Are blogs dying off? The trend of setting up faux blogs to rig search results and/or soak in ad revenue suggests so. The rise of newer mediums, like video and social media, has also created powerful and more addictive alternatives that drain the life from blogging. However, it’s hard to keep a straight face during the eulogy when Substack and Medium are standing right there.
Over here at FtB HQ we’ve been hedging our bets, for instance with the YouTube channel we fired up a year ago. That wasn’t enough for me, so a few months ago I committed to the rather unoriginal idea of spinning up a Mastodon instance. After much tinkering with the innards and taking the thing for a few joyrides, I think it’s ready to go live. Hence, this post!
If having a Mastodon account on our server seems cool to you, then first check out the code of conduct. I lived through Gamergate and the DEEP RIFTS, so I have little patience for freeze peach and bigotry. Want a more free-wheeling home? I can point you in some directions, or you can use this Mastodon account as a jumping point to someplace else. No offense taken!
A number of smaller Mastodon instances were mobbed with new sign-ups in the past few months, and the admins found themselves buried under mod workload and unexpected bills. I’d rather not repeat that mistake, so let’s keep this instance to ourselves. For now, the only people who can score an account on it are a) bloggers, b) commenters that have remained in good standing on their blogs for at least a year, and c) people that bloggers are willing to sponsor. That should keep things nice and cosy to start with, and allow gradual rather than explosive growth.
This of course creates a problem of verification. The bloggers side is easy enough, but what about all you commenters? Mastodon does have a verification system in place, but it’s easily thwarted by a comment section that allows linking. No, instead we’re going to take advantage of the fact that, in order to comment here, you’ve got to supply an email address. That email address will be your key to the magical world of Narnia our Mastodon instance.
You, though, may not want your FtB handle to be your Mastodon handle, and for that matter you may not care about Mastodon at all. No problem, we can take advantage of my comment section to make the process opt-in. Post a comment there with the following info:
- Your desired Mastodon username.
- A link to a comment from at least a year ago, on one of FtB’s blogs.
- A link to a comment on that same blog from within the last week.
DO NOT POST YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS. You don’t want the ensuing spam, and I can read your account’s email off my administration panel. It’s not the one you want to associate with Mastodon? WordPress allows you to change your address. Once I get around to it, an email will arrive at that address with further instructions on what to do. Don’t worry if your comment doesn’t pop up, there’s a good chance it went in to the spam folder. I’ll know to be on the lookout.
There is a bit of a wrinkle: all the blogs on FtB are semi-autonomous. I’m not convinced that the username on one links up to the same username on another, so impersonation might be possible. Just to be safe, let’s add one more step: after your request, you’ll need to make a comment on your “home” blog verifying you’re the real McCoy. The simplest way to verify is something like “hey guess what, I have a Mastodon account at [a link to https://freethought.online/@your_user_name]!” in less than two days, but that’s uncomfortably similar to advertising. We’re not fans of that around here. Since I have to write a comment back when I fire off the email anyway, to help you detect if it got lost in a spam filter, I can give you a few randomly chosen words. Slip those into your most recent comments within 48 hours, and you’re in. Slip up, and you’ll be bumped to the bottom of the queue.
Content Warnings Are Your Friend
I’m grumpy the Twitter flood has led to fewer people using content warnings on their posts. Seriously, typing up a few words to summarize your post makes reading the timeline significantly nicer and can help preserve everyone’s sanity. Yes, keyword blocking exists, but it’s not the best solution. Yes, I’m aware of the counter-arguments, I even included two of the best ones in the instance rules, but I do not find them fully convincing. But, yes, ultimately this is an argument over culture where the pros and cons are either balanced or nearly so.
Follow Early, Follow Often
You’re probably used to centralized social media, almost all of which operates via the attention economy. New and exciting things are politely shoved in your face, in an effort to lock in your eyeballs and earn money from advertisers. Mastodon isn’t entirely immune to this, for instance it has trending hashtags and trending posts, plus you can “seed” someone’s follower list with a handful of accounts.
I despise nearly all of that, trending hashtags are the only area I’m willing to compromise on. This means, though, that if you don’t follow anyone your home timeline is going to be quite empty. I have a decent follower list, because I’m hopelessly addicted it can be a handy seed for newcomers. There’s also a positive feedback loop in play: the more people and bots you follow, the more you see, and the more potential new follows you’ll find. This also benefits other people, both because your followers will be exposed to more potential follows but also this instance’s federated timeline will balloon in size.
We Are and Are Not on Mastodon
If you check out the bottom of the page, you’ll see we’re running something called “Hometown“. It’s a minor fork of Mastodon that adds some extra features, for instance the option to follow ActivityPub-based blogs. Just recently it added a little icon to the corner of images that lack captions, which I’ve fallen in love with.
The biggest change is another knob to control how viral you go. If you use the web interface, look carefully at the icons under the composition tool and you’ll spot a new one that looks like a chain. With its help, you can prevent your posts from federating out to other servers. This means you can fire off a public post that all other freethought.online users can see, but nobody else will. It’s great for local organizing and moderation issues, plus it allows the instance to have a public timeline while still protecting everyone’s privacy. Incidentally, there’s an option in your preferences to make all your posts local-only by default, and you can force a post to be local-only by including the
In general, my bar for defederating instances is pretty low: if you can show the admins are bigots, or bigotry has remained up there for a while, I won’t hesitate to add them to the list. Federating with openly-bigoted instances will also get you added, as well as any instance blocked by a decently large and well-run instance.
The downside is that some instances could be blocked even when they shouldn’t be. Maybe the moderators have cracked down and turned it into a safe space; maybe the admin forced them out and replaced them with better mods. If you can find one of these corner cases, and can show evidence the instance as a whole has cleaned up their act, I’ll consider downgrading or removing the block.
The upside is that I’m happy to get suggestions on who to block. Mastodon has a pretty good reporting system, so don’t hesitate to use it, but messages are fine too. The latter is worth mentioning, as some of the worst instances will publish any reports forwarded to them and permit a hate swarm to develop.
Paying the Bills
Obviously, running your own server isn’t free. There is no fee between you and an account, however. So who’s paying for all this? The current answer is: me. Don’t worry about it in the short term, as I’ve already mentioned it’s cost about $35 over two months to keep the lights on, and if the existing pattern continues I’m on the hook for $10 per month.
Of course, current trends are guaranteed not to continue. When the fees get to be too much for me to bear, I’ll set up a fundraiser on Liberapay. In the meantime, I’ll keep you up to date on costs related to the instance. Here are the current figures, broken down by month:
That January figure hasn’t been charged yet, of course.
I doth hereby officially declare freethought.online to be open, under the terms and conditions outlined above. Sign up for an account, if you qualify, and even if you don’t you can still gawk at us from the outside.