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Researching the Fediverse: Instances and Individuals

I just read a new article focusing on Mastodon: Christina Dunbar-Hester’s “Showing Your Ass on Mastodon.” (I’ve put in the bibliography, too). It has inspired a blog post!

Dunbar-Hester’s article discusses a controversy – and a harassment campaign – centering on the #asstodon hashtag on the fediverse. She created (or co-created) that hashtag in late 2022, not long after the large wave of people joined Mastodon due to Musk’s purchase of Twitter. The #asstodon hashtag was used predominantly to share pictures of donkeys. However, because of the double-meaning, there was at least one buttshot included in the mix.

In this paper, which is a kind of accidental autoethnography, Dunbar-Hester discusses how one donkeyposter become irate over the presence of human butts instead of donkeys in #asstodon posts. The donkeyposter eventually began harassing people – including Dunbar-Hester, using multiple accounts, posting racist content, and even emailing Dunbar-Hester at her work.

In researching donkeyposter’s actions, Dunbar-Hester argues that the structure of Mastodon may not be amenable to hashtag activism.

I should note the article has a delightful amount of butt puns! I only managed one in this post (see if you can find it).

I want to draw on Dunbar-Hester’s article to write about something I’ve been wrestling with: methodologies for studying the fediverse. Specifically, I want to highlight a distinction between Dunbar-Hester’s approach and the one I’ve chosen for my book project. This is not to say Dunbar-Hester did it wrong – in fact, her paper is excellent, and as fediverse scholarship grows, we will need multiple studies and many perspectives. I will highlight my instance-centric approach as a contrast.

The Individual Member Perspective

Dunbar-Hester notes multiple times she did not start out to do research on Mastodon (let alone the broader fediverse). Instead, like many folks, she came there after Musk bought Twitter. Like other academics, she worked to rebuild networks on Mastodon, using a hashtag (#commodon) to gather.

However, she gained a great deal of insight into Mastodon’s socio-technical politics when she started using/creating a whimsical #asstodon hashtag. The goal was to inject a bit of levity into the otherwise professional media studies community; she posted #asstodon with a picture of a donkey, and soon others followed suit. This replicates what other animal lovers have done – #dogsofmastodon is one of my favorite hashtags. And, sure, there are things for cats – even though cats are terrible pets.

Like many hashtags, this one somewhat escaped her control. In my book, I write about how #fediblock – a hashtag created by two women – was appropriated without credit by people building blocklists. The women, Marcia X and Ginger, have since gotten credit, but only after asserting their role in creating the hashtag.

In the case of #asstodon, the donkeyposter saw it as a chance to create “donkey content” on the network, sharing pictures of (their own? it’s not entirely clear) donkeys. The donkeyposter seems to have claimed the hashtag for their own, even going so far as to ask people to only use it for donkeys and not, inevitable as it was, human derrières. It seems that people did not listen to donkeyposter, who then began harassing folks for even suggesting that “ass” has multiple meanings. Dunbar-Hester came into donkeyposter’s sights when she agreed that “a thousand asses should bloom.”

In trying to get to the bottom of it all, Dunbar-Hester and some allies realized that there is a kind of Rashomon-esque quality to studying the fediverse. Trying to find out what set off the donkeyposter on a noncentralized network was difficult: posts were deleted, admins (rightfully) blocked the donkeyposter after that person degraded into racism and harassment, and the view from one instance is not the same as the view from another. Dunbar-Hester uses this insight to argue that hashtag activism will not function the same on Mastodon as it did on Twitter, because the latter, for all its faults, could centralized all hashtags and give people a more global view of them. Mastodon and the fediverse, in contrast, can only give a partial view – a “lossy” one, to use her term.

While she did not start out wanting to research Mastodon, there are few people more qualified to do this work: Dunbar-Hester is the author of two excellent books: Low Power to the People focuses on community radio, and Hacking Diversity focuses on diversity advocacy in FOSS communities. Mashing the two together – community media and FOSS – and you get tremendous insight into Mastodon and the fediverse. So when she flips the switch and investigates “donkeygate” on the fedi, she is well-equiped.

But, as she notes, she only makes claims from her own perspective. It’s the perspective of an individual Mastodon member – a valuable one, but a limited view.

The Instance Perspective

Unlike Dunbar-Hester, I’ve explicitly set out to research Mastodon and the fediverse from day 1.

I’ve focused on a particular aspect of the fediverse: instance-to-instance relations. I’ve highlighted what I call (drawing on a paper co-authored with Diana Zulli) the “covenantal” approach to network building, where the smallest unit is the group. I focus on the decisions to maintain or break federated connections, which means I spend a great deal of time analyzing the role of codes of conduct, blocklists, funding models, and hashtag coordination in building a network of instances.

I chose this because the fediverse is comprised of instances, and the act of making an instance is a political act – an instance admin must set policies, decide who should be allowed to sign up, and how long connections between instances should be maintained. Even if an admin shirks these things and says “anything goes,” that’s still a political decision.

And choosing an instance does require some effort – selecting one, agreeing to a code of conduct, and learning the ropes of a specific community. Even if someone chooses an instance at random, there’s still some demand that the person abide by norms. This is why I tend to use the term “member” instead of “user” for individual fediverse accounts.

I do focus on individual members in the book, particularly artists, mutual aid practitioners, and people who have shifted from Twitter. But by and large my view tends to put these individuals in relation with instances or larger instance-to-instance relations.

Overall, I privilege admins and moderators in my research. And this is a limitation of my own perspective. While I can see much from this view, it – like Dunbar-Hester’s – is not a view from nowhere. It is situated, as well.

Multiple Perspectives Needed

I contrast our approaches because they reveal ways forward for other researchers. Echoing Dunbar-Hester, I would also say: someone ought to write this up! More research on the fediverse is needed. My approach is not superior to Dunbar-Hester’s. I can see certain things, and she can see others. So, future researchers, be mindful of perspective.

Her approach provides valuable documentation and insight into what it’s like to be a skilled researcher coming to the fediverse. The individual, self-reflexive perspective Dunbar-Hester brings is incredibly important. It can inform work on human-computer interaction, masspersonal communication, and activism, among other things.

But as Dunbar-Hester found, it has limits: individuals can only get a partial view. In some ways, this is a good thing – I would be nervous if any one person could get a global view of the fediverse without the consent of network members. I don’t even think it’s wise for researchers to get a global view without the consent of members. At most, I would support a global view of instances, but not the ability to dive into any given individual account.

More importantly, if we stress individual perspectives, we run the risk of erasing instances. If the fediverse is a network of individuals who can interact without regard to the instance, than instance administration becomes a mere service and not a political act. (In some ways, I think Bluesky is going this direction, and I fear that such an approach replicates the eliding of things like moderation, much as corporate social media has done, hiding moderation practices behind layers of abstraction).

So what are the limitations of my more instance-centric view? Well, obviously, the perspective of individual members can get lost.

But more importantly, it puts a lot of weight on the admin’s perspective – and as Nathan Schneider has argued, this (crypto or explicit) valorization of the almighty sysadmin can lead to authoritarianism. The danger is that an instance becomes a pseudo-state, with the admin reigning supreme. Privileging the admin may not challenge this view. (I agree, to a point, but I would note that noncentralized instance-to-instance relations, as well as the ability to move instances, mitigate the power of individual admins to a large degree).

Ultimately, of course, Dunbar-Hester’s work doesn’t merely provide a foil for what I’m doing. Her conclusion is that activists need to influence the fediverse for more tools to make large-scale collective organizing possible. I agree. What those tools end up looking like – individual- or instance-centric – will shape the network to come, but in any case, the status quo may not be working well for activists.

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