This article was written in the evening of May the 5th. It may be outdated at your time of reading. I’ll add as many updates on it as possible asap.
A few days ago Eugen Rochko, original creator and maintainer of Mastodon as well as instance owner of mastodon.social, has published a blogpost outlining a “new onboarding experience on Mastodon”. In this blogpost, he describes what he thinks makes “signing up on Mastodon easier than before”.
While that certainly holds some truth, it is inherently flawed and a punch in the face of our whole community. But before I come to that, let’s first highlight his (most likely well-meant) intentions.
The problem many people see with Mastodon and Fediverse services in general are that people have to understand the concept of Federation before being able to make an educated choice. The concept of Local and Federated timelines is yet uncommon and the (awesome!) lack of algorithmically filled timelines often make first experiences by newcomers worse than what they’re used to, that is being flooded with content to the point of harmful psychological manipulation. We have the exact opposite problem – your timeline being empty at first start. This problem is made worse by, in my opinion, bad UX in the “official” Mastodon app – more about that below.
The proposed solution by Eugen, also known as @Gargron on Mastodon, is to change the current design; two buttons on the welcome screen either for login or registration that confusingly lead to the exact same list of available servers. Goal is to have one highlighted button directly leading to his own instance, which already is the biggest instance within the network with over a million registered accounts, and an implied button that’s leading to a list for all instances that apparently got an updated design (partially visible in his blogposts’ header). This makes mastodon.social the de-facto default server of Mastodon.
Making the onboarding process as easy as possible helps new users get past the sign-up process and more quickly engage with others. This gives us a far better chance of showcasing what decentralized social networks have to offer instead of having that person bounce and never hearing from them again.Eugen Rochko
Small change, huge implications
Before I go into any details, let me list all the problems with this:
- A single, oversized server takes the whole concept of federated social networks ad absurdum.
- This change was not brought to and discussed with the community.
- The change is now pushed despite the community. [1, 2, 3]
- The “official” Mastodon app still does not feature the Federated Timeline, aggravating the issue.
- Even the Local Timeline is only a sub-menu of the Search, further encapsulating people.
Unfortunately, this behaviour of Rochko to decide major changes behind closed doors and rely on solutions despite criticism isn’t new. This is one reason why the feature to move accounts from one instance to another the way Mastodon does it wasn’t adopted by other Fediverse services like Pleroma or Misskey, despite also even being for micro-blogging.
In case you’re not aware of how big the Fediverse actually is: ever since the standardization of the ActivityPub Protocol by the W3C, dozens over dozens of different services for vastly different usecases were created that all communicate with each other. Before Mastodon became the most famous of them (due to a certain billionaire throwing tantrums as well as money out of windows) it was just one out of many (list of the most mature services can be found on fediverse.info). It heavily relied not just on those interested in the technology, but also people who were left alone, attacked or even banned from corporate social media and came here to build something new, beautiful and inclusive. That’s the reason so many instances are administrated by LGBTIQ*, Furries or sex workers.
Given Eugen developed Mastodon (thank you!), maintains it and holds the copyright to the name, Eugen has – if he wants to – basically total control over the path Mastodon takes. And while many of you now think that might be totally reasonable, given he created it, it still is a community-driven Open-Source project with hundreds of people actively working and enhancing the software, fixing bugs and hosting instances and moderating it. Yet, despite better examples both by other projects (like Pixelfed, who gives you a visually pleasing instance-picker) and even proposals by professionals on Github, the Mastodon gGmbH (non-profit company under german law) decided to simply ignore any criticism and boldly go – again – with a decision that not just annoys other instances, but outright frames them as second class behind the default, the “official” instance. Which is already utterly overcrowded.
There are many community members who openly criticize Eugen for years because of decisions that are not in the interest of the community, many of them defederated from mastodon.social by now. And while many things could be explained simply by different opinions about where to go with the design, features that might change the atmosphere on the network (like when he prevented the quote feature because of social concerns) or how to program something, this one can only be described as outright insulting and a slap in the faces of those who make Mastodon and the Fediverse what it is: the hundreds, perhaps thousands of server admins and moderators all over the planet who have fostered a federated community that is utterly unique and resilient to hate, spam and even takeovers by both companies and states. And though he deserves praise for not selling us out despite multiple offerings allegedly worth hundreds of thousands of Euros, we have to remind him that selfishly acting like an authority will only lead to increased crippling effects.
The corporate social media fallacy
Rochko is moving on the paths of giants. Unfortunately, these giants aren’t friends – in fact we know they’re selfish dicks. And despite everyone around him shouting that he should get a damn shovel and help us moving towards a better direction, he keeps expanding an already overbloated instance that by now has the capability to cripple the whole network and expects people to have the attention spawn of TikTok users. In fact, the slow decay in our ability to concentrate on something longer than two seconds already is a huge problem by now as children are consuming more short content. We know IT companies and their “social” media platforms are at fault. There even is a word for that, “attention management”. Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, all of them use algorithms to manipulate you so you stay longer – we can be truly happy there’s a healthy alternative to these things. Yet, instead of staying on track in offering a truly social media that can’t be bought by the same people who’d willingly sell your sanity if it makes them even more money (and they’re already trying), Eugen further dumbs down the app and pushes those who make Mastodon what it is to the sidelines.
To be social means to invest time, care and attention into it; even if that only means to find your favourite bar in the city so you can drink yourself under the table. It’s the minimum, but a minimum we must be able to expect from people.
To make [registration] easier, we now have a default sign-up option that works with a server we operate. If you wish to leave or join a different server, you can do so at any time.Eugen Rochko
It’s also important to point out his flawed logic, making his own instance the holding centre for newcomers who can’t or won’t understand the concept of federation before being subjected to it. Those who supposedly need this will not even remotely care about the concept of moving to another instance once creating an account “that already works fine”. Given they do not know what they miss out on with a slower, more personalized Local Timeline (or even the federated one), they won’t seek it out. Not to mention the implications of what it tells the user to make other instances more of a secondary afterthought.
The idea of a central authority, something that is leading anyone else, is exactly what the Fediverse can not be. To try it anyway has a bitter taste of corporate social media and got the potential of completely ruining Eugen’s image for good.
How to do better
The following are just my very personal, probably stupid ideas. I stopped trying to be semi-professional at this point.
Instead of ruining Mastodon and “the experience” the same way corporations did and falling for their lies, the strengths of the Fediverse as a whole must be utilized. So what could Eugen do better? Reverting the change to the welcome screen, obviously. Make sure other general purpose instances are able to cope with a lot of new users, then set mastodon.social at least to invite-only if not even closed to stop its growth. If Eugen doesn’t trust any other instance admin to recommend to his users right now then create a second instance under the obligation of transfering that one to someone else later (too much power corrupts everyone and everyone has their prize).
Overhaul the server selector. It is usable, but visually unappealing and doesn’t convey the topic as well as vibe of an instance (or any vibe at all, really). There is a good example how to do something like this in the Pixelfed app, get some inspiration. Having a Local Timeline is something unique, so show new users how there are servers around their hobby and have them rejoice when they see a lot of like-minded people. Also… include the damn Federated Timeline already, and if it’s just as a sub-section of the search tab. The official app is especially awful for small instances because of this – people who got over a million might not notice.
To get more servers that can handle higher loads perhaps create an open fund (as far as I know german non-profits are allowed to manage those). Such a fund could then be used to support instances financially. Hell, if the problem is finances, open a discussion about making users that donate to their instance or the fund (or both) visible in some way; not to give them any extra features, just to make donors look cool with some fancy badge in their profile that promotes the idea of donating. Many users do see value in what their admins do for them on a daily basis and are able to help financially.
But for cry out loud Eugen, stop with what you’re doing right now.