make us useless to his vision going forward.

The most obvious solution I see to this is a fork focused on our vision of what the software should be, forks like the aforementioned Hometown. Of course, maintaining and developing software that has the complexity of Mastodon is an arduous task and not one to be taken lightly. Nevertheless, it is the only path I see open to us.

We should redirect what little energy we collectively have into directly shaping the fediverse in our vision with forks.

Shouting at Gargron at this juncture is pointless as he does not care what we have to say.