November 4, 2022

What We Lost

If you’re around my age, you remember an internet dominated by niche message boards. Gaby Del Valle’s article did a great job capturing what was special about them & how they differ from present day social media.

In my teenage years, I was very active on the old GameDev.net. I wound up becoming a moderator, spending my time answering questions, talking about nonsense, and very very occasionally publishing a small game. I stuck around for a while even after I mostly lost interest in game development, it is where my online friends were.

Swap out GameDev.net for another forum and many of us have similar stories. I know a lot of people that spent their time on a message board associated with their favorite band or fandom, most of which eventually evolved into general purpose boards where people chat with their friends/etc. Eventually these all gave way to social media platforms. Now most are pretty much dead.

Reddit, Facebook, Twitter

For a while I thought Reddit could become the replacement. Shortly after subreddits were introduced, I founded the r/washingtondc reddit and watched it grow into a friendly & thriving community, mostly without my help. (I stepped down as moderator as it grew and others took over, I think they do a lot better than I would have.)

As Reddit grew, the advice quickly became “immediately unsubscribe from the toxic defaults and find your niche”, but now I don’t even think that’s enough. Reddit gets so much wrong, promoting popular posts so that they start showing up in more people’s feeds means influxes of toxicity. Moderator tools are inadequate, the site has become obsessed with getting you to log in and install an app, and years of lax moderation of truly abhorrent subreddits has tainted the brand and culture.

Facebook was a walled garden from the start, and Twitter became an algorithmic feed full of corporate bullshit.

Plus now both Reddit & Twitter are now owned by dangerous billionaires. Truthfully, I don’t particularly care about the specifics of what Elon Musk does to Twitter (though the last few days have shown it isn’t going to be good). I just don’t think we should all be communicating on a platform owned by these people. We have enough experience to know that their interests will never be aligned with ours.

What Instead?

I dream of a place for people to talk to one another. No brands. No promoted tweets.

To an extent, especially for people a bit younger than me, it seems Discords are starting to fill the niche. I lurk in a few comedy discords, and there are channels to talk about TV, food, movies, books, etc. But all of it is weirdly isolated, two Discords with a ton of overlap means two TV channels, two food channels, etc. I think one of the main disadvantages is that they are still walled gardens, not searchable, barely discoverable, and you need to keep up with too many different channels if you’re in more than one.

I look around and wonder if I’m mostly alone in wanting this. We’ve known Musk was interested in Twitter for months, but almost nobody I follow started talking about alternatives in a serious way until last night. Maybe the people that care already left, but to where?

I want something entirely focused on people, where self-defined groups can congregate but aren’t isolated to a single pod. This is the promise of a fediverse, this is what a world where Mastodon reaches critical mass could look like.


I think there are a few key problems right now with Mastodon:

First, most people haven’t heard of it, and of those that have, it feels like nobody is quite sure how to use it.

I’m no expert either, I signed up for a couple of accounts years ago and never used them. But I see a few people fretting about things that don’t matter nearly as much as we all figure this out together:

Do I need to be on the same Mastodon server as my friends?

No, when you are on a Mastodon instance you can subscribe to people on other instances. That is the federated part of the protocol.

Like email, you can email people with @yahoo.com, @gmail.com, or @university.edu, or @jamesturk.net – it just works.

But, if my server disappears do I lose my identity? Can I move servers?

This is the next, reasonable, question on people’s minds. Right or wrong, most people trust that gmail.com will always exist, will mastodon.social?

I can’t say it doesn’t matter, but it matters less than you think.

Mastodon allows for forwarding of accounts, so if I tell people to subscribe to jamesturk@mastodon.social today, and tomorrow decide I’d rather switch to running my own, I’ll be able to bring my followers/etc. with me.

Of course, if a server shuts down entirely that’d leave a hole, and you do need to trust the owners of the server at least somewhat.

Do I start my own at my own domain name?

I see a lot of people doing this, similarly to owning your own email address. It is tempting.

That said, I think a lot of the value is in meeting new people, and I like the neighborhood model of meeting folks on Mastodons of interest. I wish there was a way to “associate” a personal domain with an existing community (or maybe multiple?) but that hasn’t been sorted out yet.

Should I start one for my [fill-in-the-blank] community?

I still don’t know the answer to this. I’d happily host a Mastodon instance or two (probably paying masto.host to do the actual hosting) but I’m not really sure how much work it’ll be.

Darius Kazemi has thought about this a lot more than anyone I know of and recommends keeping instances small. This goes against the instinct many of us have to try to create a big tent.

Do we want a mastodon instance for civic tech? For Python developers? For fans of alt comedy podcasts? For democratic socialists?

Many of these would quickly get unwieldy. I think the answer will vary based on the size of the communities in question.

Providing a Mastodon instance establishes a mutual trust relationship. I need to trust the people I let on my instance to behave enough that moderating it doesn’t become a full time job, they need to trust that I’ll keep the lights on, establish & maintain basic community rules, keep their information secure, etc.

Of course, in many ways those were the same types of trust we put in our message board moderators of yore. I think it might still be possible.

Will it work?

The answer is that I don’t think we know yet. It is important to keep in mind, for most of us the goal isn’t to create a new Twitter. It’ll take trial and error, probably including some high profile failures, to learn what not to do. I’m willing to give it a shot.

What Now?

I think with Facebook faltering and Twitter under Musk’s control, interest in Mastodon gives us a chance to try for a better future. I’m going to stick with my jamesturk@mastodon.social for now, and hopefully find some smaller community to migrate to eventually as things shake out. I’m also interested in collaborating with people that want to explore running niche communities, if that describes you & we share interests, definitely get in touch.