Something to Say

I Like Mastodon, but I Have Some Criticisms


Like many, I have been saddened to watch Twitter’s descent into madness over the last few months. For all its problems, it had been a place of mostly positive interactions for me over the last fifteen years—whether that was as a place to connect with readers of my novels, tech enthusiasts, Masters of the Universe fans, or members of the visually impaired community, just to name a few. While I’m maintaining my account on Twitter, I have moved a lot of my social media presence to my Mastodon account. This has come with both good and bad, as one would expect. Some Mastodon users are really touchy about even the most constructive criticism of the service. After a couple of months on Mastodon, I have some thoughts about it, and offer both positive and negative comments here. The positives are my personal observations, and your mileage may vary; the negative is offered as constructive criticism.

Despite what some Mastodon enthusiasts will tell you, Mastodon is not immune from the ills that plagued Twitter over the last decade. Most of the ways in which Mastodon is clearly better than Twitter at the moment are only a result of it having far fewer active users. If it continues to grow as it has recently, it will worsen over time. This is not a failing of Mastodon itself, per se; humans are humans, and terrible humans exist in any group or social media platform anywhere. This is just the reality of the world. I have gotten every bit as ignorant or obnoxious responses to things I’ve posted on Mastodon as I ever did on Twitter. So it goes. That said, there is a much higher ratio of pleasant, friendly, and helpful people on Mastodon at present, which, for the time being, is undeniably a mark in its favor.

Mastodon has somewhat sidestepped the issue of moderation by allowing instances (servers) and users to block individuals or entire communities, as well as making it extremely difficult to find much of anything outside your own sphere by choosing not to implement a robust search function. Together, I feel like this largely insulates users, for both good and ill. If you want to avoid the worst of humanity who may be posting on Mastodon, you can do so, but the chances you’ll end up locked into an echo chamber is much greater than it even was on Twitter, where it was definitely a problem. This also has the result of leaving users like me, who have many interests that vary widely, with a difficult choice to make: either you create many accounts across special interest instances, or you join a general interest instance where your access to special interests you may have is limited, difficult, or in the worst cases, non-existent.

What is perhaps Mastodon’s greatest shortcoming is also one of the most volatile to mention on the service—the inability to quote posts. The creator of Mastodon explains his reasoning in a post here. Here is what he has to say:

I’ve made a deliberate choice against a quoting feature because it inevitably adds toxicity to people’s behaviours. You are tempted to quote when you should be replying, and so you speak at your audience instead of with the person you are talking to. It becomes performative. Even when doing it for “good” like ridiculing awful comments, you are giving awful comments more eyeballs that way. No quote toots. Thank’s

I find this to be flawed logic at best. Can quote tweets be used in this way on Twitter? Absolutely. Is it the only, or even most common way they are used? No. Disallowing this feature because it can be used in a toxic way is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Just posting on social media can be toxic. Singling out this one feature is arbitrary, since virtually all of the most common social media features can be used in terrible ways.

Deciding that quoting posts is not going to be an option results in some negative outcomes.

It means my timeline fills up with boosts—Mastodon’s equivalent to retweets—that have no context whatsoever. They are like empty calories. I often see the same posts boosted over and over without adding anything to what I’m reading. Why should I care about a new app that has been released? As part of the visually impaired community, it might be that said app happens to be remarkably accessible with screen readers—but the user doing the boosting can’t add this context, so I have no idea. Is someone boosting an announcement about a great new book they read and enjoyed, or did they just see a post about a book and decide to give the author a lift? Who knows! And these are just two examples of countless ways that quoting a post can be used positively.

One of the responses to this criticism I received when I mentioned it on Mastodon was, “Just turn off boosts.” The problem with that is that they are often the only way to find other accounts or posts of interest, since you can’t really search properly on the service.

I am not alone in lamenting the lack of boosting with context. Many others have been doing the same. Declaring the whims/decisions of a single developer made years ago as absolute and above question is no different than what’s been happening with Musk and Twitter, and yet that has been the response from some Mastodon enthusiasts.

For many of the same reasons the brilliant Teri Kanefield has noted in her posts about Mastodon here and here, I like the service and believe it could, and probably should, be the future of Twitter-like social media. That’s why I felt compelled to write this post. I want Mastodon to succeed; it doesn’t have to be a clone of Twitter, but I think we need to acknowledge that it will have many of the same problems, and the developers working on the software should learn from the mistakes Twitter made in dealing with them.

Right now, overall, I like Mastodon and will continue to use it. I want it to succeed, and I’ve already made some worthwhile connections there. I hope it stays that way.