Mastodon has additional problems that aren't being discoursed about

What if your landlord demanded you make a list of which marauding nazis were NOT given a key to your home?

Mastodon has additional problems that aren't being discoursed about
Pictured: Computer headquarters, where decisions about computers are made.

This post was originally a standalone page that I linked a couple people to after I tried to set up a Pleroma instance and then thought better of it. Originally it opened with the heading "oof!" because the page didn't have the title text visible, and I think that's tonally important to know.
I'm not going to go back and edit in capitalization.

okay so. like many people with a functioning brain and moral compass, i am upset about elon musk taking over twitter. here's a fun article on that actually but i'm not here to discuss that directly.

many people are migrating to cohost, because they still think it's worth trusting a stranger to be their internet landlord who promises to not use their key to your internet home to rob you or worse. i'm not gonna go further into that[1] because (as with real-world tenancy) most people do not have the time, energy, or resources to buy an internet lot and build their own internet house. i wish cohost people the best and i may follow them there if enough of my friends join them.

other people are migrating to the fediverse. (you are likely hearing it referred to as just mastodon, and i am going to go into that in a minute.) to continue the housing metaphor, the fediverse offers a kit to set up your own internet house without doing the architecture/engineering work yourself, and then your friends can hang out in the big internet house with you and visit other friends in other internet houses. this requires someone in every internet-house-requiring friend group to do the work of scouting a lot and assembling the kit parts, but then everyone gets to hang out and live.

this tradeoff is already not for everyone, but there is an element of it that doesn't seem commonly discussed and is incredibly bad. i am extremely thankful that i noticed it before opening my, uh, internet house doors? god this metaphor is bad. i'm dropping it. anyway:

mastodon vs. the fediverse

real quick, gotta explain this terminology thing. almost everyone talking about moving to the fediverse refers to it as mastodon. mastodon is the most popular software for running a twitter-esque website that connects to the fediverse, a network of several different kinds of twitter-esque website that connect to each other to allow users to follow each other across different websites. that's called federation, and in theory it's pretty alright. good to not be locked down to one website. the problems arise with the implementation.

moderating your fediverse instance is a fucking nightmare

mastodon (and other fediverse alternatives) are free to install, by anyone. there are a jillion mastodon instances run by nazis and sex criminals. that is not intrinsically a problem with mastodon, and every web technology is also used by nazis and sex criminals. it sucks, but that is the world we live in.

the problem with how mastodon (and, as far as i can tell, pleroma, which again, we'll get to that) handles this is that the tools for protecting your site and its users suck shit. and they suck shit as a conscious choice by developers in some cases.

mastodon does not offer a way to only allow interaction with safe instances

people have requested a feature to only federate with instances on a whitelist for years, and others have actually implemented the feature in alternate versions of mastodon. the guy who is in charge of mastodon development will not include this feature, because it "goes against the spirit of decentralization."

there are definitely other ways to handle safety, though! like a blacklist, a list of all the nazi sex criminal servers, so you can keep just them out.

finding, sharing, and implementing a blacklist for your fediverse instance is a fucking nightmare

every fediverse instance that isn't elon-esque "free speech absolutists" (plausibly deniable nazis) has a blocklist, and most of them publicly list who is on it. the public lists are html-ass tables and the names of the worst servers are sometimes censored, which is good for not directing people there but bad for blocking them on one's own server.

there is no avenue i could find for importing an existing blocklist, but also no one is sharing them around in a way that is easy to find anyway. google is notoriously useless now for anything that isn't psychically detecting what movie you mean so you can give a currently-extant megacorporation money, but also the mastodon (and pleroma, i'll get to that next) documentation glosses right over instance blocking, and results on github for fediverse blocklists are abandoned and years out of date.

mastodon would have you just reactively wait till a horde of nazis brigades you and your users, and then block the hate-symbol-adorned clown car they arrived in afterward. there are more, always, and you will just have to keep doing this.

the alternatives aren't better, really

pleroma is theoretically compatible with mastodon, and it and misskey (a recent japanese alternative i'm much less familiar with) exist in part because setting up mastodon on your server is kind of bullshit. pleroma is more lightweight resourcewise supposedly but is also an insane nightmare to get running.

the sad truth about web hosting in 2022 is anything more specialized than wordpress is going to need you or someone you trust to deal with some of the most unintuitive and poorly-documented computer interfaces imaginable. the way web developers need to regularly interact with servers looks almost exactly like the movie Tron. not the cool neon glow parts, the part where jeff bridges types text into a text interface at a desk. server administration in 2022 is like if jeff bridges in tron never got lasered inside the computer and just sat there typing text for hours, periodically cursing in frustration.

anyway the alternatives

pleroma and misskey do not solve the fundamental problems of mastodon. keeping the horde of nazi sex criminals at bay is legitimately no easier than it is on twitter, and any illusion of fewer nazi sex criminals is the result of unpaid human moderators doing the work behind the scenes.

that leads into my conclusion, actually

moderating a community is abjectly miserable. corporations do it algorithmically because it's cheaper than even underpaying humans. facebook also underpays some humans and they keep burning out and getting lifelong trauma from it.

moderating a community as a volunteer is worse. placing yourself as the bulwark between your friends and an infinite ocean of hateful abusive monsters is an impossible responsibility, and a great way to backflip into an abyss of despair that will leave scars on your soul that will ache years later.

i administrated a mid-size comic book forum from 2008 to 2014 and i made some lifelong friends there but also that soul scars thing is personal experience and not hypothetical. when i considered starting a fediverse instance for my friends, i quickly discovered that was equivalent to the forum software having a built-in feature where i have to hand-write a list of forums that aren't actively technologically assisted in coming over to do harassment brigading. they don't have to register, they can just come over and post abuse at you! and the developers and community think this is a net positive, because their priorities are as alien to me as a martian libertarian from a parallel universe.

anyway the takeaway here is:

mastodon has bizarre but intentional moderation problems baked into it architecturally and i would not recommend trying to host your own instance of it.

  1. I actually am, in a later post, now that I went to the trouble of installing blog software. Oops! ↩︎