Why did the #TwitterMigration fail?

I’ve been using fediverse stuff (Mastodon and, most recently, Calckey – I’m just going to use “Mastodon” as shorthand here, purists can bite me) for over a year now, and have been doing so full time for about six months, following Elon Musk buying Twitter (since on principle, I decline to give Elon Musk money or attention.) This latter part coincided with the “November 2022 influx”, when lots of new people joined Mastodon for similar reasons. A lot of that influx has not stuck around. Everyone is very aware at this point that active user numbers have dropped off a cliff.

I have evidence of this. I recently shut down my Mastodon instance that I started in November, mastodon.bloonface.com, and (as is proper) it sent out about 700,000 kill messages to inform other instances that it had federated with that it was going offline for good, and to delete all record of it from their databases. Around 25% of these were returned undelivered because the instances had simply dropped offline. These are people and organisations who were engaged with Mastodon and fediverse to the point of investing real time and resources into it, but simply dropped out without a trace some time between November 2022 and now. I know multiple people who tried it and then gave up, due to lack of engagement with what they were posting, lack of people to follow, inability to deal with the platform’s technical foibles, or worse because they found the experience actively unpleasant. Something has gone badly wrong.

There are some good reasons for this that really point to both shortcomings in the whole idea, and also how Mastodon is and was sold to potential new users, some of which might be uncomfortable for existing Mastodon users to hear. There are some conclusions to draw from it, some of which might also be uncomfortable, but some which actually might be seen as reassuring to those who quite liked the place as it was pre-November and would prefer it if it would go back to that.

Much of this is my opinion, based on my personal observations and experiences as someone who’s been all-in on fedi since November, and has been on it since April 2022, starting off on Mastodon.social and moving to my own instance in November. I’m happy to trail it as just that, my opinion, in advance. But I think it should be food for thought either way.

Mastodon here is also being used as a shorthand for various ActivityPub-interoperable platforms for making short messages, including Pleroma, Misskey, Calckey, whatever.

Mastodon did not, and does not, have a unique selling point for most users

As it exists at the moment, Mastodon functions essentially as Twitter did in about 2008. In some ways, that’s nice. The userbase is calmer, the DiscourseTM does not get spun up as easily.

But the thing is, functionality-wise, Twitter in 2008 existed in 2008. We are now in 2023, where someone can use the Twitter of 2023. From a functionality standpoint, Twitter in 2023 is quite good, with some of the alternative Twitter-style frontends (e.g. Misskey and Calckey) being at about parity.

So what does Mastodon bring to the table in addition to Twitter, that might justify someone deciding to take the plunge and move to it? There are a few unique things about the platform, but they generally fall into the broad category of “things users don’t care about”. Chief among these is decentralisation. This brings me to the first thing that might piss off a lot of Mastodon users:

Decentralisation is not a selling point for 99% of people

Mastodon is at risk of falling into the trap that a lot of free/open source software does, where the idea of the software being “free as in speech” is expected to outweigh or explain away deficiencies in its usefulness. However, this ignores three salient facts:

  • Most people don’t give a thruppenny fuck about their freedom to view and edit the source code of the software they use, which they would not know how to do even if they cared;
  • Most people are not ideologically opposed to the notion of proprietary software, and cannot be convinced to be because it is simply not important to them and cannot be explained in terms that are important to them; and
  • When given the choice between a tool which is immediately useful for achieving some sort of goal but conflicts with some kind of ideological standpoint, and a tool which is not as useful but they agree with ideologically, they will probably choose the former.

You might be able to swing some people round to the Richard M Stallman way of thinking. But most people don’t give a shit about freedom, they just want their computer to work and perform X task for them in a way they find acceptable. Proprietary software largely delivers that to them. Your average Windows user does not care about software freedom when their computer is not, to them, a means of self-actualisation, but is instead a tool they use to accomplish computer things, and Windows serves that purpose well enough.

Mutans mutandis, the same applies to fedi with regards to decentralisation. Most people don’t care. It is not something you can sell people on Mastodon with unless they’re predisposed to care about such things. It is, at best, a third-order issue.

Yes, this applies even if you say “but Elon Musk can’t buy it!”. Someone who is still using Twitter right now obviously doesn’t care about Elon Musk owning things, or they consider it a lower-order issue. Remember – people are quite adept at making compromises on their beliefs for the sake of utility or pleasure. There are plenty of people who are deeply worried about climate change and urban sprawl who still drive cars; do you think that Musk owning Twitter is going to make them stop talking to their friends?

Decentralisation makes the user experience worse

As a brief explainer (without wanting to turn this into yet another technical explanation of the fediverse), if you start up a fresh new Mastodon instance, it will see no posts. Its “federated” feed will be blank, the search will not find anything, searches for hashtags will show nothing, it will ingest no posts from other servers. For the instance to start seeing posts, you must follow people.

How are you supposed to find people to follow in this case? Well, either you know someone who also uses it so you follow them (great – your instance now sees the posts of exactly one other user) or you go to one of the directory sites that exist to find accounts to follow. Both of these involve leaving Mastodon and its UI to go to some other place. That’s already a source of significant friction, if not an impossibility.

Then there’s the absolutely abysmal UX of following someone who exists on another Mastodon instance when you’re linked to their profile, which involves the non-obvious steps of manually copying and pasting a URL into a search box on your home instance, waiting for a connection to be made, then following them, at which point you won’t see any of their old posts, just their new ones. Compare and contrast with Twitter’s handling, which is where you search for a username, can see all their posts and can follow them without having to manually copy and paste a single damn thing.

Either way, an instance will then only see the new posts of people who someone on the instance is following. This means that the more people on the server, with the more diverse follow lists, the better things work; the more hashtags will get useful results, the more the federated feed becomes useful as a means of discovery. Conversely, if you are the only user – of one of only a few users – on your instance, your federated feed will just be basically your follow list, so your means of discovery is limited to things your followers boost.

This means that for new users to Mastodon, objectively the best experience is delivered by joining a big instance, e.g. Mastodon.social. .social’s large user base means that its users follow more accounts on more instances than any other, which means it sees more posts than any other, which means new users have a rich source of other users and posts to find and follow, and thus infinitely better discovery options.

However, new users are also encouraged to join small instances, and often explicitly not to join Mastodon.social, typically in service of avoiding centralisation and pursuing a properly decentralised fediverse. Sometimes this works, in that the user joins a smaller instance that is still reasonably active and has enough active users following enough active users. Often it doesn’t. Often they get frustrated and leave because they’re not seeing any posts that they’ve not seen before, when if they were on .social or another massive server they’d be seeing all sorts of content and have a reason to stick around.

Paradoxically, therefore, the best way for a person completely fresh to the decentralised Mastodon network to experience the benefits of that decentralisation, with its variety of different instances and different perspectives, is to join its largest possible instance, thus effectively contributing to its de-facto centralisation.

I don’t think there’s a good solution to this. It’s an inherent issue with the entire model. There are clearly trade-offs in play between decentralisation and convenience, but most users are not willing to accept these, or find Mastodon’s implementation of it so obtuse that it becomes frustrating. Existing users resist the centralisation and get pissed off with .social, its owner (the evil “Website Boy”) or its users, but they don’t really have a good answer to the paradox either, other than to simply ignore it because it is not a relevant issue for them.

The people who accept these trade-offs are not normal, and they’re in charge

Let me return back to my Linux analogy.

Linux, as a desktop OS, is 98% there. For most intents and purposes, a person can use Ubuntu or Mint or whatever as a drop-in replacement for Windows and be able to achieve their immediate goals 98% of the time – type document A, view website B, play game C. Cool.

The problem is that 2%. Because the proposition is not the 98% in a vacuum; it is that there is an alternative that meets 100% of the user’s needs, and they already have it. They are being asked to accept a trade-off of not being able to play their favourite game X, or communicate using app Y, or do work using piece of software Z, in place of something that does those things for them. They have no incentive to switch to something that provides them objectively less utility.

However, the people who are in charge of Linux distributions and are making decisions about how they’re structured, what they include and their compatibility level with other things, are going to be existing Linux users, who use it because it meets 100% of their needs already. That’s an exceptionally different viewpoint from that of someone for whom that 2% is a dealbreaker. That’s why you get the “works for me” stuff on bug reports, it’s why you get joking concepts like the Linux Fault Threshold – the viewpoint they have is of this working thing that works for them so it doesn’t need to change, the world just needs to accept it, warts and all. It takes someone externally to come in and say “fuck this, this is stupid, let’s fix it”, much like Mark Shuttleworth gave everyone a solid kick up the arse with Ubuntu.

Once again, mutans mutandis, the same applies to Mastodon. The people who use it day in day out as their primary or only social media are weird relative to the rest of the Internet. While they’re probably quite happy with Mastodon’s awkward onboarding UX, or the piss-poor approach to cross-instance following, and get frustrated by newbies asking “I’m on mastodon.social, do I have to register on mstdn.io to follow someone there?”, this is because they are used to it. They have a very different perspective from someone who may not even understand what a server is – there’s an increasing number of people who simply never grew up having to comprehend the idea of a server, or even the notion of using a desktop OS. Those people are quite simply talking on a completely different wavelength to people who are already all-in on the fediverse.

And again, as analogised to Linux, the people who are broadly “in charge” of Mastodon, as much as anyone is “in charge” of it, are those who are happy with it as is. So things like the follow UX do not matter to them, because they are already on big servers and have big follow lists already, so they have no insight into what new users go through. The new users have no real feedback mechanism, so they just leave and get frustrated, so things will never change.

To strain the analogy to breaking point; rather than a nice desktop login screen, a new user to Mastodon on pretty much anything except a big server gets presented with the equivalent of the blinking white-on-black text of a barebones Debian login screen. This is not fine. No wonder people left.

Mastodon doesn’t scale well, and its user base accepts no funding model other than charity

The Mastodon software is computationally expensive. It requires significant quantities of disk space without actively taking steps to purge cached media every so often. The distributed model means that a single post from an account with followers on (e.g.) 400 instances means that that’s 400 connections to 400 servers, all at once. It’s very easy for a small server to get overwhelmed and appear unresponsive. Larger instances that exist have had to progressively scale up to handle the disk space and processing demands of Mastodon. The more instances there are overall, the greater the server load on every other instance.

(There are less computationally-intensive server packages – Pleroma, Calckey and Misskey – but Mastodon is now, for better or for worse, the standard. It’s what people expect, and its feature set and API is the key driving force behind the feature sets and APIs of the others.)

The problem here is that despite these large and escalating costs, a significant part of the fediverse is intrinsically hostile to anything other than charity or goodwill as a basis for running a server, due to hostility to capitalism as an abstract or just on a general point of principle regarding how web services should be funded. Any instance that runs advertisements to its users is likely to be blocked by any others purely on those grounds. Some instances have tried to introduce subscription fees for joining, and been blocked as a result. Ownership by a corporate entity or accepting funding from one is also likely to wind up with a block.

This is not really compatible with the demands that running an instance places on its owners. Here we have a catch-22 – everyone should join small instances, but the costs of running those instances will get more prohibitive the more join them, but trying to recoup those costs in any sustainable or consistent way will lead to that instance getting blocked, which means nobody will join them. If you do somehow keep growing through charity or goodwill alone, your instance will become big enough that it isn’t “small”, so naturally nobody should join it.

One interesting development is that Meta (née Facebook) are apparently planning to start a new Twitter-alike called “Threads”, based around the ActivityPub spec. Already, instance owners are threatening to block it entirely, based around concerns as diverse as “Meta can scrape all our data” (which they could anyway, and could already be, because the fediverse is not a secure communication medium in any sense) to “Meta will embrace, extend and extinguish”, something that in my view is a false worry (if they did, all that would happen is that the existing AP spec servers would form their own separate social network… exactly as they did before Threads was a thing). But the reality is that all blocking Threads will do is cut the fediverse off from its most significant expansion possible.

To be clear, I’m not a fan of Meta or Zuckerberg, nor do I think that either would be adopting ActivityPub out of the kindness of their hearts; but I’m also not convinced that repeatedly pushing away any entity with any kind of resources and ability to match the server scaling that a proper decentralised network demands is going to help anything. You’re not going to be able to run a social network the size and breadth of Twitter purely based on generosity when the scaling of the network is so abysmal, or otherwise accepting a significant level of centralisation. The only other alternative, really, is that you don’t have one.

In no small part, Mastodon’s culture is exclusionary

All of the above is tolerable if you want to keep Mastodon/fedi as a niche interest platform for people with niche interests, run for fun and/or based on the goodness of peoples’ hearts. Or if, conversely, you want to make the learning curve deliberately hard and the UX deliberately obtuse so that only the people willing to put up with all manner of bullshit bother to stick around (what I’d like to call the “Arch Linux” approach to community building). It is, however, completely incompatible with mainstream adoption.

In the wake of November 2022, however, a good number of existing users absolutely made it clear that they did not want mainstream adoption; or if they did, they wanted it on their terms and their terms only. It should only include people who matched their specific ideological niche, and completely failing to 100% match the existing norms of the network as it existed then was grounds for banishment.

This did not help with the reputation Mastodon gained as a place where you are subject to the whims of both other users and other disparate community admins, who can and did arbitrarily cut people off from their followers and friends based on non-adherence to some ideological prior or other. This instance includes a “cop”, or a “lib”, or this one journalist on an instance of thousands is a shithead and the (overwhelmed and new) admins didn’t react properly, so out goes the baby with the bathwater.

This was also not helped, to be entirely even-handed, by some recent transplants from Twitter becoming, essentially, born-again evangelists – taking the messages about the existing broad norms around alt text and content warnings and using them as cudgels against others, including both other newbies and people who had been on Mastodon for far longer than they had, and (most disturbingly of all) against any kind of mention of discrimination because it wasn’t “nice” and they didn’t want to see it. Despite the reputation as a “nice” place, there are plenty of people on fedi who (fairly) disdain being “nice” and disdain being “SFW” constantly and also (completely fairly) disdain the idea of having to content warn every single brainfart someone has that might not be about “nice” things.

To be clear; it is absolutely fine to want to keep your existing community as is. Blocking servers that are actually infested with harassers and bigots is A-OK, and indeed a worthwhile leisure activity. It is the right of every instance to block whoever and whatever it likes.

It is not fine to act in the overtly hostile way that a lot of people did to newcomers. It is not fine to decide that whatever ideology you have about the Internet, politics or the world in general should also be enforced on everyone else. It is not fine to make sweeping and exclusionary judgments about anyone who is “using fedi wrong” by joining a big instance, despite this as noted being an objectively better experience. It is not fine to fail to remember that other server admins are humans who are capable of making errors of judgment, just as everyone else is. It is not fine to react in the way a lot of users did in November, as assuming that anyone who was not 100% on board with their particular brand of anarchism should be silenced, and then wonder why everyone fucked off.

The lesson to learn

I think it is safe to say that Mastodon’s expansion from now on is, in the absence of Twitter actually finally imploding, going to be a trickle rather than an explosion. BlueSky has its problems – most notably that it’s being run on a dumb “freeze-peach” basis with only token moderation – but it’s sucked up all the oxygen in the room by simply not presenting this decentralisation stuff front and centre, and making it all but irrelevant to the end user by having only a single large instance. Meta’s new “Threads” could lead to more mainstream adoption, but is likely to be cut off from the existing ActivityPub-based networks and effectively be its own defederated silo, along the lines of Counter.Social, Truth Social and Gab.

We are, however, getting something of a repeat of this with Reddit’s current brouhaha over API changes, only this time with the mooted alternative being Lemmy and more specifically Kbin.social. The latter has already avoided a lot of the above pitfalls, and is growing quite nicely, but the worry from my side is that the same purism and proselytisation about decentralising everything will eventually bugger up the #RedditMigration exactly as it did the #TwitterMigration.

In truth, I don’t think these things are truly fixable. The decentralised nature of the network introduces inherent issues and trade-offs that ruin the end user experience, and the people who are by and large responsible for anything that might ameliorate those trade-offs are also the people who are least likely to perceive an issue with them. Mainstream adoption as such is not really possible, without pissing off a lot of the people who have made Mastodon their home, or at least getting those people to make some compromises they will not want to make. If they don’t want to, that’s fine, but that will have to come at the same time alongside it remaining an obscure, niche network.

My instinct is that that is where Mastodon will land. It is niche and it will stay niche, and as above I don’t think the conditions that existed in November 2022 for a potential surge in adoption will exist again. Mastodon had its chance and it blew it – if it wants mainstream adoption, it needs to work on the above points and more so that the next time Elon fires the Chief Not Being A Prick administrator at Twitter and there’s another potential exodus, Mastodon is seen as something better than it currently is.

To be clear, this isn’t my “I’m leaving Mastodon/fedi” post. I’m not going back to Twitter, I am happy with my Mastodon follow list as it is. But I have given up on trying to recruit people and instead have taken a more “build it and they will come” approach with my current instance, Fine City Social. I’ll try and bring people over if they’re interested, but I find it very hard when discussing fedi to try and not get bogged down in technical minutiae, or to have to outline processes and user journeys that sound stupid to me even as I’m typing them, or to answer questions that basically boil down to “that sounds overcomplicated and too technical for me” with a question mark on the end. Maybe one day, that will change. That day is not today.

UPDATE25th June: I’ve decided to stop using Fedi. I’m not going back to Twitter (and will not use it while doing so delivers money, however small an amount, to Elon Musk, who is a repellent arsehole). But Mastodon has driven me up the wall recently for all the above reasons and more.

53 responses to “Why did the #TwitterMigration fail?”

  1. Your post actually exposes how people have been conditioned to think that technology is beyond their understanding and that only Big Corp is going to take care of it for them, which is how we ended up with 5 websites having 99% of the internet traffic and ads in the Start menu. Until that changes, there’s nothing meaningful we can do, except, of course, talk to those willing to listen.

    1. “Your post actually exposes how people have been conditioned to think that manufacturing cars is beyond their understanding and that only Big Corp is going to take care of it for them, which is how we ended up with 5 manufacturers having 99% of the car market* and car ads on TV.”

      As a 40-plus year veteran of the sharp end of the technology industry I’m here to tell you that technology *is* beyond most people’s understanding, and *that should be OK*. My experiencing of switching on a light shouldn’t be worse because I don’t understand in depth how the electrical grid works.

      So congratulations on largely missing the point of the post, which can be summarized as: Most people don’t want to have to know how to make a sausage in order to enjoy a sausage.

      *These numbers are not correct and are used for satirical purposes only.

      1. Couldn’t have put it better.

        I don’t need to understand the precise mechanics of how a hybrid drivetrain works to drive my car. I am content to simply know that I can press the big red “Start” button and select “D” and then the car will move. That’s not Honda taking advantage of me or some shit, nor really does that reflect poorly on me as a person. It is just not something I really give a fuck about.

        There’s a very weird tendency in FOSS circles to assume that because the mechanics and interactions of things are of interest and/or concern to *them*, they should be of interest and/or concern to *everyone*, and anyone who doesn’t show interest and/or concern is an idiot who has been brainwashed in some sense. But this only ever seems to apply to products or services that involve computers.

        I would definitely not be considering whether “name” up there, for example, knows the recipe of every single restaurant meal they consume; otherwise they might have been conditioned by Big Fine Dining to think that making a gourmet five course meal is beyond them. Or why Richard M Stallman has never got on a high horse about how if he wants he should be able to land his own home-built Boeing 747s at JFK airport.

        In reality most people are more than happy to compartmentalise. To sort of misquote GamersNexus’ Steve Burke, while he’s happy to go into the nitty-gritty of computer hardware, he doesn’t care to cook for himself so he happily pays for other people to cook for him. I don’t consider that any better or worse than someone whose skills may be in a completely different field to mine not giving a shit about the source code their computer runs or who owns the site they look at cat pictures and dumb arguments on. And who am I to argue with Tech Jesus?

        1. I’m in my mid 40s. I’ve been tinkering with tech stuff since I was a teenager. Did the BBS thing (my buddies and I even wrote a door game), built my own machines, modded my xbox, ran websites, used winsock on windows 3.1 to connect to the web, blah, blah.

          I have 3 kids with busy schedules. I just need my stuff to work when I need it to work. I don’t have time to screw around with stuff when it isn’t working (I still do of course). I don’t tinker much anymore. My desktop pc is an M1 Mac Mini. I can’t customize a damned thing hardware wise and I’m okay with that because it works every time I need it to.

          I totally understand why people want that with their social media.

      2. I wanted to upvote your comment, but I can’t tell it that’s not an option or if I’m just missing it because of a bad UI.

        1. There’s no upvote downvote system on this site, sorry!

    2. Then there will never, ever, be anything meaningful you can do, because it will never, ever change. Because it’s not a result of conditioning, it’s just how people are.

  2. I really love the theme/design of your website. Do you ever run into any browser compatibility problems? A small number of my blog audience have complained about my site not working correctly in Explorer but looks great in Safari. Do you have any ideas to help fix this problem?

    1. Unfortunately not my wheelhouse, really!

      This site just runs an off-the-shelf WordPress theme called Zoologist, which I chose because it’s a) visually simple and b) handles different screen sizes and formats gracefully.

      My main bloonface.com site is hand-coded but mainly just some basic CSS.

  3. It was less than a month ago that I tried having a discussion echoing almost the same thoughts


    I got muted and blocked for my insolence, and ended up blocking a particularly excruciating instance owner/moderator.

    Mastodon appears to be very welcoming to LGBTQ folks, communists, socialists, scientists, Apple users, and not so much to Democrats not right of Bernie, Microsoft, Corporations, Windows, and positively hostile to Nazis and associated Republicans.

    Black people are curiously few, apparently there is hostility to them.

    Yes, there is also the familiar disdain of what proprietary software users face from FOSS people.

    After six months of experimentation, I suspect it’ll remain a niche place. While I am not convinced of the stated advantages of decentralization, I don’t find it obstructive either.

    I do feel that the niche factor is not going to remain if the joint grows to 30 million users or so.

    Larger instances will sell, because the charity model is not sustainable. Someone estimated the cost to be $500 for 10,000 users. So it will get to the point where the mother ship mastodon.social will grow disproportionately.

    So much so that fedi.tips is encouraging de-federating it.

    I plan to remain until I am banned, or generally rejected for my content. Or if the moderation goes to shit.

    Same as it was with other social media. Quit Qwitter long before Musk.

    To me, USENET with a great killfile worked wonders.

    Mastodon allows a more productive medium.

    Thank you for this article.

  4. I agree with a large proportion of what you say here. Very well put. I particularly feel uneasy about the zealots who insist on being inclusive by being exclusive.

  5. I started using Mastodon early 2018, used it a bit, then almost forgot about it. When Musk bought Twitter I started using it a bit more again, saw more people joining. Honestly, it’s fine.

    But I never bothered operating my own instance as many did (and I still don’t get why? I also don’t run my own email server while still not using Gmail). So I’m not at all surprised that 25% of the instances have shut down, most of those have probably had exactly one user anyway.

    Yes, Mastodon is niche and it will stay niche and I have absolutely no problem with that. Yes, Mastodon lacks some of the features that were fueling my unhealthly Twitter addiction, and I’m glad they’re missing!

    And worries about scaling aside, I’m done investing into a new central social network. Quitting Twitter was a great choice, and my little Mastodon community is a perfectly fine replacement. Decenentralized, less action, fewer shit storms, some decent conversations around topics that interest me. What else do I need?

    1. Just as one data point, I started a single-user instance because every time I tried to pick a small-to-medium sized instance, they blocked a few of the servers of people I wanted to follow, almost never for reasons that made any sense. A relatively large server that a friend from Twitter is on was blocked because the admin didn’t respond to an email in 12 hours. On a weekend.

  6. I read the whole article and I agree with your basic concepts but (of course) I feel that the bloviation coefficient is your inherent vice.

  7. Jeffrey Davis Avatar
    Jeffrey Davis

    Agree with everything here and you didn’t even mention paying for T&S and compliance. But that’s one selling-point opportunity still out there for someone: providing an environment that’s both fun and not abusive. The fediverse has an answer for that, but I’m skeptical.

    *If* Post found more success, then its model offers that plus a way to share content without being paywalled. This is more in the hands of writers/publishers than users now, though. It’s in a chicken-egg phase. Since I think it’s a good model, I hope more folks will give it some benefit of the doubt.

  8. […] Why did the #TwitterMigration fail? […]

  9. […] Why did the #TwitterMigration fail? […]

  10. […] Why did the #TwitterMigration fail? –I’ve been using fediverse stuff (Mastodon and, most recently, Calckey – I’m just going to use “Mastodon” as shorthand here, purists can bite me) for over a year now, a… […]

  11. […] reading a blog post called “Why did the #TwitterMigration fail?” by Bloonface, I thought, “what kind of name is Bloonface?” Then I thought, I […]

  12. […] posted a link the other day to this sobering essay about how the promised migration to Mastodon didn’t go as hoped. It makes some assumptions about what people were hoping for in the first place, but if you were […]

  13. Good post, but there are numerous issues not raised. Chief among these is an abhorrent lack of understanding of network structure and theory by most in the ICT industry; to wit the centralization vs decentralization debate. The second is a lack of understanding the role settlements play between and within networks to reduce risk (by providing incentives and disincentives) and rebalance geometric value captured at the core and top by a few with the more or less linear costs borne by the masses.

    Happy to have this conversation F2F whoever you are Bloons. Everything is a network and we need to learn from the mistakes of Internet 1.0 through the present discussion, particularly with regards to AI. More on my thoughts about rethinking our approach to humanity’s networks here: https://bit.ly/2iLAHlG

  14. […] An essay on the #twittermigration, and the lessons to be learned from it. […]

  15. “Meta will embrace, extend and extinguish”, something that in my view is a false worry (if they did, all that would happen is that the existing AP spec servers would form their own separate social network… exactly as they did before Threads was a thing).

    But it won’t be exactly the same, or even really close, because by that point, blocking Meta’s server will involve severing the social connections that people built with the users on that server. A lot of people would be reluctant…if they built those connections in the first place…which need not happen, if nobody federates with Meta’s instance to begin with.

    Somehow I doubt that Meta will make it convenient for its users to migrate off its server.

    1. I was the admin that scheduled an admin meeting with Meta that started a recent shit storm on fediverse.

      The meeting went amazingly well, and we had lots of discussions and i look forward to having many more.

      Account portability is, i believe, required by law for Meta. At least in the context of exporting data – which is all that is needed to rebuild a graph somewhere else if the connections can be made.

      If we don’t make it insanely easy to import accounts and preserve their social connections.

      We’re idiots 🙂

  16. Honestly, I’d much rather fix the issues you’ve mentioned and still keep things small. I want the search and follow issues fixed too. I don’t like the ideological extremism and mnewbie bullying either. I want server owners to be properly compensated, and if that means subscriptions [within reason] I don’t think that should be grounds for shunning. I want Mastodon to take up less system resources too, or failing that, for people to be more willing to switch to something better. What I don’t want is to do any of this for the reason of bringing more people in.
    I want the community to stay relatively small, and I want us to have similar goals, even if I’d also like less extremism and circlejerking over all. I like the focus on accessibility, collaboration, and positivity that I still thankfully see more than the extremist BS. What I don’t want is a massive flood of new users who don’t respect the rules and won’t bother to read the room. New viewpoints are fine, more connections to cool people? That’s good! But just a huge load of people who only come there to get away from Twitter, or to virtue signal? Yeah fuck that, no thanks.
    I’m blind, I’ve seen the number of posts on my federated timeline go from 1 out of 5 with no image description to 3 out of 5 with no image description since the Twitter blowup. I’ve seen triple the bots posting constant doomscroll material and low effort buzzfeed level content. I’ve seen Twitter reposting, quoting, and all those other frowned upon behaviors go up exponentially. I don’t feel nearly as welcome as I used to, even if the new viewpoints are kind of refreshing.
    As far as I’m concerned, it’s a good thing that many of those people left, and it was always going to happen anyway once they lost interest or disagreed with something about Mastodon’s community, or just didn’t like the UI. Oh well, best of luck to them, I genuinely hope they find somewhere nice. But less is more when it comes to this kind of thing IMO.
    From a broader outlook, more users means more stress on the system, both financially and resource wise. It means more incentive to sell out the fedeverse to corporate interests. It means more attention from trolls. And it means so many new users showing up that they, unwittingly or otherwise, end up trampling on everything we’ve built and imposing their own wishes onto the project, wishes that, if we bowed to all of them, would turn Mastodon into a carbon copy of Twitter.
    If they are willing to learn, it’s different, but so many aren’t. They just want to use the system to do the same shitty things they’ve been doing on Twitter for years.
    If this makes me sound elitist, I’ll take that. But I do genuinely think that activity pub may help us with our social media blight, and probably the more people on it the better. Just please, not the shitty ones in my corner of it though, okay? I think that’s understandable…

  17. […] so wie es momentan vor sich hin blubbert, extrem öde und auf die Dauer nicht überlebensfähig. (Die Probleme sind hier gut beschrieben) Wenn dein ganzer Pitch ist, nicht Elon Musk zu sein und irgendwas mit dezentral, dann wirst du […]

  18. Decentralization is, on its face, inherently incompatible with social media. Or at least large scale social media.

    The inherent proposition of social media is to connect with anyone. So proposing arbitrary divisions between who can connect to who is inherently self-defeating.

    Some structures are inherently monolithic, and that’s OK

  19. I appreciate your point of view, but I’m not quite so down on the future of Mastodon. I liked the Twitter of 2010 a lot and used third-party apps (RIP Tweetbot) to keep getting that chronological non-algorithmic feed until the wheels feel off. I can get that from Mastodon/Ivory, but it’s a lot more work. I’m hopeful that Mastodon can overcome a lot of the issues you’ve outlined by improving the performance of the server software and the utility of clients.

    With that said, I think the problem that nobody is talking about in terms of instance costs is the threat of litigation. If you maintain an instance with 100 people on it and one of them says something that you find banal but someone else thinks is legally actionable, you are going to wish you had more than the charity donations of your users to fight back. You could delete the post in question, but if that does not deter some litigious jerk, your instance is in trouble, and maybe you are as well. And if you go around deleting posts on demand, your users will abandon you.

    1. The litigation is a good point, but I think where the other shoe is really going to drop is GDPR.

      The moment you post something on fedi anywhere followers can see it, it is immediately syndicated to hundreds of other servers, and whether those servers choose to honour delete commands or privacy controls is up to them. As far as I’m aware, most of the big ActivityPub software will respect delete commands, but it’s always open to some shitty Pleroma fork or whatever to ignore them.

      Either way, your posts immediately become subject to the infosec and privacy policies of hundreds of servers, in many different jurisdictions. But because you submitted them to your instance, it’s your instance that has the responsibility for that.

      So far I don’t think it’s come up but eventually there’s going to be someone – possibly someone in quite a desperate situation – who discovers their posts being archived by some Pleroma Nazis, will suddenly discover exactly what this fediverse thing they’ve been using has been doing with everything they post, decides to try and invoke GDPR rights and then all hell breaks loose.

      My instance has this caveated in its privacy policy but it’s something that I don’t think gets discussed enough, particularly given how everyone tends to instead just circlejerk about how secure fedi is and how nobody can snoop on what you say.

      1. I’ve had a user try and use GDPR to hide their trail of abuse.

        All I did was save their message and show them how to initiate an account and delete themselves.

        GDPR isn’t associated with the federated content per se, it’s the information on the account. The only part covered by GDPR is the email address (we don’t collect other forms of GDPR information) and I happily made it nonpublic but also happily keep it in our system since under GDPR we can use it as a system of record to track the history of abuse.

        GDPR is sloppy, but it’s not quite the fediverse weapon some tried to make it.

        but overall, i think the vocal privacy folks have a bad understanding of what public protocol means and if/when they finally realize this – we may be in for another storm of nonsense.

  20. I agree with all the things in the post, but I would add one point of possible hope: tools.

    Those who built tools and companies on top of Twitter came to regret it. Those who built tools and companies on top of Reddit came to regret it. With those two stark examples in hand it might be the tool builders who bring the regular folk to Fediverse.

    – Tool builders will come because they don’t have to ask permission to exist.
    – Users will come because they love the tools, the pretty interfaces.

    1. Well… sort of.

      At the moment those tool-builders aren’t doing things that API-intensive, and they’re doing these light-touch on a platform that’s relatively quiet.

      If someone comes up with something that hammers instances (or *an* instance) with API requests, that service is quite likely to get its keys revoked and told (either kindly or not so kindly) to leave.

      And quite a few people have come up with some bright ideas for tools that the network generally objects to (principally scrapers, and yeah, fuck those guys) and been run out of town. Essentially Mastodon’s API replaces the “fuck you, pay me” approach of Twitter with a more informal one where you don’t have certainty and if more than a few people object to whatever tool you’ve created on principle it will simply cease functioning or you’ll have to deal with a barrage of shit in your mentions.

      So far there’s only a handful of pretty interfaces that exist and Meta looks to be developing one. I’ll be interested to see what they come up with because I think them interfacing with ActivityPub is pointless for a variety reasons, both from their perspective and everyone else’s, and I’m curious how they try to square the circle between wanting to run a social networking site and needing to either obfuscate or educate end users on a whole heap of bullshit they don’t care about.

      1. I really appreciate you taking the time to write this and reply to comments here.

        I run universeodon.com and the whole “heap of bullshit” that comes with trying to satisfy users when a large chunk of the fedivese thinks they’re invalid is hard… and not for technical reasons, but what I’d call maturity reasons.

        We’re supposed to be federated. We’re supposed to be loosely coupled. We’re built on a public protocol. We’re run by humans. We don’t have an AI or an Algo pushing things on you.

        But what we do have are instances and uses imposing ideology over everything and sending out the mob to impose it.

        Oh, I have search. Yes I do. 7 months now. Not a single report of abuse.

        I shared that data with the community and was told to die.

        I got sick of waiting for Meta to join fediverse So i arranged a meeting to hear more and I was told to die a lot more.

        Because were loosely couple and because there is no AI or Algo – you have to intentionally choose the relationships of who and where and what you follow.


        That’s what I advocate for.

        If you don’t want to follow Meta, I’m not forcing you to. Don’t follow anyone there.

        If you want to follow Meta, I’m allowing you. You have your agency.

        If you *hate* meta – you can block their entire domain/instance. You can filter posts. You have your agency and no one is forcing anything upon you.

        I wish i could grab a beer or some food with folks like you and talk to people and share some stories and scheme about what could/can be.

        Unfortunately, me doing that often results in death threats.

        Which makes me believe that the problem isn’t what Meta will bring to fediverse, but what the harm the fediverse will bring to Meta if they’re not careful.

        And that f’n SUCKS.

        1. Thank you for commenting. Honestly the sort of inter-instance drama and bullshit that you’ve gone through is one of the main contributors to why I don’t really want to use fedi any more. So much of it seems to involve childish playground spats between people using their user bases and their social connections as weapons to bash people who they don’t agree with in some way. The reality of course is that managing a social media service is hard work that requires decent judgment calls, a decent amount of tolerance of things that you may not agree with, and a willingness to leave petty beef to one side when it conflicts with users’ interests. All of which seem to be in short supply.

          Many instance admins don’t seem to understand that by holding themselves out as instance owners for the public, they are actually becoming service providers to a disparate user base, and that that user base has interests apart from their own and an implicit level of trust that the admins are going to do right by their user base. The instance’s users are, in effect, customers and they have a fair expectation of a reliable, decent service. The first thing in admins’ minds when they think about blocking another server – or do anything, frankly – isn’t “what goal does this achieve for me?” but “does this actually help my users?”

          In practice, defederation is used far too frequently as a cudgel for ideological reasons or just for petty spite. Nobody gives a shit if you block Nazi-infested or transphobic shitholes or whatever, on the very sound basis that if you don’t then the Nazis and transphobes will come and harass your users; “X admin is a bumhead and thinks things I don’t agree with” is just dumb, and a misuse of peoples’ trust in their instance admins.

          A certain server admin and managed host operator I could care to mention should know better than to do this petty shit, but somehow didn’t. It’s fucking embarrassing. But the users paid the price.

          Also, as you’ve discovered, fedi’s pretences to being “nice” and “harassment free” are exceptionally contingent. The harassment of people who didn’t sign some dumbshit “pact” is another case in point.

  21. I, as a tech guy who does understand the fediverse, also left Mastodon for exactly the reasons you describe.

    But to be fair, the only reason I joined is because you on Mastodon cannot change dark mode to light without an account. THAT is already UX/UI issue number one for new users.

    1. It probably says more about me and my preferences for dark mode (see: this website) that I had completely forgotten that Mastodon had a light mode until this exact comment.

      That is pretty silly. Not least since a great deal of social media traffic is people looking at posts while not logged in or a member.

  22. Ni! Just for your curiosity, there was a fediverse before activitypub and it had solved all the issues you mention. It just never got dev trendy ’cause kids these days. It’s still growing and evolving, its protocol has been called Zot, Zot6 and more recently Nomad.

  23. This isn’t a defense of Mastodon, but there’s a bunch you’ve misunderstood here. First is about the base of your argument: The ActivityPub is a protocol. It’s not supposed to have RTB’s or “a plan to scale.” In fact, that’s the exact opposite of its intention.

    Second, the protocol UX isn’t exclusionary, it’s opinionated. The UI requires you to actively create your own list of people to follow, versus having that list “suggested” to you.

    If you could trace back the beginnings of the fall of social media, it began when the functionality you are asking for manifested itself in the Facebook feed. This feels like an attempt to undo that. Seeing content presented to you should be a customizable experience. The local and federated “feeds” are a bonus, but why would you even use the Fediverse that way vs. follow hashtags you’re interested in.

    I think you nailed the Linux comparison, but unlike Windows and MacOS — Twitter and Reddit are *broken*. The use case here is to flatly to have a social platform that works, versus the decentralization positioning.

    1. ActivityPub is a web standard protocol – so it scales with HTTP. Mastodon solves the processing scale by using sidekiq and queuing the jobs. I’ve processed over 3 billion jobs and haven’t broken a sweat.

      It “scales” also by using shared inbox. So if a post goes to 10k people at Meta, only one post goes there and Meta distributes it to 10k people.

      UX being opinionated is exclusionary if developers are not allowed to create suggestions if they want suggestions. Neither have to be forced/imposed. I Kind of wrote about this in my “cathedral vs the bazaar” blog post in which i sounded severe frustration that we don’t allow innovation or don’t practice being open source very well – we’re more of a cathedral.

      and finally.. “fall of social media” – we had about 11 million people try mastodon and probably only about 100k people actually use it more than once a month. I have a huge problem with this philosophy because it imposes ideological views.

      take Meta for example. I don’t use it, don’t have it on my phone – won’t ever have it on my phone – but there are people there. BILLIONS who use it who don’t have this “fall of social media’ mindset because their communities don’t focus on stuff like that – they don’t look at recommendations – they already follow their networks and they already get value from what they have and they’re not caught up in drama or politics or fighting. they share family photos, they share vacation photos, the fund raise for charities, they talk about each others birthdays – they do simple social things that mastodon is largely devoid of – and yet – we claim the “Fall of social media”

      We fight to not allow these features to come here. We fight to block instances from connecting people with search/discover – even if its opt in. We make people go back to twitter and FB to find friends and harp them into moving over…

      and if they move over and behave like they want to be social – they often get shuned. They have less agency. Their default post goes to “local” and mods moderate their posts based on how they perceive their instance.

      We then tell them we do this for their safety… the safety story that is contrived and spread like gospel.

      and then when people challenge any of this – we tell them they’re doing it wrong or if they have evidence to prove how silly things are – we just tell them to drink bleach.

      1. take Meta for example. I don’t use it, don’t have it on my phone – won’t ever have it on my phone – but there are people there. BILLIONS who use it who don’t have this “fall of social media’ mindset because their communities don’t focus on stuff like that – they don’t look at recommendations – they already follow their networks and they already get value from what they have and they’re not caught up in drama or politics or fighting. they share family photos, they share vacation photos, the fund raise for charities, they talk about each others birthdays – they do simple social things that mastodon is largely devoid of – and yet – we claim the “Fall of social media”

        I’ve got to say that I find the “fall of social media”/”Meta are scared of fedi! They’re trying to kill it!” stuff to be far, far too redolent of the “coming currency crash”/”big banks are scared of Bitcoin! They’re trying to kill it!” stuff that crypto enthusiasts put out.

        In both cases, “they” – the banks, or Meta – are both incredibly strong and able to kill off this amazing, promising new technology in its infancy, but also weak, and easily able to be defeated just as soon as fedi/crypto achieves mass market usage, which it will, inevitably and apparently magically.

        Of course, crypto’s mass usage as a payment medium usurping the established players never happened and won’t ever happen, because its enthusiasts have never managed to make a case for why it’s better than the money and payment instruments everyone already has that doesn’t involve acceptance of some pretty hefty and niche ideological priors. That and, it is greatly worse, less accessible and less useful than regular money in most ways that count, and whatever interesting aspects it has are more on the level of being interesting ideas than actually useful ones.

        Similarly, I doubt that fedi will manage to usurp Meta and co. for many of the same reasons. Its enthusiasts aren’t able to make a case that appeals to anyone who doesn’t already share their niche beliefs about how the Internet should be organised, and it is simply not as good for what most people want to use social media for. Whatever interesting aspects there are are essentially just curios (“Wow, I can post on the YouTube-equivalent from the Twitter-equivalent!” That sounds horrible, who wants to do that?!)

  24. I looked at it, whatever it is? I tried a few times and gave up.

    Too much new jargon. Fediverse! Instances. .social

    People including me want to signup and subscribe to things we’re interested in. We don’t want to learn about a new system unless we can figure it out in a few minutes. What were we signing up for?


    I have the above in my password manager from 18 months ago. How do they relate? I want everything in one place. But we already have email, text, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.


    I don’t like Musk and haven’t for years, but Twitter more or less works.

  25. People who’ve been on the fediverse since 2016 don’t see growth as a goal. We’re not champing at the bit to get everyone off twitter onto a mastodon instance. If you think you like it better on twitter, that’s great, legitimately, you play in your sandbox and we’ll play in ours. But I will point out that fedi does have two unique selling points you overlooked: the first is that I have control over what I see in my timeline. I don’t have to deal with ads or posts that were chosen for me by some unknowable algorithm. The second, which twitter has never had (not even in 2008) is content warnings. Being able to engage with unpleasant topics on my own terms has been a terrific boon to my mental health. I’m much happier and less anxious than when I was on corporate social media. If most people value whatever twitter offers over what I value about the fediverse, then I’m happy both places can coexist

  26. “I decline to give Elon Musk attention”……mentions him in the first paragraph.


    1. It’s rather hard to talk about a subject like Twitter without mentioning Musk.

      I’m also not convinced it is giving Musk any “attention” in a meaningful way to acknowledge his existence and that I don’t like him.

  27. Your article misses what is to my mind the biggest reason people fail to stay in the Fediverse once they’ve moved to it.

    Humans are, by and large a bunch of crackheads. We’re SO addicted to the regular dopamine hits that sites like Twitter and Facebook administer that when people come to the Fediverse and fail to receive their feel-good juice, everyhthing is terrible and they wander away unsatisfied.

    It’s just that simple.

  28. To fail it would have had to have an aim – I don’t think it did.
    There would have had to be someone driving it – I don’t think there was.
    For Mastodon/Fediverse to have failed at it, it would have had to be _for_ that – it wasn’t.

    Inspection and decentralisation are not presently important for many, so what? That does not make a centralised system – which I think just as few people regard as a key or selling point – important for them, or reduce the attraction of the federated systems for those (few if you like) who do have a use-case or an affinity for them.

    Most users want something that works and persists and does a few things for them or lets them do a few things.

    If the people who build, maintain, and administer, that something like some particular way of doing it then that is vastly more significant than what the people who don’t build and fix it don’t care about.

    Now what users do care about is important, but it is important to them, and to nice people who want to make something nice for them, and demonstrably rather less important to people who have particualr ways of making money out of them or pressing ideologies rather less benign than “no kings or princes, rough consensus and running code” on them.

  29. “the idea of the software being “free as in speech” is expected to outweigh or explain away deficiencies in its usefulness”

    well, it’s also free as in free beer. some things just being free – that is a value proposition in itself. that is “immediately useful”. sure, foss with its ideas is all that – but users also don’t _have_ to really care about those ideas – they can just use a service, for free. or use a piece of software, for free. with no ads – the most visible, upfront, straightforward value, compared to other “free*” services/apps. “it’s free, and i don’t see ads.” – that’s already great.

    beyond that, some people might care about what stands behind a service – the people, the company, the community, etc. – and that in itself might be valuable to some.
    and like, when people use ‘free/foss’ services and apps – they don’t have to ‘buy in’ to the whole idea of foss, or look at the source core, or whatever. most of them don’t – great, they don’t have to, and there are gonna be people who do care about that and ensure that it is free and good, so that a regular person can just hit ‘download’ without worry. the point isn’t quite the literal ‘to be able to look at a code’ – it’s about having a sort of distributed trust – ‘it’s out there, people can check it, people do check it, and all is well – and i can just use it’.
    with some tools, it’s not hard to explain the value of a free alternative. especially for stuff that is very literally not free as in ‘paid’, or stuff that’s ‘monetized’, with stuff like ads. there’s paid, there’s free*, there’s ‘you are the product’ – this is just free.
    and, the value of a tool that is ‘just free’ – sometimes, it’s easier to just get a free program and start using it, and continue using it, even if it might be somewhat lacking compared to other proprietary/paid alternatives. ‘yeah, it may be a little lacking, but i can just use it, right away, without going through some ‘buying software’ process, or having to deal with ‘freemium’ bs like ads’. it may shakeout differently between foss and free but proprietary software, but with how popular freemium/ad-supported models are, and in comparison to paid apps – free apps are actually easier and more immediate to use and gain value from. there is that moment of ‘even if it’s lacking, it’s better just because it’s free’, without even the foss part.

    i could agree with ‘decentralization is kind of a rough, if not a meaningless feature sell’, but ‘free software’ isn’t that tough of a sell. users don’t have to buy into its ideology, they can just enjoy free stuff. they can just take advantage of its benefits, without having to go in deeper – that in itself is great.

    though, the services landscape, with companies making all sorts of moves, and with quite established platforms having those tumultuous shakeups – resulting from companies shuffling things, the idea of ‘caring about what and who owns the platform’ and ‘having a getaway vehicle – a way, if not to preserve what’s been established, to at least to get out and move’ – might be slowly getting across to people. maybe people might like an idea of ‘having a platform that wouldn’t be subject to corporate whim, and wouldn’t just crumble under one’s feet’. though, i’m not quite sure if federated decentralization is gonna really ensure some of those things.

  30. maybe there could be more of a distinction between ‘decentralized’ and ‘federated’. they’re not quite the same. something like nostr, something with a “flatter” structure where everyone is just a user on a network, without those ‘federations’ complicating things and bringing in its own dynamics. maybe that could be more in line with expectations of someone just ‘getting on a network’ quite like they do with other platforms.

  31. I have to be honest. I agree with almost all of your points. But as you alluded to the fact that most of the folks currently running fediverse instances never really wanted it to be the new Twitter or would even consider that a laudable goal. A lot of the folks who have made it their home abandoned Twitter for various reasons, all unique to whatever happened on the platform that they did not like.

    While there are absolutely still people using Twitter (and honestly will be until the site literally dies), I’ve seen a massive influx of folks who stuck around, found their personal niche, and are now an active part of those communities. I’ve personally been dabbling around with it since 2018 but didn’t really permanently move there until last November. It isn’t going to be everyone’s thing, and that is fine.

    I think the Twitter Migration succeeded in all the ways it really mattered and was never going to grab everyone because the Fediverse is a tapestry of a bunch of different islands and not a single destination. That is a feature and not a bug, but it is also cool if folks don’t appreciate it either. I think the challenge is… no one actually wants to pay for services and even corporate social media can’t really figure out how to make money. The patronage model seems to work better than the alternatives so far, pending you are willing to accept the Fediverse will always be a network of independent states and not a single ubersite.

  32. Excellent post. You expressed exactly how I feel about the fediverse and the failed #twitterMigration.

  33. You know what’s funny is that this post is how I learned everything Mastadon set out to be/is. I’m not in your sphere of technologists.

    When I created my account a few months back, I thought Mastadon was just a shitty Twitter copy running on AWS where I could follow people that left Twitter.

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