Why I picked the biggest furry elephant as my microblogging platform (and refuse to self-host a Mastodon server)8 min read

This article will require between 1 and 2 minutes of your attention if you read only the first half; obviously double that if you also feel like reading the second (more philosophical & strategic) half.

As you may know, in addition to this blog here, I have also been microblogging very actively for years (whether on Twitter or on LinkedIn), particularly the day-to-day / work-in-progress of my Free & Open Source software contributions across GNOME and the FreeDesktop, and that habit shall outlive Twitter’s 2022-2023 chaotic hostile takeover and sabotage by its new majority shareholder/owner. I have (reluctantly) found refuge in the shire that is the fediverse, a quirky platform filled with countless technical & usability challenges, but eh, what else have we got left? Tis the last bastion we have (we’ll see what happens when Meta/Facebook “enters the chat”, will it be like what happened with XMPP? 🤷)…

"MAY I JOIN YOU" illustration by David Revoy, CC-by-SA 4.0
MAY I JOIN YOU” by David Revoy − CC-BY-SA 4.0, with fair-use elements

And so, some of you might be pleased to hear that I have been dragged—kicking and screaming—to the Mastodon, as my replacement for the Twitter. I just, uh, “forgot” to tell y’all.

Seriously, it was a really long and busy R&D winter! I didn’t have time to announce this properly here; when registrations reopened and I finally could sign up for the largest* general-purpose instance (maintained by the nonprofit Mastodon gGmbH), it was already “income tax season” and I was busy helping the GNOME Calendar, Nautilus, and Epiphany projects… so I pretty much only had time to change my Twitter profile banner to this picture (because any blog post like what you’re reading is at least 5 to 7 hours of work):

A profile banner on my old social media microblogging account, pointing to my personal Mastodon account

So yeah, follow my personal Mastodon account if you hadn’t found me already (and if you ain’t on Mastodon, I guess there’s still this blog’s email notification system in addition to RSS).

Due to the inherent cultural difference of Mastodon (more on that below), my account there is somewhat more specialized than it was on Twitter. As stated in my introduction toot, I focus mainly on creative, positive & uplifting stuff. It’s more fun, and it pretty much allows me to not worry about the whole “contents warning” minefield. My account is primarily a way for me to share:

  • My findings and contributions to Free & Open Source software “as they happen in the day-to-day”, particularly around GNOME & FreeDesktop-related projects on Linux; I often post my bug reports there, particularly if it is about usability & interaction design, or performance optimization. I sometimes publish awareness and advocacy posts related to such topics.
  • Occasionally, posts related to cycling, ecology, sustainability, gardening, urbanism and societal improvements.

If you’d be interested in things beyond FLOSS and casual life updates, you can also follow my three FLOSS-friendly businesses:

As you can see, those three extra accounts have been very quiet. They are not going to be corporatey spammage / annoyances, they are simply intended to be a way for interested parties to be notified when I have some neat accomplishments to show (whether in FLOSS-related marketing work, or in other industries) or when we publish a new article in those various fields of work. I don’t expect that the Mastodon/fediverse crowd will show much interest in those, but I’ll be flattered if some of you do!

"Goodbye Blue Bird" illustration by David Revoy
“Goodbye Blue Bird” by David Revoy − CC-BY 4.0

While I kept servicing the Twitter accounts at the same time as the Mastodon accounts for a couple of months, lately it has been abundantly clear that Twitter has truly become a deserted place, and the continued sabotage of its features & reliability has made it pretty much impossible to use professionally and personally.

That’s the end of the article if you simply want to follow my adventures… (◕‿◕✿)

Below are some short philosophical & sustainability observations on the whole situation.

Brief thoughts on the societal bubble of the fediverse

As you can see by my high amount of activity on my personal Mastodon account, I have taken a certain liking to it, even though I was sure I would hate it. I guess this platform sort of works if your audience is primarily FLOSS enthusiasts and you spent months studying the cultural & technical quirks. And yet, I am not blind to the fact that I happen to live in one of the very few bubbles that had high affinity with Mastodon to begin with.

"Follow the white rabbit" scene from Matrix, with the party lady with a white rabbit tattoo

I still miss the ability to do topical research and feel the “pulse of the planet“, and to follow more “mainstream” people like my local policymakers and organizations.

  • Pretty much none of the local architects, urbanists, public institutions, mayors, journalists, businesses, neighbors, and many other “normal” people, are there to engage with. Hoping any of them will join—when even I didn’t want to join unless I had no other options left—is wishful thinking; talking about the fediverse to normies gets you the same blank stares as when you say you run Linux and use FLOSS software—completely abstract to them even if you explain, and they will never care beyond the two-minutes casual conversation. At best they will say “Are you a hacker?!” and then you inevitably say, “Depends on your definition of the word hacker…”
  • There could be a major event occuring in my neighborhood and I would never hear about it in realtime through the fediverse. My neighborhood has over 20 thousand people living there—with higher density than Brooklyn—and yet I know of exactly two other individuals from my neighborhood who are on Mastodon… and of course they work in tech.

Twitter’s global and serendipitous system was the biggest value “for users” (especially journalists) that I feel we have lost, and there is no alternative.

Some thoughts on instances’ sustainability

*: And now, a big footnote for those who wonder why I specifically picked the biggest instance I could, and who might say:

Hipster Ariel says, "But wait… Mastodon.social is too mainstream!"

I do not intend to switch to some niche Mastodon server/instance, unless my life depends on it.

  • There are many technical (and social) reasons why I do not want to be confined to a tiny server where it feels like a Linuxcon happening in a deserted strip mall, and you experience the full extent of decentralization bugs & technical limitations (I have at least two dozen bookmarks to bug reports related to that);
  • I don’t want to lawyer up to figure out which server to pick, and to be subjected to complicated and/or arbitrary rules (FOSStodon users have been learning this lesson in the last few days; I already learned the hard way in 2020 that there was such a thing as picking the “wrong” server or username and realizing that you can’t cleanly change some things)
  • I don’t want to be dependent on a tiny overworked team of volunteers burning out, suddenly disappearing along with the instance, or getting hit by a bus.

Decentralization is very neat conceptually, but I’ll take my chances with the biggest mainstream instance that has the best odds of still being around and able to pay their servers & moderators in two years. Remember, kids, Twitter was not just a failwhale propped up by invisible ropes and ducktape, it was also a white elephant whose value never was in its FUBAR software & infrastructure, but in the brand safety (for advertisers) provided by its paid moderation team, and the handling of legal/moral/safety/security/liability nightmares that user-generated content represent. As I summarized my readings in that tweet, back when tweeting was still a thing:

A couple of years prior, I had also educated various clients about the risks and liabilities of running social media platforms (my clients were, as a result, in a better position to make their own decisions according to their own objectives, threat models, resources and risk tolerance).

I’ve seen enough safety & security nightmares out there throughout the years, so personally speaking, I’ll save myself that hassle, at least; I’m not going to be running my own fediverse instances.