Mastodon experiment: a few months in

A little while back I decided to try out Mastodon, deploying my own instance running as a VM on my own hardware. This was primarily done to act as a testing ground for experimenting with integrating with it, but also as a means of keeping up with the news.

The latter is particularly important, as I no longer have the radio on all the time. I might hear a news item in the morning, but after the radio switches off, I’m unlikely to turn it back on until the next working day. A lot of news outlets moved to Twitter over the past decade, but with that site in its death throws, the ActivityPub ecosystem is looking like a safer bet.

Not many outlets are officially using this newer system yet. There are a few outlets that do publish directly to Mastodon/ActivityPub, examples being Rolling Stone, The Markup (who run their own instance), STAT, The Conversation AU/NZ and OSNews. Some outlets aren’t officially posting on ActivityPub, but are nonetheless visible via bridges from RSS (e.g. Ars Technica) and others are proxies of these outlets’ Twitter accounts (e.g. Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Slashdot). Others are there, but it’s not clear how the material is being mirrored or if they’re official.

There’s also a decent dose of satire if you want it, including satirical news outlets The Chaser and The Shovel, and cartoonists such as Christopher Downes, David Rowe, Fiona Katauskas, Jon Kudelka, David Pope, Cathy Wilcox and Glen Le Lievre.

As you can gather, a big chunk of who I follow is actually news outlets, or humour. There are a few people on my “follow” list whom are known for posting various humour pieces from elsewhere, and I often “boost” (re-post) their content.

Meta (who run Facebook) have made noises they might join in with their own Twitter-clone in the ActivityPub fediverse. I wouldn’t mind this so much — the alternatives to them doing this is: (1) the rest of us needing dozens of social media accounts to keep in touch with everybody, (2) relying on the good will of some mega-site to connect us all, or (3) forgoing being in touch altogether.

I tried option (1) in the early part of this century, and frankly I’m over it. Elon Musk dreams of Twitter becoming option (2) but I think the chances of this happening are buckleys and none. (3) is not realistic, we’re social beings.

Some of these instances will be ad supported, and I guess that’s a compromise we may have to live with. Servers need electricity and Internet to run, and these are not free. A bigger cost to running big social networks is actually managing the meat-ware side of the network — moderation, legal teams to decide how moderation should be applied, handling take-down notices… etc.

ActivityPub actually supports flagging the content so the post is not “listed” (indexed by instances’ search engines), private posts (cannot be boosted, visible to followers only), even restricting to just those mentioned specifically. I guess there’s room for one more: “non-commercial use only” — commercial instances could then decide to they forgo the advertising on that post, or do they filter the post.

ActivityPub posting privacy settings on Mastodon

I did hear rumblings that the EU was likely to pass some laws requiring a certain level of interoperability between social networks, which ActivityPub could in fact be the basis of.

Some worry about another Eternal September moment — a repeat of the time when AOL disgorged its gaggle of novice Internet users on an unsuspecting Usenet system. Usenet users prior to AOL opening up in 1993 only had to deal with similar shenanigans once a year around September when each new batch of first year uni students would receive their Internet access accounts.

I’m not sure linking of a site like Facebook or Tumblr (who have also mentioned joining the Fediverse) is all that big a deal — Mastodon lets you block whole domains if you so choose, and who says everybody on a certain site is going to cause trouble?

Email is a federated system, always has been, and while participation as a small player is more complicated than it used to be, it is still doable. Big players like Microsoft and Google haven’t killed off email (even with the former doing their best to do so with sub-par email clients and servers). Yes, we have a bigger spam problem than we had back in the 90s, but keeping the signal-to-noise ratio up to useful levels is not impossible, even for mere mortals.

We do have to be mindful of the embrace-extend-break game that big business like to play with open protocols, I think Mastodon gGmbH’s status as a not-for-profit and a reference implementation should help here.

I’d rather throw my support behind a system that can allow us to all interoperate, and managing the misbehaviour that may arise on a case-by-case basis, is a better solution than us developing our own little private islands. The info-sec press seem to have been quick to jump ship from Twitter to Mastodon. IT press is taking a little longer, but there’s a small but growing group. I think the journalism world is going to be key to making this work and ensuring there’s good-quality content to drown out the low-quality noise. If big players like Meta joining in help push this along, I think this is worth encouraging.