Here There be Risks

From The Guardian a few days ago:

But Mastodon’s model comes with its own risks. If the server you join disappears, you could lose everything, just like if your email provider shut down. A Mastodon server admin also has ultimate control over everything you do: if for some reason the owner of kpop.social doesn’t like that I boosted a toot from dolphin.town, they could remove it or even “defederate” the server, which would block all dolphin toots from the k-pop server completely. A server admin could also snoop on my private toots if they wanted to – or delete my account for any reason.

The phrasing “its own risks” is not good. Consider:

  • If Twitter disappears, you can lose all of your tweets and social graph. (Did you have a backup?)
  • If Twitter does not like certain content, then in the pursuit of brand safety it can and will remove that content.
  • Employees of Twitter can read DM’s (direct messages), because DM’s are not end-to-end encrypted.

The risks faced by Mastodon, a decentralized micro-blogging network, and other federated services projects in general do exist. But the risks identified here are not unique to Mastodon. These are not Mastodon’s “own risks.”

Instead:

  • Each Mastodon instance has it’s own rules and guidelines. Users cannot assume that registering on the tim.toots instance will get them the same sort of moderation as a larger instance mastodon.social.
  • Some Mastodon instances are well architected. Others might go down when the lone server admin trips over a power cord in his basement at 2am. If your account lives on Joey’s server, you are hosed.

The risks are that many separate instances of Mastodon exist, and each instance could have problems in it’s own unique way.

On the flip side, all of these instances federating together creates a choice that users do not have with Twitter. The company and platform of Twitter has to be all things to all people - actually, they are most things to enough people - and in doing so Twitter diminishes user choice to a binary. Do I want to be on Twitter, or not? Federated services like Mastodon give users a choice to be on a single instance with which their values most closely align, but without a tradeoff in network size because their chosen instance can federate with other instances.1 A user cannot choose a Twitter that is not run by Elon Musk, but they can choose a Mastodon instance that meets that (and other arbitrary) criteria.

Users of Mastodon also have a choice to own and host their own instance. I do this! It ensures I own my data, my social graph, and the Toots I post. Also, it’s fun to self-host services. I can choose when and how to backup my data. No one but me can decide what I post and who sees it!2 Lots of benefits.

And Also…

From the same article:

Rochko said new users should scrutinize who runs a server before they join it: “Is it an organization that has a track record, is trustworthy, is likely to be around for a long time, but also has a moderation policy?” The “good ones”, he explained, “have rules against hate speech, and provide basic necessities like backups, so if one of the admins gets hit by a bus, the server does not disappear.” Rochko added that Mastodon includes a list of vetted servers on its homepage that meet these criteria. But it’s still a tall ask for a brand new user to figure these things out on their own.

Mastodon gives users:

  • A reverse-chronological timeline
  • No algorithm optimizing for engagement
  • No ads

All of these things are pain points for the users of Twitter! They want to choose a chronological timeline, and they don’t want an algorithm choosing what they see and who sees what they post, and no one likes the irrelevant ads! Mastodon comes along and says “ah, yes, we’ve solved some of that” and…these users complain some more. “Too many choices!” Ugh. I suppose you cannot please everyone, and the audience on Mastodon is certainly growing with each passing day.

Economists call this a revealed preference. A social network which provides a reverse-chrono timeline, no algorithm, and no ads provides users a lot of “utility”, aka things users place value upon. But the choices made by those refusing to leave Twitter despite an alternative that satisfies some of their needs existing is, well, revealing!3

Good Resources

Adding this section on 14 November 2022.

I have been finding good articles which explain this migration and Mastodon/Fediverse in general. Linking them here.


  1. An instance can defederate another, thereby blocking interactions with that instance. Regardless of this, by choosing an instance which aligns its values with your own, the risks of a different instance hosting accounts that you personally want to interact with seems low. ↩︎

  2. This is bad if you choose an instance with a bunch of Nazi’s, and it implies Nazi’s can stand up an instance where it’s all Nazi’s 24x7, but that’s the beauty of choice in federation. Vote with your feet and move somewhere you agree with! ↩︎

  3. I’ll probably need to revisit this in the future, as a secondary complaint popping off on Twitter right now is “but I don’t want to learn something new” and “it’s hard to find people on Mastodon”. Will this change over time? I kind of hope so, because the lack of powerful search on Mastodon seems to have many benefits. Hopefully those migrating give it a chance, discover the benefits, and adapt their own preferences to embrace those benefits. ↩︎