Brooke Gladstone: This is Brooke. Welcome to The Midweek Podcast. What follows is a longer conversation with Clive Thompson about Mastodon. The more edited version will be on the show that posts on Friday.
At the base of the Statue of Liberty, there's a poem that bears some famous lines.
Give me your tired, you're poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless tempest-tossed to me.
Worthy words for a new start, but in 2022, they could easily address a distinctly different huddled mass in search of a more specialized refuge.
Reporter 1: Well, turn out of a turmoil at Twitter. The social media giant appearing to be in disarray after as many as half of its employees were laid off under New owner, Elon Musk.
Reporter 2: How's this for a first message from your new boss? A staff-wide email that was sent in the middle of the night, Elon Musk suggested the company could go into bankruptcy as executives are resigning, advertisers are fleeing, and trolls are running rampant.
Reporter 3: The latest turmoil at Twitter this morning, more than 4,000 contract workers were terminated over the weekend.
Reporter 4: As a result, millions of Twitter users are exploring another little-known platform called Mastodon.
Brooke Gladstone: Mastodon, originally created by a German programmer named Eugen Rochko in 2016. While the two platforms share a general resemblance, the similarity is merely skin deep. For example, what we think of as a tweet button on Mastodon is called a toot. Although as of this week, toot has been retired being too easily employed in double entendres, so the button now just says publish. Also, what you post can be a lot longer. To join Mastodon means joining a group that acts as your home base. That group is called the Server or an Instance. There's no universal group with all users. Plus Mastodon's original source code is publicly available and changeable.
All this because Mastodon just doesn't want to be like Twitter. Why, I hear you cry, does any of this matter to those of us who really couldn't care less about Twitter, much less Mastodon? Clive Thompson is a tech journalist whose work appears in The New York Times Magazine, Wired and Smithsonian, his most recent book is Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World. He's offered a explainer in a recent Medium piece, and he says that Mastodon--
Clive Thompson: Some of the stuff is very similar. When you make a little post, yes, it's typically called a toot, because Mastodon's symbol, which is a Mastodon, has a elephant-like snout, and so the idea is that you're tootting. Of course, because toot has these really terrible other implications that the creator was not aware of in English, many people running Mastodons software will voluntarily change the code on their surver to say, "Yes, this is a published button. This is not a toot," but it's basically the same thing as a tweet.
Often, people install it, so there's a longer length. The one that I'm on, you can write like 500 characters, which is almost twice as much as a tweet. That starts to become almost like a blog post, which is nice. Then there's a button, if you see something awesome, like retweeting on Twitter, you can hit that button and it's called Boosting. It'll take what someone else said and show it to everyone who's following me.
Brooke Gladstone: We're going to get back to all of that, but sticking to the vocabulary for a second, a particular server, like I'm on the journo server.
Clive Thompson: Yes, you're on journo.host, right? Is that the one you're on?
Brooke Gladstone: Yes.
Clive Thompson: Yes, so basically what's a little different is when you join Twitter, you just go to Twitter but the way that Mastodon works is, it's what they call a federated bunch of Mastodon servers, sometimes also called Mastodon instances, just to make it even more complicated. The point being someone can set up their own Mastodon server. A friend of mine did it and he said, "Hey, Clive, do you want to join mine?" I said, "Sure." There's like 50 of us and he's running it, and there are thousands and thousands and thousands of these servers, you're on one that's run by a bunch of journalists, journo.host. There's 2000 or so journalists there.
This is one of the first weird things. We're accustomed to a social network being just one site that you go to, and this is not like that. These are all thousands of sites that are "federated." They can talk to each other. Anyone on any server can generally, more or less, talk to people on other servers. The other piece of lingo is they call this the Fediverse, the federated universe. There's actually a bunch of things out there in this federated universe, Mastodon's only one piece of software but because it's so much like Twitter, it's the one that's taken off recently.
Brooke Gladstone: The federation aspect of this is one of the big differences, as you've said. The default is that all the various servers or instances can see other ones, but that's just the default. Each server or instance makes its own rules, and it can also just decide to block another server if they find it too toxic. Make it so that you can't see it and it can't see you.
Clive Thompson: You're exactly right. There are servers that I've been on, and I've been on different, mastodon servers for years now, and they'll each set up rules saying, "Hey guys, here is what we consider to be good behavior and a loud behavior on our server. You can't be a racist idiot, you can't say stuff that we consider to be misogynistic by the people on this community. If you do that, we have the right to kick you off the server." There are other servers that are like, "Yes, we don't have any rules. You can say whatever you want."
It's almost like belonging to a neighborhood where there's neighborhood rules.
If the neighbors decide you're being a terrible neighbor, they could say you're not allowed to be on this neighborhood anymore. The really interesting thing is that if someone comes to me and starts harassing me in DMs or replies to me, I can mute or block just that one person. I can also decide, "Hey, the server that person is on is filled with dirtbags, so I'm going to block that whole server. I don't want to see anything they do. I don't want them to seeing what I say," and that's great.
That's actually very useful. There's this extra layer where an entire server, like my entire server, 50 people on it, could decide, there's a bunch of other servers over there that are just filled with terrible people who are harassing us. Let's put a block from our entire neighborhood to theirs, our entire server to theirs. Nothing that anyone does on our server can be seen by them. Little federated nation-states, like early medieval Europe.
Brooke Gladstone: It's really interesting, and you wrote an article recently on Medium explaining that Mastodon is compared to, not just Twitter, but almost all other social media sites, it's explicitly antiviral. It prioritizes friction, and there's a number of ways in which it does that. Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, they want big viral surges. They're designed that way to push things to get more popular. How does Mastodon push against virality, and why?
Clive Thompson: There are two ways in which Mastodon software and the people who've been using it push against virality. The first one is at the level of the code, the way that Mastodon software is designed. There's a couple of things in there that are very different from the way things work on Twitter. If you think about Twitter, a lot of the way it's architected is designed to encourage massive joint attention of millions of people on some hot meme or joke or person that is just blowing up right now.
Brooke Gladstone: Trending. It's trending. Trending.
Clive Thompson: It's trending, exactly. It's like we're all looking at it. We're all talking about it. The way that Twitter does that is that it has a couple tools to encourage virality. It has an algorithm that says, well, if a tweet is starting to take off, then let's amplify it further. Let's push it to the top of other people's algorithms, other people's feeds, so that it's a rich, get richer phenomenon.
There's other things like the quote tweet button, that basically allows me to go, someone just said this thing, here's what I think about it. That's another thing that often you see. Whenever you see a big viral surge, it's often based around these quote tweets. Now, neither of those things exist in the traditional Mastodon software. For example, the feed, it's just ranked in reverse chronology so whatever you're looking at is just what happened at this moment, and it goes backwards in time downwards.
Brooke Gladstone: There's no universal search. You can search your own posts, you can search your home server for maybe a post you want to get back to. On Twitter, if you want to search Clive Thompson, you can search all of Twitter for those words. Mastodon doesn't do that. Mastodon doesn't allow quote tweets.
Clive Thompson: Yes, exactly.
Brooke Gladstone: I don't understand why, that one is pretty, pretty controversial. Why not? What's the point of these changes?
Clive Thompson: Well, the creator of Mastodon and the early community of users thought that quote tweeting on Twitter had led to too much negative quote tweeting of the form of like, "Wow, would you look at this stupid crap this person just said."
Brooke Gladstone: By sardonically pointing to it, you're actually promoting stupid crap.
Clive Thompson: In their view, you're adding to the nasty, corrosive, sardonic quality of a lot of Twitter discourse. That's how they saw it. They were like, "Let's just not do that. Let's not have that possible so that we don't have that culture." Underneath that, there was quite a subtle thing going on, which is that the creator of Mastodon, and again, the early community of users who were very influential.
Brooke Gladstone: Where were they based?
Clive Thompson: They were based all over the world, frankly. Early users of Mastodon were often people that fled Twitter because they were being harassed there, and they regarded a lot of these viral surges as being related to the harassment that they'd seen. Where Twitter tries to make things go fast, the design of Mastodon, and the norms of the community were to make things go more slowly. That's why you don't see quote tweets, that's why you don't see an algorithm that tries to find viral utterances and make them even more viral.
The upshot is, it can be quite weird for someone to come from Twitter, and look at what's happening on the Mastodon communities, because they've literally had journalists show up on Mastodon, and ask me, "Who are the must follows? Where's the hot conversations? I'm like, [laughs] "Guys, there really aren't any." There definitely, are people that have more followers than others, but they don't loom large in people's feeds the way they do on Twitter.
Brooke Gladstone: Are there conversations I'm new to the site.
Clive Thompson: Oh, yes.
Brooke Gladstone: Can you learn lots of stuff?
Clive Thompson: Oh, my goodness, yes. In fact, actually, I would tell you that in the last week that a lot of people have flooded onto Mastodon. It has really transformed, in a good way for me. I'm getting much better quality conversations on Mastodon than I am on Twitter, and that maybe I've had on Twitter in years, frankly. I think it's due a little bit to some of these differences in the way things work. People are more encouraged just to talk about ideas, and not as incentivized to say something that is going to go viral.
One of the things about antiviral design that you see in places like the Fediverse of Mastodon is that, once people orient themselves, and go, "Well, it's not exclusively for self-promotion, and trying to make things take off," it changes what you want to say in the first place. If Twitter is trying to encourage hot emotionality so that something can really explode, you get the opposite thing. You get a little more quieter muttering conversations that go in weirder places. I quite like that.
Brooke Gladstone: Prior to Elon Musk's take over of Twitter, you quoted writer, and programmer Robin Sloan saying, "An industrialist may soon purchase Twitter Inc. His substantial success launching reusable spaceships does nothing to prepare him for the challenge of building social spaces. The latter calls on every liberal art at once, while the former's just rocket science." Clive, even with all these features designed to prevent Mastodon from becoming what Twitter is, and has been at its worst, can Mastodon really immunize itself against the plagues of traditional social media like harassment, and hate speech, and trolls?
Clive Thompson: Yes, that's a really good question. Definitely, it is easier for people on a Mastodon server to block themselves off from really terrible actors. We saw this years ago. There was this famous moment when a bunch of just common Nazis decided that, "Hey, all these folks, these early adopters of Mastodon came from Twitter because they wanted to get away from racial harassment. There was a lot of queer and trans communities that were trying to get away."
Brooke Gladstone: The trolls said, "Let's just follow them over there."
Clive Thompson: [laughs] Exactly. Exactly. What the trolls discovered was that once they got up in people's grills, a couple of servers said, "All right, we're blocking you." The thing is, those server administrators, the people running those servers, they talk to each other. I'm a participant in helping run my server. We will talk to people that run other servers to find out, "How are things going? What problems you're running into?" We'll trade stories of terribly behaved other servers, and we will jointly block them all."
This is exactly, what happened to the influx of Nazis, was that very rapidly they discovered that every other server had just unilaterally blocked them, and they were in the corner of the Fediverse just talking to themselves. In one sense, that's great. There are much more powerful tools that I think exist in Twitter, but there's a lot of vulnerabilities too. Twitter had some of the world's top engineers working hard on security. It was harder to hack into Twitter, and steal data.
If you have thousands of people who are like me, or only slightly more technically sophisticated than me running their servers, the security is going to be nowhere near as good. There is probably going to be, I would imagine, a lot of trolls and even nation-states hacking into Mastodon instances if they think there are people on those servers, whose information they want to steal, or they want to screw with.
When I saw that there's a journalist instance, I thought, well that's great. Probably, a good thing for there to be a Mastodon incident just for journalists, but it's also a honey pot. You could imagine a lot of actors wanting to get in there and steal that information.
Brooke Gladstone: Wait a second. Is Mastodon collecting data? Is there data stored somewhere that can be hacked into, or are we just talking about the substance of people's posts?
Clive Thompson: Direct messages. One person to another on Mastodon, which are putativly private, but could easily be stolen.
Brooke Gladstone: Most people wouldn't say who their anonymous sources are in those contexts.
Clive Thompson: You would hope so. People say a lot of stuff in DMs. Then there's just login information, passwords, stuff like that could be reused from other places.
Brooke Gladstone: Tell me more about the downsides then.
Clive Thompson: There are some big cultural downsides to this anti-viral culture. One of them is that, for all of the bad stuff that we've seen from big viral surges on Twitter, there's also really good stuff, right? Some of the biggest issues of our day, like Black Lives Matter, or Me Too. These were issues that have been ignored by the mainstream media for a really, really long time.
It was working with these mechanisms of virality that a lot of these issues came to the fore, to the mainstream. I don't think there would've been as robust a conversation about misogyny in the workplace, about the treatment of Black Americans by police if it weren't for these viral surges on Twitter. Those were really, really good things. There's also some fantastic Black academics who have been thinking about the problems that are caused by not having something like quote tweets.
For example, Jalen Flowers, an academic just wrote this fantastic series of tweets, and a series of posts on Mastodon saying, "Look, Black Twitter was a huge phenomenon. It was incredibly important for Black communities all across the world, and in America. It relied heavily on quote tweeting because that tapped into the call-and-response culture that was generations old in Black America, and around the world.
Brooke Gladstone: It also brought their quoted words more to the fore. I hear what you're saying, and I know that there's a real push to get Mastodon to do quote tweets, like quote toots.
Clive Thompson: They're called boosts. They're quote boosts.
Brooke Gladstone: Boosts?
Clive Thompson: Yes. One of the problems is, of course, that because it is federated because I'm running with some friends, I'm running a copy of Mastodon on my server, and there's thousands of other people running them. The only way to get everyone to have quote toots or quote tweets would be for everyone to update their software in exactly the same way. It's not clear that everyone would want to do that because the whole point is to have local control.
Brooke Gladstone: However, Twitter though a dumpster fire, is not dead, nor are all the other virally driven social media platforms. They're still there. Does Mastodon have to be one?
Clive Thompson: This is really on point. A lot of people have been arguing long before me that Mastodon and the other services on the Fediverse are not even supposed to be replicas or substitutes for Twitter. They have an intentionally different way of being, and of encouraging conversation. You shouldn't look to it to replace Twitter in the first place. Personally, I hope that Twitter doesn't go anywhere for all the reasons you talked about.
Sure, it's a dumpster fire, but it has some amazing, amazing things that come from shoving everyone into this one room and having these weird rangy conversations. I think that's powerful. I hope Elon Musk doesn't drive it into the ground. I'm a little worried he is. I'm terrified. It's just going to turn into a whole pile of 404 error pages any day now. Let's be real, that would be a really bad thing for certain aspects of public discourse. A lot of people like to pile on Twitter, including myself, but they would really miss it if it were gone.
Brooke Gladstone: I was going to ask you if you think this kind of social media is sustainable, whatever that may mean. I don't know of any particular social media is ultimately sustainable. One keeps being supplanted by another. Friendster, anybody? What do you think? Is it?
Clive Thompson: I actually, think that Mastodon and these other experiments on the Fediverse are extremely, sustainable for the following reason. Because they're all small local experiments, you only need a small number of people to say, "Hey, I want to keep this going," to keep it going. It reminds me a little bit of this massive dark matter world of inexpensive to cheap to free discussion boards devoted to hobbies.
I play guitar, so I am on four different guitar pedal and guitarist discussion groups, and they're all run using free software on some rented servers somewhere that costs $1 a month. There's 300 regulars and we don't care if anyone else, in fact, we don't want anyone else to show up. There's 300 of us. That's all we need to talk about guitar pedals until the sun explodes. We're completely off the radar, and we like it that way. There are hundreds and thousands of communities like this around the world. They constitute the dark matter of social media.
While everyone's talking about Twitter, and TikTok because those are legitimately important sites, there is just this long thriving, decades-thriving, world of social media below that's much more human-scaled. To a certain extent, Mastodon is like that. It's having its moment in the sun right now, and it might grow to be huge, but even if the attention of the world were to move away from it, it will absolutely, sustain itself, because it only requires a bunch of committed people to say, "Hey, I want to do this." Things like that are very robust.
Brooke Gladstone: Now, part of the reason traditional social media promote engagement, which is often expressed in ugly interactions is that those interactions, prompt clicks, and views and emotions that drive up ad revenue. How does Mastodon make money?
Clive Thompson: It doesn't. It doesn't make money at all. It is software that individuals run to provide a service for themselves.
Brooke Gladstone: Is it like Wikipedia or something? Can you contribute to Mastodon?
Clive Thompson: Mastodon, again, it's just software that I had a bunch of friends run. We have a bill for a server every month, and we have to cover that bill, and so we just pass the hat, and we have a Patreon. There's much larger servers that have it more formalized. They're like, "If you want to be part of the server, you have to kit in this amount a month so we can pay, not just for the server cost, but for someone to run it and make sure it works." There's a whole range of ways this can work very, very different from a regular social network like Twitter, where there's a central place that has to pay for employees.
This is like thousands of little places that are all like little anarchist gatherings. I say anarchist in the positive sense, like not lack of a rule, but self-rule.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm curious why you got on Mastodon, ahead of all of us. You said it prioritizes friction. Becca, the producer of this segment, had a great phrase. She said It's like old-school communication using just a quarter cup of silicon valley to make it palatable. Do you think people will enjoy it?
Clive Thompson: That's a great question. I originally got on Mastodon, because I was interested to see what this new Fediverse was like. Then I joined a server filled with open-source software nerds. "This is cool, I can actually talk about this week." We go really deep and nerdy without me bothering my Twitter followers, who would have no interest in hearing me talk about Linux drivers for antique webcams. I was attracted to the idea of this self-run, non-corporate world, and I could see that people were behaving differently and I wanted to understand why.
Now, the question is, is this attractive to enough people that a lot would want to do it? If you'd asked me three weeks ago, before Elon Musk started driving people in a panic away from Twitter, I would have said, I don't think a lot of people are going to want to interact in the way that Mastodon's community and technological affordances allow you to do. Lo and behold, there are just tons of folks now who've joined Mastodon that I'm following and they're from every walk of life. someone joked the other day, they posted something on Mastodon saying, "I don't know, man, people keep on saying Mastodon is hard to join, but I just got a note from my retired mother saying, 'Oh yeah, I just followed you on the elephant site.'"
Brooke Gladstone: It's impossible to be right about this stuff. It's impossible to prognosticate. It's a real mug's game. Let's acknowledge, first of all, that Twitter isn't even close to the most popular social media site. It's no Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat. That said, and this is a question we always ask, and people who've gotten this far into the interview, are wondering why we haven't asked it until now. Why do you think a migration from Twitter is worth paying attention to even if you've never used Twitter, and will never use Mastodon? Does it matter?
Clive Thompson: The way people use Twitter or don't use Twitter or the alternatives they go to does matter for the following reason. Twitter has, for better and for worse, often, both at once, become a kind of a fulcrum for various aspects of civic discussion and civic debate. It's designed to be really fast. It's designed to be really easy. It's text-heavy. There's definitely pictures and videos. Twitter is fundamentally one of the last big social media that heavily prioritize text and writing. That gives it a type of a skim-ability and speed that something like discourse on YouTube doesn't have because you have to watch the 10-minute video.
That's why Twitter has had this outsized force in public debate. Partly also there's a lot of journalists, there's a lot of celebrities there, but I honestly think it's because of this text-based discursive format. I'm not the first person to point this out. In fact, there was a great tweetstorm by Taylor Lorenz, of The Washington Post, a while ago saying exactly this. In that sense, yes, even if you don't use Twitter, that's why it matters, is because it has an outsized influence. Therefore, if people, even a significant chunk of people, are disenchanted with Twitter, or forced off Twitter to the point they go somewhere else, those other spaces also have an impact.
The really interesting thing is that the long-term users of Mastodon on the Fediverse are not entirely thrilled with this new migration of people who are being driven off Twitter because they're like, "Look, guys, we had this kind of quiet space that was working really well for us, and now there's a ton of new people running around with very different cultural assumptions, very different behaviors." They're a little worried that the conventions and the culture of Twitter, including some of that thirst for virality, will be injected into the DNA of the culture of people using Mastodon. That's interesting too, because of course, it isn't just technology, it's culture, how people want to behave, and spaces change when people's cultural expectations change.
Brooke Gladstone: Clive, thank you very much.
Clive Thompson: I'm glad to be here. It was a lot of fun.
Brooke Gladstone: Clive Thompson is a tech journalist whose work appears in The New York Times Magazine, Wired, and The Smithsonian. His most recent book is Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World. You can find On The Media on Mastodon by searching @firstname.lastname@example.org.
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