Sunday 13 November 2022

Follow the yellow-brick road: Mastodon and community-focused communication

As those who follow me may have noticed, I have recently moved my social media activity from Twitter to Mastodon. It’s been an interesting process and one that I will probably reflect on pretty continuously over the next few weeks. What strikes me most about the whole thing is how fascinated I am by the way in which the structural decisions that Mastodon’s founders made long ago quite organically shape my own and others’ behaviour over there. 

For me personally, one of the first, rather unexpected, side effects of those structural decisions is my own resolution to use this blog more in the future.


Mastodon, you see, has no functionality for “Quote Tweets”. This is by design, I understand, because on Twitter, it is often those QTs that cause the massive pile-ons that turn into the fights and conflicts that have made the site such a negative, doom-scrolling environment. 


But as someone, who as often used the QT function to start off longer threads on certain topics, it leaves me a little stranded. Mastodon has a thread function,  but if, like me, you also decide to use its CW feature (content warning/content wrapper), threads with a lot of CWs make for a cumbersome reading experience on other people’s feed.  So, I’m trying to instigate a new rule that whenever I find my brain taking off on what would have become a multi-post journey on Twitter, I will try and turn that into a blog post instead. We’ll see, if that works.

The relationship between design and behaviour


What got me started today was this post by Kevin Beaumont, where he highlighted the implications of Mastodon’s decision not to allow plain text search. 

In the absence of that function you must use hashtags to make sure that you post on a certain topic is found by those, who do not follow you. All very 2008 Twitter, some will say (and many have said!). But as with the QTs there is a “sociopolitical” reason behind that feature just as there was behind Twitter’s decision to enable plain-text search. It preserves the privacy of your posts and prevents them from being easily scraped for content.

Which is something I love, but can see that journalists and researchers have an immediate problem with.

But that feature also has a second, and for me more interesting side-effect.


Combined with the fact that Mastodon does not use self-reinforcing algorithms to push already popular posts (or posts by already popular users) in front of users that don’t already follow you by curating their feed, the absence of plain-text search means that users with big followings have no structural advantage – beyond the fact that they already have a lot of followers – that ensures the fast(er) and wide(r) contribution of their posts.


Engagement with your post is therefore earned (by its quality) not driven (by structural features).


Which ultimately means that unlike Twitter, those structural features emphasise bi- and pluryilateral community-building posting strategies over unilateral attention-courting broadcasting ones. By design! Who’d have thunk?


Which, on a personal level, really works for me because that’s how I always tried to use Twitter. 

Brainwave: I used to “mastodon” Twitter

I joined the birdsite in 2009 for the community of academic lawyers that was developing there, and I stayed all these years because of that community. Through ups and downs in my private and work life I mostly used the site to for exchanges with friends and colleagues and the occasional comment on law, politics and who got voted off Strictly Come Dancing. 


I made a decision early on to keep my community small, which meant that I kept the number of people I followed low, meaning that after 13 years, I still followed only 200 accounts. I participated under a pseudonym, meaning that I could never use the site to promote my real-world activities. And I used every feature at my disposal that might defy Twitter’s algorithm: a shortcut some kind soul developed and posted ensured that I could see everyone else’s posts in chronological order and without ads, and my refusal to use hashtags meant that my post were never put in front of anyone, who did not already follow me unless it was retweeted by someone else. 

One consequence of that approach was that I never managed to acquire large follower numbers. But I was good with that. It wasn’t what I was there for.


I ended my Twitter life with just over 1000 followers - with nearly all of whom I had had, at one point or another, a personal exchange. On the upside, I almost never was the target of trolls or caused or was involved in pile-ons despite the fact that I often tweeted about highly controversial topics like trans rights. Pre-Elon Musk, it worked for me.


What I realise now is that I went to some length to create the experience on Twitter that Mastodon gives me by default, simply through its fundamental design. And I wonder why it took me so long to move.

It’s the people, stupid!


And of course the answer to that is easy. Nobody really joins a social media site for the structural features in the first instance. You join for the people. And all my people were on Twitter, so that’s where I went. 

Conversely, what made moving easy these last few weeks, is that a really rather large number of the people I followed on Twitter moved over to Mastodon with me. All of a sudden, the network effect was shifting. So much so that I now feel almost no difference in the experience of using the two sites. 


But at the same time I wonder how the structural differences will affect the “migration decision” of those Twitter users, who use it or have come to use it for promotion of any kind. That includes big name academics, which in turn, includes some of my friends over there, who use Twitter to promote their books or their research more generally. I don’t think many of them started out using Twitter for that purpose, but if I have learned anything these past few weeks, it’s how much the structure of an environment shapes us as people and our own behaviour. 

Community- building v chasing attention


It seems to me that the design of Mastodon, it’s decision not to use algorithms to push content, to use a chronological timeline and to disable plain-text search, means that it tries to create a community-building environment where interactions between people primarily come from the context of what is being discussed. What you say is supposed to be more important than who you are. 


It is specifically trying to put brakes on a development where an individual accounts gets to be a louder voice in the public square by default once they have crossed a certain threshold. You can become that louder voice as you “earn” yourself more followers. But the system itself won’t help you by privileging your posts in any other way.

And this is where, in my view, a move to Mastodon will not only require getting used to a new technical environment. For many Twitter users, it will require in change in their mindset, their attitude and, maybe, their reasons for using social media in the first place.

Barriers to migration for “big name” accounts: some thoughts


So will someone with 20k+ followers, who is used to their tweets being seen by 50k or more people because of algorithmic preferencing, be willing to move to a place where, not only, will they have to re-build their networks from scratch, but where, going forward, they lose their existing privilege of preferenced distribution?


I image it depends on how you define what social media means to you.  I have seen posts by some people with large follower numbers on Twitter, who managed to re-build sizeable networks quite quickly. However, even though their follower numbers are large in terms of what is “normal” on Mastodon, those numbers still fall far short of those they used to have on Twitter.


This includes, for example, legal blogger David Allen Green (20,000 Mastodon followers compared to 237,000 followers on his Twitter account), actor Stephen Fry (48,000/12.5 million), and author Neil Gaiman (36,358/3 million). So, purely on the size of your audience, this is quite a drop-off.


Yet, interestingly, some larger accounts have also reported that despite the decrease in follower number, “engagement” with their posts – in terms for boosts (“RTs”) and favourites (“Likes”) is actually up. This may be because many Mastodon users do nit yet follow as many people on their as they did on Twitter, so the chance of them being exposed to your post may be bigger. Meaning that this may change as Mastodon grows.

However, many, like me, also actively enjoy the (so far) more cooperative spirit of their new home, not to mention the fact that they, to varying extents, want to remove themselves from the kind of Twitter that Musk is clearly trying to create. 


Still, despite all the pioneer spirit that is currently around, it has to be a punch right in the ego to have to start again from scratch. And of course, some big accounts are still also using Twitter - either as their main platform or as a redirect through cross-posting – because they aren’t yet quite ready to leave their follower numbers or their communities behind.

The future is…?

We will see how this develops. My own approach has been that I still check Twitter occasionally for stuff that Mastodon does not (yet) provide me with but that I make a concerted effort not to post there anymore unless it is about the migration to Mastodon. I expect that, if my tribe sticks with Mastodon, over time, Twitter will become an irrelevance in my life. But for the reasons already mentioned above, I also know that this was easier for me than for many others.


What fascinates me at this stage, is simply the way in which so many people reflect on their own reasons for using social media in the first place, and the way in which we all slowly recognise how much the structure of Twitter has shaped who or what we have become on there.


To see so many people unravel that for themselves, and to see so many attempt to get back to another version of themselves is, for me, Mastodon’s most attractive feature at this point.

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