The promises and problems of Mastodon, a Twitter alternative


#1

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/04/06/the-promises-and-problems-of-m.html


#2

Great idea. Needs to iron out the wrinkles.

I really want this project to succeed, both for its own sake and to give Twitter an incentive to give users the features they’ve been asking for.


#3

One does not use a bullhorn to gain privacy.


#4

The analogy with email addresses works perfectly as far as I’m concerned. In fact, I’d say it’s Twitter’s model of a universal name space for handles that’s the problem. Unfortunately, it has lulled many of the early adopters into false sense of satisfaction, as they love their nice short, readable handles. For everyone else, this sucks. The namespace problem will eventually doom Twitter, if it doesn’t die of something else first.

The bigger problem is that if any of the current instances disappear, it seems you lose your Mastadon identity entirely, as the service name is part of the handle. That problem exists for email, but we don’t worry about it because we’ve come to rely on a number of long-lived email services that seem to have the necessary staying power. If gmail ever dies, there will be much screaming. The obvious solution is for universities and large corporations to run their own instances, just as they currently have their own email servers. I’m already talking with my university to explore setting up a Mastodon instance for our faculty and students. I can’t see savvy people jumping on board in large numbers until they are offered some assurance their Mastadon instance is here to stay, or someone invents the equivalent of email forwarding for when individual Mastadons die.


#5

I’m out on the .cloud (Mastodon Me) instance and while I want Mastodon to work, if it does die, I won’t be too put out. I do agree that not being able to lock in your username across the instances is bad. I’m not sure how you could do it though without having a central database, which would ruin the point of the whole thing anyhow.

It will be interesting to watch though.


#6


#7

Having usernames tied to specific instances will make Mastodon unattractive to businesses: how is any user to tell that CompanyName@instance1 is the official company account, while CompanyName@instance2 is a malicious troll, a spammer or worse? In the Mastodon federated timeline, they could look exactly the same.

You might say “Good, I’m glad companies aren’t going to be all over this the way they are on Twitter.” But it’s also a problem for individuals whose name is their brand: imagine the fun when we have to sort out which of a crop of @doctorow s (for example) is the genuine article. And as the plague of cloned user accounts on Facebook demonstrates, apparently spammers and scammers can get some mileage out of spoofing ordinary people.

This is not to say Mastodon can’t be useful. It just means that I wouldn’t trust anything outside my personal timeline, composed of people who I’ve chosen to follow – and verify – myself.

Verification might be easier if Mastodon could check explicitly against external resources. To give a simple example of how this could work, imagine you’re Dory Coctorow, owner of carphound.com, and your Mastodon account is dcoctorow@instance1. In your settings on instance1, you tell Mastodon “Verify my identity against carphound.com”; you then add a ‘.mastodon’ file to the root of your website, and add ‘dcoctorow@instance1’ to that file. When someone wants to follow ‘dcoctorow1@instance1’, Mastodon would then be able to cross-check and say “This account has been verified as belonging to the owner of carphound.com. Do you wish to follow them?” An impostor wouldn’t be able to do that (although they could, of course, buy the domain ‘carphound.net’, and set up a fake website on that, complete with a picture of Dory Coctorow’s smiling face and book jackets).

Alternatively, maybe people will only follow accounts they’ve acquired via some other channel: direct from the person themself, published on their website, or whatever.

Mastodon seems to demand a certain level of wariness. Maybe that’s a good thing. We’re under the illusion that we don’t need to be wary on Twitter, but spoof accounts can thrive there too. If using Mastodon means being more cautious generally, that might not be so bad.

I’m more concerned with the idea that if an instance goes away, your whole identity and history goes with it. If it turns out that ‘instance1’ was actually maintained by one random guy who just got fatally gored by a rogue bison and isn’t paying his hosting bills any more, you can’t just hop over to ‘instance2’ and carry on uninterrupted. The way around that, of course, is for everyone to run their own instance, but that may be beyond the technical abilities of most folks.


#8

I just tried to ‘remote follow’ a friend who’s on a different Mastodon instance. No luck, just a mildly cryptic error message. I suspect that the early years of Mastodon may be full of stuff like that, and it may slow user adoption to the point that it ends up following Ello and Diaspora into the void.


#9

I don’t know. Mastodons are awful wrinkly.


#10

Instead of “Mastodon,” what if they called it “No Donalds?”


#11


??


#12

Mastodon is a refreshingly nice place. It feels like the beginning of the Internet, when the norm was that people are nice to one another.
It would be interesting to find out why it is so.
Unfortunately, I am afraid that the reason is simply that the reason is simply that the place is still relatively new so that a social hierarchy between members has not been established yet. I still remember the beginning of Usenet, at the beginning everybody was nice because they were testing their grounds, then self-appointed gurus got their groups of followers and it was over. All without brands and monetizing. The problem is the users themselves, the way human societies form.


#13

user@companyname?


#14

Each company would need to run their own Mastodon instance for that to work. Which is a possibility, although I don’t know how well the Mastodon network will scale when there are not tens but tens of thousands of instances, all federating content.

I don’t know enough about how Mastodon works to predict how well it will do in that case. Something like that – federating content across tens of thousands of nodes – is exactly how Usenet worked, so to some extent it’s a solved problem. But I don’t know if Mastodon takes that approach. Usenet was peer-to-peer but there was an implicit hierarchy of peers. I’d be curious to know whether Mastodon does anything similar.


#15

It worked for Junius in the 18th century.

“The subject who is truly loyal to the chief magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures.” is the line they’re most famous for.

A highly influential writer, well-circulated, and to this day we don’t even know their gender.


#16

As a long time user of GNU Social (mastodon is an implementation of it) that problem doesn’t really exist; it’s only a problem if you happen to be subscribed to multiple people with the same handle.

What actually is a problem is that federated conversations are broken: to follow a conversation happening on a remote instance, you need to follow everyone in that conversation or you’ll lose the messages not from the person you followed. This combined with the thing above could certainly cause a problem.


#17

I’m @tekk@social.tekk.in if anyone’s curious, since we’re all throwing these out there.

@angusm As I understand it that’s more or less how Mastodon/Social works. Every so often your instance pokes other instances asking what new stuff was published, then slurps it into your database.


#18

I got no problem with that.


#19

I’d like to see a decentralized Facebook alternative take hold. I was really hoping that Diaspora was going to do it a few years ago.


#20

How do you make money running it?