Mastodon: the Twitter we can’t handle and don’t deserve

Mastodon's very cute mascot.
Image credit: Mastodon
Date:6 April 2017 Tags:, ,

Mastodon has an open and old-school approach just doesn’t cut it on the modern web.

By Eric Limer

It is cool to hate Twitter, and there’s a reason for the rage. Despite an unparalleled knack for breaking news, Twitter is an online cesspool of hatred and harassment which, for the most part, goes unchecked. Having long ago staved off indie app makers who sought to improve it, Twitter now feverishly chases profitability, slicing off beloved features and focusing on pointless projects to increase ~engagement~. Meanwhile, those of us who hung around for what Twitter does well still manage to loathe it.

There must be a better way, right? There is. Too bad we’re already ruining it.

Mastodon, return of the open web?

Mastodon is the Twitter replacement du jour, and it is getting a lot of love in the wake of Twitter’s most recent changes. The service describes itself this way:

“Mastodon is a free, open-source social network. A decentralized alternative to commercial platforms, it avoids the risks of a single company monopolizing your communication. Pick a server that you trust — whichever you choose, you can interact with everyone else. Anyone can run their own Mastodon instance and participate in the social network seamlessly.”

Mastodon is Twitter mashed up with email

Put simply, Mastodon is Twitter mashed up with email. It supports 500 character messages, post-by-post privacy settings, and an open API for third party apps, but with much different bones than Twitter has. With Mastodon, anyone can run a server, and anyone can create an account there. Then, thanks to Mastodon’s decentralized but standardized cyberguts, these people can all communicate the same way. Just like you can send an email from Gmail and trust it to arrive in the inbox of an Outlook user, Limer@anticapitalist.party (follow me!) can communicate with Limer@witches.town, and though we have same name before the @ sign, we’re not necessarily the same person.

This is a decidedly old-school approach! In the past decade or so, this sort of decentralized, open-source, not-for-profit way of doing things has been demolished by the rise of brands and their “platforms,” corporate fiefdoms with a vested interest in creating walled gardens with very high walls. You can’t use Facebook or Instagram to talk directly to accounts on Twitter or Snapchat—a thing that seems obvious now, but didn’t have to be. These gardens are not bad places to be, necessarily. Even with their walls. YouTube, for instance, made sharing video virtually seamless, whereas before it was a nightmare.

But the downsides of this approach are enormous as well.

For one thing, the friction between these competing platforms has ground the progress of universally accepted standards to a virtual halt. Look no further than the GIF and the JPEG as two tales of this. Even in 2017, the two main image formats we can all agree on are decades old and predate virtually everything that uses them! That is not a coincidence. Shared standards used to matter back when things just had to work on the open web. Today’s mega-platforms have no motivation to create something that plays nice with someone else’s platform. In fact, the opposite is true.

Mastodon is pointedly trying to reach back to the old days of the internet, with the cheerful implication that the open standards and cooperation of the Web’s infancy aren’t totally outmoded. But at the very same time it is proof that they are.

We need a referee

Ironically enough, you can pinpoint Mastodon’s Achilles Heel just a few tweets:

What to do? Well, nothing. On Twitter, at least you can report a tweet or account for exploitation or other forms of misbehavior. On Mastadon, there is no one to appeal or report to. Clearly, someone having a lark posing as “We Rate Dogs” is just the beginning. With no adult in the room to ban or verify users, plus the added confusion of duplicate usernames with different domains, Mastodon is destined to be a hotbed of impersonation. It is happening right from the jump, joke or not.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Open systems like email can be pretty bad too, with shady accounts trying to con you into giving up passwords, as well as mountains upon mountains of spam. But Mastodon would be different. Public-facing profiles give ne’er-do-wells a broader platform for whatever crumminess they’re up to. Plus, it runs the risk of becoming toxic before it can even become useful.

Don’t act surprised.

If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that modern web culture trends toward exploitation and destruction. The days of Web-wide cooperation—between people, or standard-setting organizations—really are gone.

A handful of bad faith actors can easily weaponise any ostensibly neutral system

During the first dot-com boom, the practice of cybersquatting—immediately scooping up valuable domains for sale and extortion—was pioneered and elevated into what is practically an art form. The recourse? None, really. More recently, movements like Gamergate and the so-called ‘alt right’ have proven that a handful of bad faith actors can easily weaponize any ostensibly neutral system, from letter-writing campaigns and indignation to memes. Anything that strives to remain neutral will be compromised. Only platforms that actively fight back through banning or other proactive measures can hope to hold onto a shred of balance.

In the real world we have laws to govern acceptable behavior, police to protect the vulnerable, courts and judges to arbitrate disputes.

At best only a few of these things apply online. Digital societies require these same frameworks, but the only thing that can provide them is the platform where those societies live.

Twitter, for its part, is doing a very bad job of providing this. Its many tweaks and twists make life actively worse for its most vulnerable users by (inadvertently?) giving harassers new tools. But even if Twitter goes around banning some harassers while verifying others, it is crucial someone has the authority to make some sort of call. Twitter is like a game with a very bad referee who could maybe better and who can at least make a call. Mastodon is an equipment closet where we can make our own fun, but no one is watching and there are an awful lot of bats and javelins and fencing foils in here, not to mention a roster of players with an established appetite for chaos. There is, at least, a purity to this approach.

It’s probably too early to count Mastodon out, even if its forebears have already failed. But even though its features—robust, decentralized structure, free open-source code, privacy tools—are arguably “better” in every way, it is hard to see how it could be any sort of replacement for Twitter. Maybe small, closed-off communities, with invite-only memberships and robust self-imposed rules, could thrive on Mastodon in ways they could never even exist on Twitter. But as a global, universal forum for reasonably civilized discussion, Twitter seems like just maybe it could improve, if it really tried. Mastodon is built in way that’s been proven to fail.

Maybe we just can’t have nice things.

This article was originally written for and published by Popular Mechanics USA.