We Interrupt This Broadcast

About the exodus of accounts from Mastodon, and all the things that make social media deeply unnatural

Featured image from the Wikipedia entry on Survivorship Bias, image By Martin Grandjean (vector), McGeddon (picture), Cameron Moll (concept) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=102017718

For about as long as I’ve been using Mastodon, there’ve been people warning us about dire problems with Mastodon. Problems that threaten to take down the entire platform unless we take notice and do something about it.

Journalists warned us that we have to have quote-tweets and full text search, or they’ll have to abandon the platform. Waves of tech pundits have assured us that the sign-on process is far too complicated for the platform to ever replace the ease of Twitter.

And over the past few weeks, I’ve seen one account after the other announce that they’re leaving Mastodon (or significantly reducing their presence) because of tone policing, harassment, and the unwieldiness of the Mastodon interface when dealing with hundreds of notifications. The idea, most often, is that those of us who are invested in the platform need to be concerned about this, and we need to work harder to make a welcoming community.

To be honest, I haven’t thought much about most of these, since my reaction is usually along the lines of, “Well okay, bye!” It’s the internet equivalent of a heavy sigh followed by stomping out of the room in a huff, and I can’t be that bothered by the loss of people like that.

But there has been an increasing number of cases where people that I like, and I always believed I would enjoy following on Mastodon, have announced plans to leave the platform for BlueSky or elsewhere. All due to the idea that Mastodon isn’t enjoyable because you “get screamed at.”

Most notable to me was how Neil Gaiman announced that he was much more comfortable on BlueSky than Mastodon, for that very reason. It seemed odd to me, because it seems like every other day, Gaiman has people on Bluesky screaming at him for one reason or another. They yell at him for posing for photos without a mask on (by people who insist that the pandemic will never be “over,” and we should all be wearing masks at all times we are in public), for somehow betraying the non-binary or transgender communities, for casting decisions in series based on his works, for stuff that David Tenant is or isn’t doing in venues completely unrelated to Gaiman, etc. etc.

I don’t understand how he has the patience for any of it. And I can’t imagine how his experiences on Mastodon could possibly have been more annoying than the absolute nightmare that his BlueSky account seems to be. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the perception were due to that scaling problem, either; Mastodon isn’t really designed to handle dozens or hundreds of responses to a post.1I’ve had posts go mildly viral before, getting boosted like 50 times or so, and it basically means Mastodon notifications are unusable for the rest of the day.

But then, Neil Gaiman’s online presence is unique and exceptional. I have never understood how he does any of it, but he has been a personable and accessible presence online for about as long as there’s been any notion of “online.” Way back in the late 1980s (or maybe early 90s?), I sent Mr. Gaiman a fan letter on the GEnie network, and I was surprised that I got a response. And not just any response, or even a “thanks for writing,” but multiple paragraphs, responding to my rambling nonsense with his full attention as if he were chatting with a friend.

And he’s still doing it 30 years later, taking time to engage with people in conversations as close to “real” as the internet allows, making sure that no one goes unheard. It’s not just remarkable; it seems unnatural. Alien.

I think that’s the idea that keeps getting lost whenever we talk about social media, and the online spaces that will “replace” Twitter, Facebook, and so on: None of this is natural. It’s just had tons of money poured into it until it’s become ubiquitous, to where it seems like it’s always been this way.

We’re not meant to be able to engage with so many people, much less give them so much of our attention and our energy. I’m speaking as an introvert, obviously, but there’ve been studies demonstrating that there are limits to the number of people we’re even capable of dealing with, hard numbers expressing how much we can’t even.

(As someone who had a Twitter account since 2007, I’m still on edge after writing the last paragraph, waiting for somebody to respond citation needed or demanding proof of what “studies” or correcting me that the studies were about actual friend groups and not casual interactions, etc, etc. One of the thousands of ways in which social media is unnatural is that we shouldn’t constantly be forced to defend everything we say).

The accounts complaining about having to leave Mastodon have all had thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of followers. This stands to reason, obviously, since the big accounts are the ones we hear about. But I’d suggest that instead of inferring that Mastodon needs to build technological and social safeguards to protect these big accounts, maybe it means that the big accounts aren’t right for Mastodon?

I’ve got plenty of gripes about Mastodon, but the aspect that makes up for most of them is that it feels very direct. It’s not just that it doesn’t have the various algorithms controlling the feed2In fact, I’d say that the factors that go into determining whether I’ll see a post, user, or engagement count on Mastodon are even more baffling than centralized social media, but it doesn’t have the people trying to game the various algorithms. I tend not to see much that’s posted for the sake of drumming up engagement. And when that stuff does inevitably make its way into my feed, at least it feels genuine.

Mastodon feels like rolling back the social media clock to the pre-Facebook days, when there were smaller and more focused communities on message boards and such. BlueSky, on the other hand, feels like rolling back to Twitter from about 10 or so years ago. The worst of the platform — and the whole model, both as a business model and as a model for online social interaction — were yet to come, but the platform was already unnatural and unhealthy. It’s essentially Twitter – Musk – algorithm – bulk account creation + waiting list.

Early on, BlueSky made me uncomfortable because it seemed like people were over-eager just to recreate Twitter before Musk. They wanted it to be cliquey and gossipy, to follow cults of personality, to be full of memes and in-jokes, and to chase scandals and have the “main character of the day.” All of which I hated, and was only mildly pacified by how easy it was to also see nude men.

But I’d been thinking of it as a user looking for a social media outlet. Not as one of those big accounts with thousands of followers. Most accounts like that — again, Neil Gaiman notwithstanding — aren’t looking for a conversational platform, but a broadcast platform. Ideally, one that can take on the appearance of casual conversation to try and dispel any crassness or hard feelings.

Even as somebody who’s been online for decades, I still find myself occasionally replying back to a post from an account with thousands of followers. And there’ll be zero response. And it feels gross, like when you wave back at someone, only to realize that they were waving at someone else, and now you look like an absolute fool.

I keep forgetting that most of these accounts are simulating social interaction, with no desire for actual social interaction. Influencers and content creators make a show of being conversational and looking for engagement with their audience, but they have no means to handle that level of engagement, even if they were genuinely interested.

You hear a lot about the problems of “parasocial” relationships, but it’s always presented as if it’s a problem with the audience demanding too much of the content creators. It’s never presented as a problem of the on-screen people implying an intimate personal relationship that not only doesn’t, but couldn’t exist. How many times have you heard someone in a YouTube video say, “You guys know me,” when of course we don’t.

It’s media that suggests one-on-one communication with a friend: snapshots, home videos, and text messages with jokes or questions or random thoughts. But the content from strangers is mixed in with the content from your actual friends and family, not to mention content from advertisers, and we have to constantly mode-switch between it. A message from someone I’ve known for years, right next to a message from someone I’ve never met, but feel like I’ve known for years.

So maybe we need those divisions? When we look at accounts that have had a miserable time on Mastodon, instead of trying to change the platform to better accommodate them, maybe we should consider that the platform wasn’t well suited to what they were trying to do? Maybe we should acknowledge that one-on-one conversation, and broadcasts to tens of thousands of people, are fundamentally different things?

  • 1
    I’ve had posts go mildly viral before, getting boosted like 50 times or so, and it basically means Mastodon notifications are unusable for the rest of the day.
  • 2
    In fact, I’d say that the factors that go into determining whether I’ll see a post, user, or engagement count on Mastodon are even more baffling than centralized social media

2 thoughts on “We Interrupt This Broadcast”

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head with “Mastodon feels like rolling back the social media clock to the pre-Facebook days, when there were smaller and more focused communities on message boards and such. BlueSky, on the other hand, feels like rolling back to Twitter from about 10 or so years ago.”

    Of course, I believe strongly that BlueSky will end up following the same path as Twitter, too. At some point, they will need to monetise, and that will mean ads. And that will mean “rewarding” engagement bait, which means more anger. And of course, the Nazis will show up because they will get bored with having no one to shout at on Twitter once all the liberals have left. And so it goes.

    I think there’s also an unreal nostalgia for pre-Musk Twitter at work too. Musk made Twitter worse, but it was already bad. Harassment wasn’t invented by Musk, and if you were trans, or gay, or just had a conscience it could easily become very toxic. I had friends who fell into TERFdom, and others who spent their entire lives on Twitter in a way which wasn’t even vaguely healthy for them or other people.

    Mastodon is seemingly pretty impervious to that because – and this is the bit that people often miss – the server is the community, at least for people on smaller servers. Being able to connect to other people on other servers is a bonus, but it doesn’t have to be everything. That’s why people who rail against “servers being able to just block big servers” just don’t get it.

    There’s also a huge amount of Highlander thinking at play: “there can only be one” social network. The number of times on BS and Threads I’ve asked people who post attacks about Mastodon and I’ve asked people why they just can’t enjoy what they enjoy and let other people have what they want… and there’s never a good answer.

    1. I’m particularly interested to hear your take on this, since you’re one of the people with thousands of followers on Mastodon, and I can’t tell if it’s something that is inevitable once you cross some threshold of numbers.

      You’re absolutely right about the Highlander syndrome: my first response is always to be defensive of Mastodon, and it only occurred to me for the first time recently that there’s no need. It’s a shame to lose people you enjoy interacting with, but the key point is that not everybody’s looking for the same thing. I get the sense that BlueSky suits people who are more interested in broadcasting to huge audiences, even if I do agree that it’s clearly doomed to end up like Twitter no matter the “community”’s best intentions.

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