The Mastodon In the Room

I’m writing this post because I can’t fit my thoughts into 500 characters. This is a very loose set of (probably) ill-connected thoughts triggered by discussions on  If you don’t know what Mastodon, it’s a kind of open source, decentralized/federated alternative to Twitter. Sort of.  Of course some have said it’s an alternative to Slack. Sort of.  Who knows?  This post is an attempt to add to that confusion.  If you’re still interested but don’t know Mastodon, check out Maha Bali’s piece on a Social Network of Our Own.

What prompted this post was my own post on Mastodon a day or so ago:


Part of what I love about Mastodon (as compared to Twitter) is the 500 vs. 140 char limit.  It makes a huge difference. It enables more thoughtful posts – as in they not only express deeper/richer thoughts, but reading the posts often requires more thought.  They’re more engaging.  It makes a very happy medium IMO between Twitter-like “conversations”, which are really just rapid exchanges of 1-liner quips, vs. the blogosphere which is more like an exchange of letters.

First some semantics. I’m using the following words to mean:

  • Followees:  the people a person “follows” on the social media. In other words the people I’m interesting in reading their stuff.  This is in contrast to followers who are the set of  people who read what I write.
  • Stream:  the reverse chrono list of posts that person reviews as their primary way of finding out what their followees said.  In Twitter, it’s the main stream you read.  Mastodon is different because there’s the Public Stream of all things (not really accessible except via API in Twitter) and the Home stream.  The Home stream is closest to the Twitter main stream.
  • Scale:  more of the same.  Example: If I add 50 more followees who are all interested in the same types of things such as Open Ed, I’m scaling up.
  • Scope: adding stuff/things/followees who are different from the rest.  Increasing scope means increased heterogeneity.  For example, if I already have 50 followees that tend towards the open ed-ish, and then I add 20 folks who don’t talk open ed but talk about games and then add 10 more who talk football, I’m increasing my scope.
  • Filter:  a rather tech term that allows for creating a subset of the stream by applying some boolean logic to some aspect of the toots/tweets. Filtering is often done on tags but could conceivably be done on text items or names.
  • Rooms:  a non-tech term used to describe the experience of having/seeing/speaking with a group of particular tooters/tweeters

Here’s what’s occurred to me so far:

  •  Scale in the Stream:  Twitter’s small, short 140 char style makes it possible to scan/review the a stream a lot more feasible when there are larger numbers of contributors to your stream. Of course, if you have enough folks you’re following on Twitter, the primary stream you see becomes difficult to deal with but mostly just because the sheer volume of tweets per minute.   The mix of short and longer toots on Mastodon, make it harder to cognitively deal with a stream much sooner as you scale up followers.  This is because the longer posts encourage more cognitive engagement and (at least amongst my peeps) more responses that are at least cognitively linked.  I suspect a smaller number of followees (people you follow and hence read in your home stream) will trigger a  feeling of “maxed out” in Mastodon than in Twitter.
  • Scope in the Stream: This problem of cognitive load & time involved to process the stream gets particularly bad if you increase scope.  I can easily process two tweets on different subjects that are juxtapositioned.  They tend to stand alone and they’re short and shallow cognitively.  Toots are much harder when scope increases.
  • On the counter side to increased cognitive load is the need to have some openness to new topics, new speakers, etc. That’s often where the serendipity comes from.  We don’t want to last that aspect because then it just becomes an echo chamber.
  • I don’t think filters can get us the “room” experience.  Filters are text-specific somehow: tag, keywords, etc.  Further, setting up filters must be done in advance but that then precludes the serendipity and closes off the open.
  • Jeroen Smeets asked if what we were (I was) talking about was creating a Storify type thing.   In some ways, yes, it would be like creating a Storify, except Storify is dead – it’s an archive of the past.  I’m interested in viewing my live stream in ways that give me the storify experience in real time.

So I’ve come up the idea of a “lens” or “lenses”.   I’m aware that I might be reinventing something called lists, but since I’m not really familiar with Twitter “lists”, so be it.  Won’t be the first time I’ve reinvented the preexisting.

Let’s start with the public stream. It’s everything that’s coming through the network. While I like the ability to see the public timeline stream on Mastodon, as soon as Mastodon users start to achieve really large numbers it will be useless for direct human reading except for the occasional dip into a small segment of it just  for grins. Nonetheless, the public timeline stream holds great potential because with open source, who knows what folks might create that can make use of that computer-wise some day.

A lens is a way that a user can view the giant public timeline.  On Twitter, there’s only one lens per user.  That lens creates your home timeline stream from the all-public stream.  The primary element used to create the Twitter lens for each user is the list of your followees.  If a Tweet in the big timeline involves your followee (from, to, mentioned) it becomes visible through your lens.  This is the original functionality that we fell in love with on Twitter.

What happened?  Well two things.  First, Twitter expanded your lens without the your involvement by using algorithms to select tweets to put in your stream even if you didn’t want to follow those people. A lot of this advertising and “promoted tweets” related. Part of it is because Twitter as a company  also needed to boost the amount of time you spent on your stream.  All of this is because of business model & $.  Mastodon should be able to avoid this because there’s no VC/investors to be made rich (although we need to make sure @gargron and others live a decent life!) and because the decentralized federated servers model allows what I expect will actually be a lesser cost per toot in the total system than the centralized system of Twitter.

But there’s another thing that expands your Twitter lens.  Twitter needs/wants numbers:  users, tweets, views, minutes spent. That’s what they need to monetize. To do that they enable trolls.  Suppose for a moment there are not-quite-human like entities we’ll call trolls and their mission is make people miserable on social media.  Trolls can find you and force their way into your stream – force their way through your lens.  Your only alternative is to be reactive and block everything the troll ever says in the future.

To boost numbers, Twitter also encourages the use of bots.  Your human friends have a cap on how many tweets than can make per hour or minute.  Bots don’t. Your stream starts to get polluted with trolls and bots. You get tired. You feel attacked.

So how do we avoid this?  First, we need to build a culture in Mastodon that numbers don’t matter. It’s about the conversation, not the monetization.

Second, we -note how I bravely use the royal “we” knowing I can’t code this thing, 😉 – might want to pay attention to code or sign-up provisions to verify that there’s a human at the keyboard/phone making those toots.  Machine made toots will just turn the place into a sewage treatment plant.

Third, I’d like to see a two-level lens created.  The first lens is the existing Home stream: it’s a subset of the public timeline stream where all I can see are those people I follow and anything directly connected (like a mention or reply or boost) by/about one of my followees.  This lens should be done at the server level.  It’s what I should get back when I refresh.

But what if I could define for myself (user defined) a second-level lens:  a subset of  my followees.  In the user interface, I can turn the secondary lens on-or-off. I could define 2, 3, or so different second level lenses.  Selecting a lens means I see my home stream as if I only had that subset of followees as my entire stream.  This would enable folks to deal with their social connections as they would in real life. My home stream is the comments of everybody I know and care about in my life. But I am surrounded primarily by academics when I’m at work – it’s my academic secondary lens that’s activated there.  When I go home, I turn off the academic lens and put on my family-neighbors lens.

A user-defined lens would also allow me to more frequently watch/monitor my stream for the people that I consider time sensitive. For example, for me the folks I think of as “open ed academics” are people I want to monitor frequently during the day regardless of what they say.  The folks I follow that are more techies – say WordPress or Mastodon developers, are folks that I want to know what they’re saying/thinking, but I might only want to see / hear it once a day.  I could do that.

The lens concept, by being user/viewer defined, also means we don’t have to have social agreement a priori on a hashtag, or who’s in or who’s not.  I see the room as I want to see it.  I might think of you as part of my “open ed” lens.  Assuming we follow each other, you might want to see my stuff as part of your “white guy blowhards” lens.  To each their own.

The lens concept also allows a user to see less of a possible troll without necessarily having to permanently block them.

Well, that’s my $0.0185 worth.  (inflation has reduced the value of two cents).

4 thoughts on “The Mastodon In the Room

  1. Jim, what I think we have here is lists — you’re right. So now I’m interested in the difference between list/lens functions which are personal to the user; and room functions which are collaboratively thrown together. Between this is the existing Twitter functionality that you can subscribe to a list. So when I teach with Twitter, I make a class list, and then other students can subscribe to the list and all keep track of each other on Twitter; and then a student said “Why don’t we just use Slack for this?” and honestly that made sense. (I have blog posts on this.)

    (I’m using “thrown together” in a way that comes to me from Doreen Massey’s work on the “throwntogetherness” of the world, its happenstance piling up in particular places in particular ways).

    Where I think rooms might differ is in being pop-up formations that can be disassembled again. So maybe I think rooms will have a kind of event status, a bit like a conference or discussion hashtag. So to think of an example that has our attention currently, what if #hortonfreire were a room? How or why is this different from what Alan does with a feed?

    This is such a useful post, thank you.

  2. Kate, I’m thinking of a lens in the sense of something that helps us individually to focus on something – a way we can select who/what we want in the foreground while leaving the rest to the background. Again, to use my own example, I want to look at, to focus, on what my open ed peeps are saying frequently through the day and I don’t want a lot of cognitive distraction. But at other times of the day I want to turn my gaze away from the open ed folks and bring other parts of my life/persona/consciousness to the fore. My lens doesn’t need to be your lens.

    OTOH, “rooms” to me (and I like & think we need rooms) seem more group-defined and possibly task or mission-oriented. #hortonFriere is what an initial group would agree on would be the focus, even though it may be open for others to join.

    Maybe some people would want to have a stream lens that consists of putting together a few different rooms that make cognitive sense to them.

  3. I agree with Kate–really interesting post here. And I do think that the lens idea here would mostly work the same as Twitter lists: I have lists of people who do “open” stuff, lists of “news” sites, and lists of “philosophers,” etc. Anyone can create their own lists and call them what they want. And those lists can themselves be public to others or not (so others can see who you have on each list or not).

    You’re right that the rooms idea would be more collaboratively created, and would be the same for all.

    What is different from lists to me comes out in combining lenses with rooms, as you say at the end of your comment, Jim. It sounds kind of like my set of Slack teams, where I have several different slack “rooms” that may be different from yours. But each room is focused on a particular, group-defined topic or project.

    It’s so interesting to me to be in on the early days of this new platform and trying to think about it ways that don’t just revert back to what I already know (e.g., Twitter & Slack). Why can’t I think in entirely new ways about what I’d like to to do beyond what other things do already? Somehow I’m having trouble with that particular cognitive task.

  4. As I “tooted” (good grief, I’m with those that are proposing a different word that doesn’t suggest farts) on Mastodon- I like the idea.

    But it’s 22:58 here and my brain is just tired out. So, I’m leaving a comment in the hopes I might come back to this. I do think the idea will become much more… necessary (that’s not the word I want, but it will suffice for now) if and when Mastodon grows larger than it is now. As things stand, I have a much easier time tracing meaningful conversations on Mastodon, than Twitter.

Comments are closed.