[this part makes a lot more sense if you read the first part… er, first.]
Can You Go Viral?
Betteridge’s law of headlines would suggest not. The fragmented nature of federation means nobody can see every post. The upside of this is that there’s no “main character” to mob like there is on Twitter, but the downside is that mass movements like Black Lives Matter have a tougher time spreading their message.
A practical example of this came from the Raspberry Pi, of all things. Some users of the mini computers monitor police and state surveillance with their help. In early December, the manufacturer of that computer proudly announced they’d hired a ex-policeman who specialized in covert surveillance. Fireworks ensued on Mastodon, or so I’m told; despite being noteworthy enough for a news article, I only saw a few posts about it on my timeline.
But a week later, Elon Musk banned the “@joinmastodon” account from Twitter for contrived reasons (he’s since restored it). A news reporter misread the handle as “John Mastodon,” then inexplicably credited this self-invented person with founding Mastodon and naming it after himself. For two days, my timeline was flooded with “John Mastodon” fanfic. There’s no way to tell if this was “true” virality happening on Mastodon, but here’s the important thing: it felt viral. From my vantage point, it appeared no different than the virality I’ve seen on Twitter. There wash one glaring exception, almost none of it dunked on the journalist who wrote that (long-since corrected) article.
I have a tough time believing virality is impossible on Mastodon. Is there a community that wouldn’t be abuzz if the Kremlin dropped a nuke on Ukraine? Even if some part of the fediverse stubbornly tries to ignore the story, I would be genuinely surprised if a subset of Twitter didn’t do the same. “Viral” is more relative than we usually acknowledge, which makes the different viralities of the fediverse and centralized social media look more quantitative than qualitative.
Control Your Visibility
Mastodon gives you plenty of control over virality. There are three distinct timelines where your posts could go wild. Your home timeline consists of posts you write and your boosts of other people’s posts, plus all posts and boosts from the people you follow; open up another person’s home timeline, and you’ll just see their posts and their boosts. The local timeline shows posts and boosts from people on the same instance as you. The federated timeline consolidates the local timelines of all the servers your instance federates with.
If you want to be visible on all the feeds, mark your post as “Public.” To reduce clutter, replies to public posts do not show up on the local or federated feeds, even when marked public themselves; they only show up on your home feed if you follow the person who’s replying. In comparison, “Followers Only” posts only show up on your follower’s home timelines. A non-follower dropping into your home timeline won’t be able to view these posts, and only the original poster can boost them. “Private” only allows people mentioned in the message to see that message, and unsurprisingly these can’t be boosted. That last one is sometimes called “Direct,” because it’s Mastodon’s equivalent of a direct message.
A fourth option handles a specific corner case. Suppose you’re typing up a long rant by replying to yourself: if you mark all these replies as public, anyone following you will be forced to read every single one, clogging up their home timeline. Marking the second and subsequent posts as followers-only has the same behaviour, and using private means nobody else can read the rest of your thread. If you mark that first post as public but subsequent ones as “Unlisted,” however, your followers will only see that first post but all the replies will reveal themselves if they bring that post up. Unlisted is otherwise identical to public.
Confused? The default visibility is public, which is a close match to how Twitter works. If you weren’t worried about become a “main character” over there, you can safely ignore the extra knobs and switches of Mastodon and just be social.
Deleting posts is possible, and Mastodon recently introduced editing as well. Bear in mind that well-behaved instances should do the right thing when informed of these changes, but not all instances are well-behaved, and just like email there’s at least two sides to every conversation. A bit surprisingly, you can’t edit a post’s visibility after you’ve published it. Fortunately there’s a shortcut in the menu to delete a post and re-draft it, so correcting this only takes two clicks.
There are other tools to control virality. Don’t want your public profile to be indexed by search engines? Don’t want people to see who you’re following? Your preferences page gives you those options. Want to lock your account, so all follows must be manually approved? Want to opt out of being in the instance’s directory of users? You can do that, too. Would you like to automatically delete old posts, to make it much tougher for people to fish your history for problematic content? Not only is that possible out-of-the-box, you have fine control over what gets deleted when the deadline comes. On the fence about deleting your old posts, in case you need to come back to them? You can archive your own content at any time, so it’s possible to retain a personal archive of everything before the server wipes it out.
That’s all possible because the fediverse doesn’t depend on virality to pay the bills. Twitter and TikTok, in contrast, have to push a home feed that encourages user engagement and thus gets you watching their ads. They profit from dog-piles and hate posts, even if means serving you content you’ve stated you don’t want, or content that actively harms you. It’s in their best interest for you to be as public and exposed as possible.
Mastodon is designed to be friendly to screen readers. When you upload an image, you’ll be presented with the option to write a caption for it. This has a different character limit than posts, and is usually much more generous. This system is so good I’ve seen blind people single out Mastodon for giving a feeling of inclusion they don’t get elsewhere. The same applies to posted video, though beware your app may not support it.
Someone has even coded a bot to help with this. The “Please Caption Bot” will automatically remind you to caption any un-captioned images, once it follows you.
No, I am a Bot!
Bots are an interesting topic. Ditching Twitter for Mastodon means cutting yourself off from many of the people you follow on Twitter. However, there’s little to stop anyone from writing a program to archive public tweets off Twitter, at least for a finite number of people. ActivityPub is pretty hackable, so it wouldn’t take much more work to set up a fake user with the same banner, name, and profile photo of a Twitter user and emit those archived tweets as ActivityPub posts. Voila, we’ve removed a major barrier to leave Twitter.
Consider what happens when one of those people migrates off Twitter to Mastodon, however. After creating an account, likely with the same username as on Twitter, they get confused messages from others about whether or not they’re real. They do a quick search of their username, minus the instance, and are shocked to see another account (or three) with the same name. They scroll down the phantom’s timeline, and find all their former tweets listed there.
Having your content harvested without your consent feels like a violation, doesn’t it? This is why many Mastodon users block these Twitter mirrors, and why there’s so much anger when the thousandth person floats a proposal to scan every Mastodon instance in existence. Archives preserve history, but that history can be used to harm just as easily as it can be used to help and it only takes one dedicated asshole to ruin someone’s life. That auto-delete function doesn’t seem like a nice extra anymore, but instead a necessity for a significant number of people.
There is a middle ground, at least: you can set up a fediverse account, then get a bot that automatically posts your tweets to that account. Since this is done with your consent, it doesn’t have the same ethical issues of the prior auto-repeaters. The upside is that you can be on two platforms without juggling two apps; the downside is that one of those two (typically Mastodon) is a hollow echo that doesn’t interact with anyone.
There’s still more worms in that can, though. If bots can grab the same username as you on another instance, can another human being do the same? Can they set up their own instance with a domain that’s just one or two characters off the domain for your Mastodon instance, copy your username, scrape your posts, and impersonate you? The answer, sadly, is yes. This is a major downside of decentralized social media, no central server means there’s no easy way to prevent impersonation.
Mastodon does provide one helpful tool, at least. As part of your personal profile, you can add links to other websites. If one of those websites happens to point back to your Mastodon profile, it changes colour to signal there’s a mutual link. Impersonating you now requires hijacking your personal profile on a school, business, or government website, or perhaps even all three. This assumes people will take the time to view your account’s profile, of course.
There are other ways to handle verification, too. journa.host has closed off new account registration, for instance, but the administrators can still make an account for you if you can prove to them you’re a journalist or journalism-adjacent. While this system places more work on the admins, it allows each community to set up their own standards. The accounts of government officials should be held to a higher verification standard than a rando’s account on mastodon.social, after all, and with decentralized social media that’s easy to implement.
Here’s how I’d summarize Mastodon, in one anecdote. The lead developer was convinced that quote-tweeting was a major vector for hatred, and decided to abolish it from Mastodon. The topic itself is very polarizing: I’ve seen journalists declare that Mastodon will die out unless the feature is implemented; I’ve seen long-time users fiercely arguing back against the feature. After years of debate, the lead developer’s views have softened and he recently announced that he’ll reconsider the ban.
This passion is well outside what the evidence supports. Quote-posting can be used to target people with hate, but in and of itself either doesn’t encourage the spread of hate or encourages it at a near-negligible level. Conversely, Mastodon is not the entire fediverse. Both Pleroma and Misskey have long supported quote-posts while federating with Mastodon instances, and yet there hasn’t been a stampede towards those implementations. If you include a URL to an ActivityPub post in your post, some apps will retrieve it and display some or all the text, which is effectively a quote-post; and yet these clients have not become dominant either.
This passion exists because the fediverse was created by social media users, for social media users. People have seen what worked and failed on other platforms, and crafted a new space accordingly. One where consent is placed front and centre, where privacy is respected where possible, where bigotry and bullying is taken seriously, where free speech can flourish (for all definitions of it), and where ordinary people are given the power to create and maintain their own communities under their own standards.
People are passionate about what they love. And for many, Mastodon is the first social media network they fell in love with.
[2023-01-22 HJH: Siggy pointed out a fair number of the links were borked. I blame Unicode for the error.]