You Can Quote Me On This

Mastodon, Quote-Tweets, and why some people (like me) care a lot about how they’re used

Thanks to my friends having the forethought to set up a friendly Mastodon server for their podcast community, I’ve gone all-in on the platform1Well, and this blog, too, obviously. But for idle thoughts too mundane even for this blog to tolerate.. I really like it so far; it’s got almost everything I wanted from Twitter — “almost” because the chances of getting into a conversation with a non-tech celebrity I’m a fan of are about zero2Whereas on Twitter, I got responses from Neko Case twice! — and eliminates most of the things I hated about Twitter, aspects that were present long before some asshole bought the platform and made it impossible to keep using it in good conscience.

So I’ve gotten invested in Mastodon and how it functions. Instead of just re-inventing Twitter, this seems like the chance to take the lessons we’ve learned from other social media, and do it right this time. But it’s not just a question of technology, or even ownership, but of social engineering: being more mindful of how we use social media and what we’re choosing to put out there.

In particular, there’s the issue of quote-posts or quote-toots, or QTs so I don’t keep having to say “quote-toot.” They were frequently used on Twitter, but were deliberately not implemented in Mastodon, because of the potential to be used for harassment.

It’s a frequent topic of conversation on Mastodon, from people insisting that it should obviously be implemented, and people are going to do it anyway, so what’s the problem?

And there’s a definite undercurrent of arrogance that suggests the higher-profile proponents are obviously thinking of it as a publishing platform more than any sense of community. Objections to the feature are just dismissed as overblown or unimportant. There’s an automatic assumption that those of us don’t want QTs on Mastodon have to come up with a satisfying justification for why the feature shouldn’t exist, but there’s no sense that proponents are obligated to justify why the feature is necessary.

Personally, I’m not even completely opposed to QTs. If implemented correctly and used responsibly, they could be fine. My annoyance comes from people not taking the time to stop and think about these things and their implications, or how they fit in with the “core values” of the platform and what other users are trying to achieve. Anybody voicing an opinion on this one way or the other needs to at least demonstrate that they’ve put some thought into what QTs actually are, what they’re doing in a social setting, and how they will subtly or not-so-subtly affect how people interact with each other.

To start with: I just think it’s inherently rude to talk about someone instead of talking to them. But that’s just my opinion, based on my own connotations. Some of the most high-profile proponents of QTs have been tech journalists, whose job largely-if-not-primarily involves talking about people or things people have said, so it’s understandable why they’d want the convenience. And disappointing, but also understandable that they wouldn’t understand the harm in QTs.

What isn’t just my opinion: QTs redirect an existing conversation instead of adding to it. “Redirect” was the most neutral word I could think of; my first thoughts were “derail,” “hijack,” or “appropriate,” which are all negative connotations, which alone says a lot about the feature, I think. If you can’t easily think of a neutral way to explain what something does, it might not be a limitation of your vocabulary so much as you’re attempting to describe something that’s inherently not neutral.

But regardless of your intentions with a QT, you’re taking something that someone has said, and instead of engaging directly with them, you’re presenting it to your own audience, with your own added context. You’re inserting a layer of depersonalization.

That’s not always a bad thing. As mentioned, journalists are frequently interpreting or recontextualizing stuff for their own audience’s sake, adding nuance that might be lost by just boosting (Mastodon for “Retweet”) the original message. And when I used QTs on Twitter, it was taking advantage of the fact that tweets are often broadcasts not directed at any one person: I’d use them to make a dumb joke without making the original poster feel obligated to respond to my dumb joke.

Either way, the intention is to engage with your own audience instead of the original post. You’re saying, “instead of joining this conversation, I’m starting my own.” Even the most innocuous interpretation has that element of hijacking or appropriating someone else’s comment.

And of course, it’s not always innocuous. Even if you dismiss the potential for dogpiles as overblown, one of the common defenses of QTs I see is that they’re necessary for marginalized communities to be able to call out bad actors. Which is itself a dogpile, even if you consider it a righteous or justified one. As someone who has lightly brushed up against the internet outrage machine, I’m not at all convinced that “calling out bad actors” is even a good thing, much less justification for a feature. People don’t always get it right, and they don’t always take the time to look at context — especially when they’re incentivized to go for maximum engagement. There’s a reason why mobs aren’t universally loved as a solution to social ills.

Even if you’re of the mindset that of course a white man has the privilege of not recognizing the importance of social media for social justice, I ask this: what’s the end goal? Even if you have done your research and caught someone saying something objectionable online, what’s the goal in publicly spreading it? Mastodon has moderation built into the platform, with options to block individual users or entire servers. Why expose other people to bullshit instead of promoting the good stuff instead?

If we’ve learned anything over the past 10 years, it’s that public shaming has the most impact on the people who least deserve it. The biggest and most prominent assholes don’t care, and they won’t change their behavior. The random jackasses spewing hate and nonsense don’t deserve a wider audience. All that’s left are the people who have the capacity to learn, change, or make amends for whatever they’ve done, and they’re less inclined to do that if they’ve got dozens if not thousands of people calling them assholes. It’s only “accountability” if people are actually held accountable and there are consequences, ideally an opportunity to make amends.

(What Twitter considered “accountability” was more often just repeating the idea “this guy sure does suck, huh?” which persisted long after most people had forgotten what the original offense was, exactly).

I’ve seen proponents of QTs on Mastodon link to this blog post by Hilda Bastian looking at studies of Twitter use to “dispel some myths.” It states that QTs were a small percentage of total tweets in the first place, and that there’s no evidence they encouraged or were predominantly used for dogpiles. I don’t object to the post, and I don’t doubt the observations. What I do object to is the way that some people have used it to say “the data shows that QTs aren’t bad, actually,” as if that were the end of it.

Even if a minority of people were on the receiving end of a dogpile, I imagine it must’ve sucked for them. And I don’t see how their experiences should be so quickly discounted just because they weren’t in a majority. This isn’t like saying, “a percentage of people have been killed in plane crashes, therefore all air travel should be banned.” It’s more like saying, “I know that a relatively small number of posts on Gawker were used to publicly out homosexuals against their will, but isn’t that grounds enough to consider whether the site was absolute garbage?”

With all of these examples, I think we’ve got to recognize how much of what people call “Twitter culture” was designed to benefit no one other than Twitter. People love to spread the idea that the key aspects of Twitter — @ mentions, RTs, QTs, hashtags — were suggested by users and then adopted by the platform. It’s supposed to suggest that Twitter was built by its community of users, but that’s not actually what happened. Twitter appropriated the features that best suited its business model, and largely ignored anything that would actually benefit the community (like actually giving a damn about moderation, for instance). So much of what we think of as being integral to Twitter is about driving up “engagement” for the company’s metrics, not social connection, and definitely not social justice.

So much of what made Twitter especially toxic for me was a result of that: social engineering for Twitter’s benefit. I got overly defensive about everything I posted, thinking that some stranger would jump in and correct or contradict anything I said, not because it’s relevant or useful, but simply because it’s engagement. I would get angry and snap at people who didn’t deserve it, because the culture there a) encouraged you to say anything you feel strongly about, and b) gave a daily list of things that should make you angry or feel bad. It increasingly became more and more depressing as I realized how profoundly shallow the whole experience was: there was a vague sense of awareness about every single noteworthy thing, but without any capacity to do anything about it, or even fully understand it on more than a superficial level.

On Mastodon, everything is reversed. Few people (if any, apart from paid app developers) are actually profiting from it yet. If anything, it’s costing people who are setting up and maintaining servers for the sake of building community. If you’re using the platform as actual social media, instead of as a publishing or marketing platform, then you don’t want super-high follower counts or viral posts, because it makes everything harder to maintain. The lack of discoverability that people complain about is a feature, not a bug: you don’t have things pushed into your feed; everything you see is something that you chose to see (whether directly or indirectly).

It all means unlearning the things you were taught by a company that was doing everything it could to inflate its user base and usage analytics. It means being more mindful of what the whole thing is ostensibly about: interacting with people, and thinking about what you’re putting out into the world.

If or when they bring QTs to Mastodon, I’d hope that it’s done responsibly, and that people are encouraged to think about how and when they use them. Consent should be the foremost concern; you can’t QT someone unless they opt-in, either post-by-post, or for their entire account. And users should always ask themselves: why, exactly, am I doing this instead of replying, boosting, or both? (I found out today that you can boost your own reply to someone else’s post, which would seem to obviate the need for QTs entirely). I don’t know what the technical limitations are for handling QTs across a decentralized network, but I think the main problem is a social one, not a technical one, anyway.

And even if all the objections go unheeded, and it gets added to Mastodon with no changes from the Twitter model, I hope it’s at least reminded people to think about how they use Mastodon and social media in general. Instead of getting so swept up in the “culture” that you’re indulging your own worst behavior, regularly going online to say that it’s a “garbage fire” site for “doomscrolling,” stop and consider whether that really is inevitable in any network of sufficient size, or whether it’s all someone else’s or some company’s fault, or whether you’re helping create and perpetuate that atmosphere yourself.

  • 1
    Well, and this blog, too, obviously. But for idle thoughts too mundane even for this blog to tolerate.
  • 2
    Whereas on Twitter, I got responses from Neko Case twice!