Mastodon, Twitter and publics

Long ago, I wrote about the theory of social sites, with the then-young Twitter as the exemplar. As Mastodon, GnuSocial and other federated sites have caught some attention recently, I thought I'd revisit these theories.


A temporal flow with no unread count that you could dip into was freeing compared to the email-like experience of feed readers back then. Now this is commonplace and accepted. Twitter has backtracked from the pure flow by emphasising the unread count for @'s. GnuSocial replicates this, but Mastodon eschews it, and presents parallel flows to dip into.


Having a face next to each message is also commonplace - even LinkedIn has faces now. Some groups within the fediverse resist this and prefer stylised avatars. On twitter, logos are the faces of brands, and subverting the facial default is part of the appeal to older online forms that is latent in the fediverse.


Twitter has lost a lot of its phatic feeling, but for now Mastodon and the others have that pleasant tone to a lot of posts that comes with sharing and reacting without looking over your shoulder. Partly this is the small group homophily, but as Lexi says:

For many people in the SJ community, Mastodon became more than a social network — it was an introduction to the tools of the trade of the open source world. People who were used to writing interminable hotheaded rants about the appropriation of “daddy” were suddenly opening GitHub issues and participating in the development cycle of a site used by thousands. It was surreal, and from a distance, slightly endearing.

Eugen has done a good job of tummling this community, listening to their concerns and tweaking Mastodon to reflect them. The way the Content Warning is used there is a good example of this - people are thinking about what others might find annoying (political rants, perhaps?) and tucking them away behind the little CW toggle.

The existential dread caused by Twitter’s reply all by default and culture of sealioning is not yet here.


Part of the relative calm is due to a return of the following model - you choose whom to follow and it’s not expected to be mutual. However there are follow (and boost and like) notifications there if you want them, which contains the seeds of the twitter engagement spiral. This is mitigated to some extent by the nuances of the default publics that are constructed for you.


As with Twitter, and indeed the web in general, we all see a different subset of  the conversation. We each have our own public that we see and address. These publics are semi-overlapping - they are connected, but adjacent. This is not Habermas’s public sphere, but de Certeau's distinction of place and space. The place is the structure provided, the space the life given it by the paths we take through it and our interactions.

Since I first wrote Twitter Theory, Twitter itself has become much more like a single public sphere, through its chasing of ‘engagement’ above all else. The federated nature of Mastodon, GnuSocial,  the blogosphere and indeed the multiply-linked web is now seen as confusing by those used to Twitter's silo.

The structure of Mastodon and GnuSocial instances provides multiple visible publics by default, and Mastodon's columnar layout (on wider screens) emphasises this. You have your own public of those you follow, and the notifications sent back in response, as with Twitter. But you also have two more timeline choices - the Local and the Federated. These make the substructure manifest. Local is everyone else posting on your instance. The people who share a server with you are now a default peer group. The Federated public is even more confusing to those with a silo viewpoint. It shows all the posts that this instance has seen - GnuSocial calls it “the whole known network” - all those followed by you and others on your instance. This is not the whole fediverse, it’s still a window on part of it. 

In a classic silo, who you share a server shard with is an implementation detail, but choosing an instance does define a neighbourhood for you. Choosing to join or or will give you a different experience from

Mutual Media

By showing some of these subsets explicitly, the fediverse can help us understand the nature of mutual media a bit more. As I said:

What shows up in Twitter, in blogs and in the other ways we are connecting the loosely coupled web into flows is that by each reading whom we choose to and passing on some of it to others, we are each others media, we are the synapses in the global brain of the web of thought and conversation. Although we each only touch a local part of it, ideas can travel a long way. 

The engagement feedback loops of silos such as Twitter and Facebook have amplified this flow. The furore over Fake News is really about the seizures caused by overactivity in these synapses - confabulation and hallucination in the global brain of mutual media. With popularity always following a power law, runaway memetic outbreaks can become endemic, especially when the platform is doing what it can to accelerate them without any sense of their context or meaning.

Small World Networks

It may be that the more concrete boundaries that having multiple instances provide can dampen down the cascades caused by the small world network effect. It is an interesting model to coexist between the silos with global scope and the personal domains beloved by the indieweb. In indieweb we have been saying ‘build things that you want for yourself’, but building things that you want for your friends or organisation is a useful step between generations.


The other thing reinforced for me by this resurgence of OStatus-based conversation is my conviction that standards are documentation, not legislation. We have been working in the w3c Social Web Working Group to clarify and document newer, simpler protocols, but rough consensus and running code does define the worlds we see.

Kevin Marks See IndieNews