At the time of this writing, Twitter is in chaos. For those of us who are academics using Twitter primarily for a professional social network, this could be a good thing. It gives us the opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to cultivate something different and better. We can look at what is working and what is not working, consider how we would like things to be, and take steps to make that a reality.
Social networks in flux ↤
Those in my professional community use Twitter to announce new papers and job openings, to share new results, to ask questions, to discuss shared experiences, to seek and offer support, and for many other reasons. It is the substrate for a vital network of collegial connections, and a powerful means to communicate broadly with the community. In short, we rely on it.
This brings me to Mastodon, a family of social networks that has gone from virtually unknown to almost a household name in the past few weeks. That is, of course, the time since Elon Musk completed his takeover of Twitter, sending waves of both shock and distaste through the user base, and inspiring many to seek out alternatives. Since then, more than a million new users—myself included—have joined Mastodon, effectively tripling its number of active users.
Initially I joined Mastodon seeking a Twitter replacement, as a backup plan in case of a mass exodus. It didn’t take long before my attitude changed. This is not a replacement for something else, I realized. It’s its own thing. And it’s better. Not just superficially or technically better, but deeply better in a way that has the potential to positively transform academic communication.
This is not by chance. A remarkable aspect of Mastodon is the extent to which intentional design choices act to foster cultural values. These are often the very same features, or lack of feature, that recent arrivals from Twitter immediately find confusing or frustrating.
If you are interested in learning basics about Mastodon, or are seeking tips for how to get started, there are many excellent resources available, some of which I will reference later. This essay focusses on something different, and perhaps more fundamental, namely how we academics can embrace, learn from, and beneficially employ the tools as well as the cultural norms that Mastodon embodies.
Initial impressions ↤
At the moment of signing up, you will already experience a crucial way that Mastodon is different from other social networks: it’s not a free-for all. There are expectations. As you may know, Mastodon is an aggregation of individual social networks, known as instances or servers in Mastodon parlance; the whole ecosystem of interconnected instances is called the Fediverse. Each server has its own communication rules, community expectations for civil interactions that you are expected to adhere to. It is natural that different servers geared toward different communities should have their own set of personalized standards. Establishing and clearly stating such expectations at the outset is already a step in the right direction.
The next thing you notice is: nothing. As in, there is literally nothing on your home timeline. This is by design. There are no ads, no clickbait, no suggestions vying for your attention. All that appears on your home page are posts (true to the pachydermic theme, a post is called “toot” on Mastodon) from people you follow, beginning with the most recent. There is no algorithm. Or, more accurately, we are the algorithm. So if you want to see stuff you have to follow people you find interesting.
To get started, take the time to step up your profile with a header image, avatar photo, links, and a brief biography. Then write an #introduction post using lots of #hashtags. Tell people who you are, what you do, what you’re interested in, etc. This will get passed around and you’ll be on your way to establishing a new network. No need to worry about finding all your connections from Twitter. There are ways to do that, but it will probably happen organically anyway.
It took only a couple of days after joining Mastodon until I felt I had an active and vibrant network, indeed until I preferred being on Mastodon. What was remarkable about this is that I actually felt I was finding, and meeting, interesting people. Even for people I was already connected to on Twitter, somehow on this platform their interesting-ness comes through more clearly. I’ve seen this feeling be echoed by others many times.
Around this time you may realize: it’s different from Twitter. Several times already, I’ve seen a new person arrive and say “Hi Mastodon! I’m here. I’ll now be cross-posting from Twitter,” followed shortly afterward by “Actually, I’m turning cross-posting off. Mastodon feels different and better, so I need to adapt my way of communicating accordingly. I need to take time to figure this out.” In other words, something about this platform is making people stop, reconsider their habitual ways of communicating, and listen. Let’s consider why.
The importance of being unquotable ↤
Unlike on Twitter, there is no way on Mastodon to “quote tweet”, that is, to re-post something with your own commentary attached. You can either choose to “boost”—the Mastodon term for a direct re-tweet—or not. This was an intentional choice designed to prevent dunking, that is, combining a re-post with a put down or criticism.
Before bemoaning this missing functionality, consider what else it means: if you post something, it means anyone else can either repeat it exactly as you wrote it, or not. Your message can’t be changed from the way you intended it. As a consequence, in my experience so far, my words seem to travel farther out from my immediate circle compared to Twitter as they are boosted and re-boosted. The absence of quote tweets means a lossless line in the social network game of telephone, in turn making communities feel more porous and fluid. Moreover, being unable to add “yes but,” “yes and,” or any other thought of your own is a strong encouragement to stop talking and just listen.
Conversely, the choice to boost or not to boost what someone else has to say is a simple binary decision. I find myself freed from thinking that re-posting is a form of endorsement, or that I must have an opinion about it. Do I think that more people should know about this? If yes, then boost. Because Mastodon has no algorithm—you simply see posts from users within the circle of each timeline beginning with the most recent—making this binary decision shapes what your community of followers will see. Playing the role of contributing to the information ecosystem by boosting what I find meaningful and interesting is not just effortless; it’s also fun.
Stepping off to the side with “unlisted” ↤
In the two weeks since joining Mastodon I’ve had several extended conversations where different views were expressed and mutual understand was arrived at, something that has happened to me only rarely on other social networks. Later someone else found one of these threads and commented, “This is exactly the kind of nuanced conversation I’ve been missing.” I couldn’t agree more.
One factor facilitating such exchanges is a preexisting culture of politeness and civility on Mastodon. Yet there is also a crucial design choice at work. This is the ability to have conversations at an intermediate level of privacy, in between a direct message and a broadcast to the entire universe.
On Mastodon, each post will have one of four symbols depending on its privacy settings, chosen by the author at the time of writing. These are a small globe, a unlocked or locked padlock, and an “@” symbol. Posts with an “@” privacy setting are only visible to those users explicitly included in the post by username, the Mastodon equivalent of a direct message. The locked padlock is for posts that are only visible to the author’s followers, and the globe is for public posts that are visible to all.
The most innovative and important setting is denoted by the unlocked padlock and is called “unlisted”. An unlisted post, like a public post, is visible to all, but won’t explicitly appear in public timelines. The unlisted setting is the recommended way to make threads: you set the first post in the thread to public, then reply to your own post using the unlisted setting for subsequent comments. The use of the unlisted setting prevents your entire sequence of 1/n, 2/n, etc., posts in a thread from showing up on everybody’s timeline. Instead, your followers and people on your local server will see your first post only, which they can then choose to expand by clicking on the globe in the upper right-hand corner. And when someone boosts this first post, the thread of posts and replies gets boosted in its entirety.
As well as not clogging people’s timelines, the unlisted setting plays another important function. If, as is considered polite, you set your replies to someone else’s post to unlisted, this means it will only be seen by people who have already decided that they are interested in the topic to begin with. This means that replies of agreement, disagreement, questions, discussion, refinement, whatever—none of these will be seen unless someone takes the intentional action to expand the conversation. It’s like saying, “If you’d like to talk about X we’re going to be in this corner of the room”. That’s different from a DM, which is an invitation-only room with a closed door.
A welcome consequence of this intermediate level of privacy is that it’s easier to have discussions where there are different views. It’s the difference between standing up after a talk saying to the whole world “I see things differently”, or taking a speaker aside after their talk and saying “Thanks for your talk. I see things differently.” Not being in the public arena helps everyone relax and encourages curiosity and dialogue.
Whereas Twitter feels to me like everybody having their own soap box and their own megaphone, Mastodon has much more of a feeling of people sharing and discussing things they are interested in.
A culture of “coolness” ↤
You may also notice that Mastodon has a “cooler” or calmer feeling than Twitter. For me, after getting accustomed to Mastodon, going back to Twitter felt assaulting to my senses, with images and content provoking a strong range of emotions. What was remarkable about this realization was the understanding that it had always been that way, but I had never noticed before because I didn’t have an alternative to compare it to.
The reason this is different on Mastodon is due to the combination of a functionality and a culture of politeness regarding content warnings, concealing screens that are used liberally. If you think there is a reason why someone might not want to see your post—for example, if it is about a controversial or loaded topic such as violence or politics—then it is considered polite to veil it behind a content warning. Viewers then need to click to reveal it. This is a beautiful way of giving people a choice as to what they want to see and engage with.
Another cultural difference is that accessibility is taken seriously. If, as I did initially, you post an image and wonder why it has an ugly red border around it, the reason is that you neglected to include alt text. Alt text is a written description of the image included to accommodate those who rely on screen readers. The cultural value of accessibility is encouraged, but not mandated, through a design choice.
Communication is important. The ability to convey, or receive, information effectively and skillfully can make the difference between finding a solution already in use by others and having to re-create one yourself, and between your ideas having impact in the community and no one ever finding out about your work. More importantly, it can make tangible differences in people’s lives: whether someone feels supported or discriminated against, encouraged or shut down, and valued or ignored all come down in large part to the nuances of how we communicate with one another.
The impending disintegration of our social network is a chance to scrutinize how we’ve been communicating with one another and take concrete steps to improve it. We are therefore at a critical moment, because the habits and etiquette we establish at the outset will shape our culture of communication for the foreseeable future. It is a time for reflection and intentionality. Whether or not Mastodon ultimately becomes the platform of choice for academic social networks, there are invaluable lessons here about how to design for what you value. Let’s listen.
Further resources ↤
There a great many introductions to Mastodon now available, such as Come Join Me On Mastodon, Folks by Clive Thompson. For more details, a few excellent resources are Everything I Know About Mastodon by Danielle Navarro, An Increasingly Less-Brief Guide to Mastodon by Noëlle Anthony, Fedi.Tips, and of course the Mastodon Documentation. Once you’re on Mastodon, you’ll likely find people regularly pass around useful pointers, too, so no need to feel like you’re an expert before jumping in.