In Praise of Mastodon After an Insurrection, or, What if Donald Trump Had Joined Mastodon?
In a previous post, I disparaged 2020. But hey, just wait: 2021 has already become pretty bad. As you probably have seen, pro-Trump supporters decided to invade the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
I am not a tech determinist, which means that I do not seek to explain complexity by only considering changes in technology. So I am not going to say that corporate social media – including Facebook and Twitter – caused what happened yesterday. In other words, I am not going to say that the spread of misinformation was the reason for people to blithely walk past the cops and into the Rotunda. To do so would ignore a host of other factors, such as the history of racism in the United States and the desire for politicians to aggrandize themselves.
So I’m not saying Facebook and Twitter are to blame. What I will say, however, is that one contributing factor to the events of January 6, 2021 – not the sole determining factor – is corporate social media.
And thus I come in praise of Mastodon.
The Attention Economy
Corporate social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have for years been developed to monetize the content that spreads the farthest keeps people’s attention – no matter what that content is. We all may have thought it was cute cat videos, but it’s turned out that the stuff that spreads wildly and keeps eyeballs are beguiling conspiracy theories.
But this isn’t the only monetization happening. Corporate social media also privileges paid content – that is, advertising, and political actors have paid billions in order to get their messages out to their masspersonal audiences. After all, for a few bucks, you can have your message privileged in corporate social media.
Combine the two and you get politicians paying to stoke conspiracy theories, which are spread by misinformed people, who flag their support for politicians, who pay for more ads ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
As media studies scholar Gavin Mueller quipped (unfortunately, on Twitter in a Tweet I can’t find), the QAnon conspiracy was mired in a degree of obscurity on places like 4chan, but once it got to Facebook and its audience of “boomers with computers” started “doing the research,” it exploded. And right-wing politicians gleefully amplified the messages, from Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene all the way up to Donald Trump.
But this week, Facebook and Twitter de-platformed Trump. It was intriguing to watch each corporation one-up the other. Twitter flagged Trump tweets as disputed. Facebook took down a Trump video. Twitter suspended Trump for 12 hours. Facebook banned Trump for the remainder of his time in office.
Problem solved, right?
It should have happened a long, long time ago.
But it couldn’t have. Because these platforms monetize content. And that means what’s popular, what spreads, what keeps attention is privileged. Full stop. And who or what has been the single greatest corporate social media sensation arguably of all time? Donald J. Trump.
@email@example.com: A Thought Experiment
What does this have to do with FOSS Academics? And with Mastodon?
In short: Trump would have been kicked off Mastodon ages ago.
Well, properly speaking, he would have been defederated ages ago.
Let’s do a thought experiment. In 2017, Trump (or one of his assistants) noticed the hype about Mastodon and decided to mirror his Twitter content there. Why not explore a new social network and reach more of the MAGA Nation?
If you know how Mastodon works – how federation works – you immediately ask: which instance would Trump have used?
That’s a big question. Many Mastodon instances have Codes of Conduct that Trump would have found to be abhorrent: no homophobic, transphobic, racist, fascist content allowed. So a triumphant post about Trump’s ban on openly transgender people serving in the military wouldn’t have been just flagged; it would be blocked and Trump would be informed by the admin that he was violating the Code of Conduct.
Trump might have just stopped there. Social media that would ban me? But I’m the greatest President ever! The First Amendment! These liberal Mastodons need to be put in jail!
But let’s say he persisted. There are Mastodon instances out there that are more “free speech absolutist.” Trump could have found one – let’s call it magainstance.social – and started his account, and his posts would have spread across the Fediverse.
Except, they wouldn’t have. The same Mastodon instances who would have blocked or outright banned Trump would avoid federating with the instance Trump joined, citing the fact that doing so would violate their local standards.
Maybe Trump would have kept posting anyway. After all, he’s shown an ignorance of how federation works. But he’d probably not get his precious dopamine rush from seeing a bunch of reposts and likes, because, again, his posts wouldn’t spread across the Fediverse – they would not get the eyeballs and accolades the man clearly needs.
Maybe then he’d retreat back to Twitter and Facebook.
But perhaps, even after all this, Trump wanted to stick with Mastodon, believing that it was the next big thing, or perhaps enjoying the love of sycophants on magainstance.social. And maybe he figures, I can fix this, as I always have, with lots of money. I’ll just buy a bunch of ads on Mastodon and that will remind them of who’s paying the bills.
And then he looks for a place to buy ads on Mastodon and finds… nothing. Because it’s not made for advertisers.
(To be fair, there’s probably no reason individual Mastodon instances couldn’t have advertising. But again, those instances probably won’t get much federation).
Finally, in a fit of Trumpian rage, he grabs a laptop and says, Mastodon’s open source! I will fork the code! I will make my own! And he fires up Notepad in Microsoft and furiously starts coding. (What coding language would Trump use? I’m not going to answer that.)
Yeah, that doesn’t work, either. Same problem. magainstance.social – or Gab, or whatever you want to call it – would again just be shut out of the federation.
FOSS Is Political
So, this is a blog about being a FOSS Academic, and I have Goal 2 – I want to write a new book about FOSS. And this is decidedly a Goal 2 post, because I’m talking about FOSS culture and politics.
I come to praise projects like Mastodon, because I would argue they were designed to avoid the problems that Facebook and Twitter have helped contribute to.
I know very well that many people in the FOSS world would bracket off these comments, arguing that they are political, that they have no relevance for a discussion about FOSS, and that all FOSS is about is making neutral tools. I’ve interviewed people in the FOSS world who make that argument, and I get it.
But it’s wrong.
When people make tools of any kind, they are embedding cultural, political, and ethical assumptions into the tools. They might claim the tools are neutral – as in the observation that “a hammer can be used to build a house or to hurt someone.” But even the simplest tool reflects the cultural, economic, and political assumptions of its maker. A hammer extends our ability to apply powerful force in a concentrated area, reflecting a different relationship building than, say, thatching implies.
And the level of cultural, economic, or political embeddness goes up greatly with complex tools, like an open souce, federated social networking site with built-in moderation tools.
The production of FOSS tools is inherently political. Some FOSS developers recognize this, engaging in what I call “critical reverse engineering” – making tools that are meant to ameliorate the social, economic, and political problems we face.
Others don’t recognize this, concentrating on the existential pleasures of making tools.
That’s fine, but think about this: Twitter started out as simply a way to centralize SMS for a large audience. Facebook started out as a way to rate pictures of girls and built some social stuff around that task. They didn’t think much then about what they wrought.
Again, however, tech is not the sole determinant of what happens in society. But that doesn’t mean tech plays no part. So, it’s important for us to consider which technologies contribute to a better world. Mastodon, the federated, open source alternative social media platform that was literally designed to disallow advertising and allow people to moderate the content, achieved from its conception what corporate social media are only just now blindly groping towards.