Close up of a needle and thread

Thinking small: Mastodon’s approaches to scale

NOTE: I wrote this last year. I think I got some things about Mastodon right and some wrong. I am seeking input now as I begin writing the literature review for my doctoral dissertation. (I’m also thinking about seeking to more formally publish this, but wanna learn what correcting it needs first…)

Introduction

“So the help I need here is how to communicate meaning behind what we do without that broad-scale scientific evidence. Because what we do HAS meaning. Thinking small DOES matter. The communication of what matters is what’s hard, for me.” (Chuck, personal communication)

I have been thinking about scale lately; the idea of “thinking small” has been pulling at me. As Chuck noted, it is loose idea that is difficult to communicate with words, but one that might matter. How, then, do we communicate the value of “smallness”? Can small acts, small dollar amounts, small projects, small cultural shifts, and small communities serve as paths to change and/ or acts of resistance in the face of political, economic, and cultural oppression? Seeking “broad-scale scientific evidence” to answer these questions is outside my current scope; such an approach also feels “too grand,” an inappropriate approach to such questions.  Instead, what follows is a modest exploration of these questions within the context of a mostly unknown social media project called Mastodon. Using Mastodon as an example seems appropriate because it exemplifies small in many ways. It is the space in which a small group of open and critical educators, including Chuck and I, have been talking about the idea of small over the past seven months.

Although Mastodon is often compared to Twitter, there are a number of attributes that set it apart. The most often cited difference is that it allows posts of up to 500 characters, as opposed to Twitter’s 144 character limit. The longer character length is regarded as an affordance that allows deeper dialogue (Bali, 2016). The effects of the longer character limit is worth further exploration, but my current focus is the differences caused by scale. Mastodon began as of a small open source and non-commercial project named GNU social whereas Twitter is a large proprietary and corporately-owned platform.  Mastodon’s development and maintenance costs are kept low and are supported a through small network of voluntary contributions from the user community as opposed to Twitter which is funded by shareholders seeking a monetary return on investment.  Many of the early Mastodon developers and supporters were members of the trans/ queer community, a relatively small marginalized community, unlike Twitter’s mainstream developers. Finally, Mastodon is a decentralized system using a federated model that includes many ‘small pieces loosely joined” (Weinberger, 2008), thus distributing control and power of the network, whereas Twitter is a single, centrally-controlled platform. Put together, Mastodon’s different social, economic and technological roots have combined to create a powerful example of a small alternative to existing technological models and ideas. Put another way, by thinking in small but open and connected ways, the Mastodon community offers hope that change is possible.

Oppression by big social media companies

In many ways the development of the Mastodon software and community are a reaction to, and form of resistance against, existing oppressive corporate social media like Twitter and Facebook.  Sensoy and DiAngelo (2012) explained that “oppression involves institutional control, ideological domination, and the imposition of the dominant group’s culture on the minoritized group,” (p. 39). Using this definition, the vast majority of the world’s population that is online is oppressed by corporate social media companies. Watters (2014) stated,

There’s a problem with computer technology. Culturally. Ideologically. There’s a problem with the Internet. Largely designed by men from the developed world, it is built for men of the developed world. Men of science. Men of industry. Military men. Venture capitalists. Despite all the hype and hope about revolution and access and opportunity that these new technologies will provide us, they do not negate hierarchy, history, privilege, power. They reflect those. They channel it. They concentrate it, in new ways and in old. (para. 5)

This oppression has become “normalized and taken for granted,” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, p. 39) and has manifested itself in a variety of systemic ways including centralization and monetization and digital feudalism.

Centralization and monetization

The early internet was a network of computers all communicating with each other. In 1981, for example, Usenet was famous for having no central control. Over time, the internet became more centralized, both at the services and infrastructure layers (De Filippi, 2014). Centralization has two big advantages: it is easier to manage centralized services and it is easier to make money by monetizing data (de Jong, 2015; Farris and O’Brien, 2014). De Jong (2015) further explained,

The central services on the internet today are closed platforms, or otherwise called Walled gardens. Companies, such as Google, Apple and Facebook, build complete software ecosystems intended to serve all your needs. They control the data, and the access to the data. Not only for users, but developers as well. (p. 3)

Digital feudalism

Schneier (2013) went further, describing the relationship between platform users and the companies who own those platforms as a form of ‘digital feudalism’ in that users’ privacy and security is tied to decisions over which they have no power and little knowledge. Sensitive data is routinely gathered, “calling into question the role of power imbalances, the lack of agency, the inability to provide genuine informed consent,” (p. 68, Jayaram, 2014). Moreover in some parts of the world, platforms, particularly Facebook, are so heavily used that they are believed to be the Internet (Benesch, 2014).

As with other forms of oppression, intersectionality plays an important role in the distribution of the negative consequences, with the most severe negative impacts being felt by already marginalized groups (Gilliard, 2017).

The (small) history of Mastodon

Rockho (2017), Mastodon’s creator, described the project’s goal as “giving social networking back to you. With thousands of interconnected communities to choose from, and the tools to make your own, Mastodon is the world’s largest free, open-source, decentralized microblogging network.”  In one of the first articles about the project Bonnington (2016) explained:

Mastodon bills itself as a free, open-source social media server. Like Twitter, it’s a microblogging platform. Unlike Twitter, it’s non-commercial and not centrally owned, so you don’t have to worry about what will happen to your account or your posts if it gets acquired by another company… If you’re looking for a social media experience that’s not backed by Peter Thiel or favored by our president-elect, trying Mastodon could be worth a shot. (para. 4)

I found two early posts about Mastodon written by open and critical educators. Bali (2016) identified a series of reasons for open and critical educators to be interested in the project.  She identified that as open source software anyone “can contribute to how it works” and install and run it anywhere. She noted that conversations taking place were reflective and involved “people who don’t naturally consider themselves early adopters.” She also saw value in the ability to tag content as “sensitive” and the ability to cross post between Mastodon and Twitter. She was “unsure why this space is taking off in ways [the open source social publishing platform] Known did not (because it had similar potential),” (para. XX).  Lynds and Richards had less confidence in the long-term viability of Mastodon project itself, but expressed similar interest as Bali in the early potential of the project.

Even if mastodon is not long for this world, something with similar affordances will/should play into [Next Generation Digital Learning Environments]. As a GNU variant, we hope that more platforms and DIY solutions emerge. Our optics are around building competencies for users in environments that (hopefully) add value to people looking to engage and build meaning with others. These pursuits are wrought with challenges, but we need to try and we need to find ways to keep the hate out. So here’s to hoping that there are some venues to rock out to in #highered.

Bali, Lynds and Richards all saw early the potential of Mastodon’s federated instances to offer a level of control to users not possible on existing corporate-controlled, single-instance platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Bali also made references to a deeper, more reflective type of conversation taking place.

I joined Mastodon at the same time as Bali, Lynds, Richards, and a number of other open and critical educators. I saw the potential they described, but I also saw something more. What struck me was that many of Mastodon’s users were members of the trans/ queer community who had largely been pushed out of other social media spaces. They spoke openly about issues related to marginalization, gender, disability, and abuse. I noted that many of these users were actively involved in developing the software that supported the site. Further conversations with the site developers noted the careful consideration of the needs of marginalized groups that had driven both software design decisions and the site administrator’s approach to moderation and community-building.

In the early days of the project some of our most meaningful criticism came from less privileged folks and [the site developer] did a good job of adding features to address content ownership and privacy concerns. Idealogues who are mostly worried about exact ostatus compatibility don’t see the value or don’t even see these things as positive changes. They are more interested in the engineering details of the project than the human impact. (@Trev, personal communication)

The most complete account of Mastodon’s early history was written by Hart (2017) when the project’s popularity exploded. Instead of celebrating that growth, she wrote about the fears of many initial users and developers who feared being pushed out of a social media site by dominant groups in the same way they had been pushed out of other places. She presented her argument in three parts. In the first section, she analyzed Mastodon’s history as “one of negotiation, turmoil, progress, and change.” She then deconstructed “the power imbalances inherent in its structures” and laid out “a series of demands regarding the practices of the Mastodon project, moving forward” (para. 6). These demands involved ongoing acknowledgement of the queer community’s contribution to the project and ongoing support for diversity. Although she did not express confidence at the time, as of August 2017 she continued to be an active site user. A flurry of other blog posts written in April 2017 echo Hart’s concerns and hopes both from the perspectives of existing marginalized users and more mainstream newcomers (Jeong, 2017a & 2017b; Liu, 2017; Drott, 2017; Pincus, 2017;  @dredmorbius, 2017; Parreno, 2017; Brown, 2017; Guiton, 2017).

Between November 2016 and July 2017, the Mastodon project’s flagship instance mastodon.social grew from under 10,000 to over 80,000 registered users. It was then closed to new registrations in order to support decentralization and the growth of other instances. There are now at least 770,000 registered users on over 1200 federated instances (Grafana, n.d.).

Mastodon’s connections to (small but powerful) social justice movements

Although the history of the Mastodon project is not a long one, its social, economic and technological roots are tied to several deeply complex social justice movements. Efforts to develop alternative micro-blogging platforms and the culture of open-source software development, predate Mastodon. Similarly, the goal of developing alternatives to the prevailing surveillance and capitalist approaches of corporate social media did not start with Mastodon, but emerges from a longer history of activism (carolina, 2012). Finally, the minoritized groups connected to early Mastodon development, particularly the queer and disabled communities, each have long traditions of activism (Parreno, 2017). The following three sections provide a brief glimpse into the Mastodon’s varied activist roots.

(Small) technical pieces and people loosely joined

Although open source software emerges from and supports a variety of goals and worldviews, Gehl’s (2014) suggestion that sociotechnical problems required us to learn from critical reviews and then apply grounded, viable sociotechnical solutions pointed to its use as a catalyst for changing the status quo. He identified a number of coders, engineers, administrators, and users already actively developing alternatives to corporate social media. While he focused on the aspect of technological innovation, there is also a growing body of literature studying the organizational culture within open-source community where structures seem more aligned with gift-giving cultures than traditional western business models (Mauss, 2000; Berquist & Ljungberg, 2001).

Technological innovation

Decentralization is a way to redistribute power within a network and is central to the development of alternative social media (Gehl, 2016). Gehl (2015) looked at four alternative makers, including GNU social, Mastodon’s precursor. He noted that these ‘alternative social media’ were markedly different in terms of their internal operations, economics and cultural practices from “corporate social media.” Mastodon uses a federated approach to decentralization, in a similar way to its predecessors. Bielenberg et al (2012) explained,

Rather than forcing users to store all their information on one central server… users decide for themselves on which servers their information will be stored. Some users choose to maintain their own… in order to keep complete control of their data, while others might choose to join an existing server. (p. 13)

Unlike Facebook, Google and Twitter, Mastodon’s use of Free, Open Source Software allows the software to be controlled by the users rather than the developers (Gehl, 2016).

Organizational culture

Building on previous research of gift-giving cultures (Mauss, 2000) and open source software development (Rheingold, 1994; Raymond, 1999), Bergquist & Ljungberg (2001) consider the cultural impact of the open source software development community within the context of a gift-giving community.  They found that its culture could be understood as a “a kind of amalgamation of collectivism and individualism: giving to the community is what makes the individual a hero in the eyes of others. Heroes are important influences” (p. 319) in a way that is dynamic and has no fixed dependencies.

von Krogh and von Hippel (2006) completed a literature review and identified three emerging strands of research related to open source software organizational culture, two of which are relevant to Mastodon. The first strand involved motivations for developers to contribute to open-source projects like Mastodon where monetary rewards were not present. The motivations appear to be tied to participation and improving a tool for the benefit of themselves and others (von Hippel and von Krogh 2003) especially where the work is non-trivial and highly visible be the community (Dalle and David, 2003). The second strand involved research on governance and organization. O’Mahony (2003), for example, identified how communities governed their work product and used social norms, foundations, brands, and other mechanisms to ensure the open source software remained in the commons. Arazy, Daxenberger, Lifshitz-Assaf, and Gurentvych (2016) further extended this research pointing to a “turbulent stability of emergent roles” and the need for a “more nuanced synthesis” between the tensions of bureaucratic and open perspectives of organizational culture.

Both in terms of its technological innovations and its organizational culture, the open source software community appears to be in small but consistent ways deconstructing the way power has been traditionally orchestrated in alignment with the vision of bell hooks (del Guadalupe Davidson, & Yancy, 2009).

Economies of (small) scale

Gehl (2016) noted that alternative social media tend refuse to engage in the dominant political economy of the internet and refuse to advertise in ways that denies moneyed speech and the ability to pay for privilege. By refusing advertising, they deny the entire associated system including cross-site tracking, marketing teams and engineers improving response rate.

In addition, the lack of advertising on the platform alters the relationship to free labor. “Like CSM, ASM rely on the free labor of their users: users construct profiles, write posts, comment on each other’s posts, declare connections… However, the ends to which this work is put are often different…Users who contributed did so out of a sense of duty to what they called their ‘community.'” (p. 11, Gehl, 2016)

Mastodon is no exception. Its development is funded solely by very small monthly contributions by site and project users. The main developer’s Patreon donation account shows monthly contributions of close to $ 3,000 US/ month with 500 of those contributions being between one and ten dollars per month (Patreon, 2017).

The development of software and networks not dominated by the United States is another way that alternative social media has challenged the dominant political economy. Brazil, for example, intensified the development of its technology industry and free, open-source software was presented as a national response to the centralized technological power of the United States (Mari, 2013). In another example, a federated platform named Lorea was developed to support the Occupy movement in Spain specifically to support the needs of protestors (carolina, 2012). Similarly, Mastodon’s lead developer is in Germany and its largest user communities are in France and Japan. Users in the United States appear to account for less than 11% of the overall users (Grafana, n.d.). This early geographic diversity of Mastodon is promising evidence that the current US-centric social media domination can be replaced by a series of smaller, localized networks better able to reflect global diversity.

Small, marginalized communities

Mastodon community is now showing signs of becoming increasingly geographically diverse, but there has been a specific marginalized community that has been central to the development of Mastodon from the beginning.  Hart (2017) described the early Mastodon user community.

Users were lesbian, gay, bi, or pan; frequently they were trans and/or nonbinary; many dealt with disabilities; many were victims of harassment. Certainly, the most vocal and most frequent of Mastodon’s unpaid contributors seemed to invariably fall into one or more of these categories. (para. 25)

The prevalence of issues related to health and harassment among Mastodon’s young, queer community should not be a surprise. Haas et al. (2011) found that “over the past decade, consensus has grown among researchers that at least part of the explanation for the elevated rates of suicide attempts and mental disorders found in LGB people is the social stigma, prejudice and discrimination associated with minority sexual orientation” (p. 22). It is highly likely that LGBTQ youth will be subjected to harassment inside and outside of school. (Ryan, Patraw, & Bednar, 2013; Taylor & Peter., 2011).  Moreover, the literature shows “there is a growing body of empirical research documenting the disproportionate prevalence of suboptimal mental health conditions among queer youth,” (p. 231, Kearns et al., 2017).

Kearns, Mitton-Kükner, and Tompkins (2017) said that “the power to been seen in the world is intricately linked to one’s sense of possibilities,” (p.22).  Overall, social justice, anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, and gender work need to continue to evolve and respond to the complexity of the human condition.” As active participants within both users and developers groups, members of the queer community saw the possibilities of Mastodon software and did that work of evolving both the software and the space in response to the complex challenges that arose. Perhaps, like hooks (1989), they knew that “one is always at risk. One needs a community of resistance.”  For many users Mastodon became that community.

Far from being the product of enlightened and planned foresight, new features were added to Mastodon generally after their moment of need first arose, and… in every case these features were the result of deliberate requests from members of the community, many of whom directly contributed to the push for solutions by writing code… It is no exaggeration to say that the community which Mastodon served for its first six months made it what it is today. (Hart, 2017, para. 23)

Butler’s (1990) hope for people and places that would challenge the binarism of sex and expose its unnaturalness seems to have been at least partially realized within Mastodon, where members of the queer community have defined both the affordances of the software and many of the community standards and norms.  Birkett et al. (2009) found that “all children regardless of sexual orientation reported the lowest levels of depression/suicidality, the lowest levels of alcohol/marijuana use, and the lowest levels of truancy when in a positive school climate and when not experiencing homophobic teasing,” (p. 997).  Anecdotal evidence within Mastodon points to similar positive benefits, even now that the vast majority of users are likely not part of the queer community. Is it possible that the difference is related to Mastodon’s queer roots? Stommel (2017) described queer open pedagogy as “imagining a space for marginalized representation – a space that troubles distinctions between… formal/ informal learning – a space that recognizes our unique embodied contexts and offers opportunities for liberation” (slide 23). When I heard this description, I thought immediately of Mastodon.

If the respect, kindness and tolerance for non-binary categories can be attributed to its queer beginnings, then it behooves us to remember that for bell hooks (1989), to queer is to imagine it as an emergent space always in process. There needs to be an ongoing process of expanding and broadening our definitions of inclusion and challenging ourselves to do better. For Stommel (2014), “The story of identity… can’t be told by one person, or even seven people, but only by a cacophony of voices together – of sounds, of ideas, of pedagogical intentions,” (para. 3).

Directions for further research

Mastodon is an example of a project that has combined counter-cultural approaches to technical, economic, social and cultural scale to create what appears to be the world’s largest alternative social media community. As such, it offers a rich example from which to conduct further research about the nature of Mastodon as a community. If particular interest to me is further investigation into the anecdotes regarding the sense of community, intimacy and depth of relationship formed within Mastodon. Another track of possible research might consider how the characteristics of “small” identified in the Mastodon example currently manifest themselves and/or could be applied in relation to teaching and learning.

Mastodon-related research

The Mastodon software, community and project offer seemingly endless opportunities for further research. Mastodon’s API allows public data to be pulled and analyzed. Basic descriptive research including post length, length and complexity of discussion threads, number of posts and rate of posts, active length of threads and size and complexity of networks is required. Comparing these descriptive characteristics to those of Twitter would likely assist in developing a better understanding of both networks. Further qualitative analysis is also required. This work might include discourse analysis, ethnographies, focus groups and interviews. Such work might look at motivations for using the site, the nature of the discourse occurring on the site, and the motivations of users to continue using the site and/ or to leave.

Such research might seek to answer questions including:

  1. What are differences with respect to how Mastodon and Twitter are being used?
  2. How are Mastodon-specific tools including tags, content warnings, local and federated timelines, post-level privacy controls being used by the community?
  3. Are various instances differentiating themselves? Has this differentiation enabled marginalized groups to retain a sense of belonging and ownership within Mastodon?
  4. What are the current tensions within the community? How are those tensions being resolved?

As more is learned about the Mastodon community, clearer research questions and further directions for this research will likely become clear.

What small might mean for learning and education

Currently so much teaching and learning, particularly where technology is involved, is concerned with matter of scaling up as witnessed by the attention placed on MOOCs (massive open online courses) (L@S, 2017). For me, the lessons from Mastodon ought to challenge our beliefs as it relates to elements of scale (small instead of massive). What if we placed more value on the ‘small’ learning experiences that we encounter daily than the larger lessons, courses and programs that comprise our current education systems? Like corporate social media, our current education systems tend to be complex, centralized and often seem to be imposed on us. What should we learn from the ways technological and human shifts within the open source movement in general, and Mastodon specifically, have quietly developed an openly accessible alternative that was defined by the community rather than an external funding organization? How does this approach to change differ from current grant-funded, project-based models currently so common within education? What are the risks of turning over our educational technology, and as a result, educational processes to big companies whose model is based on surveillance capitalism?

Final thoughts

Hooks (2009) argued persuasively that “Only when we confront the realities of sex, race, and class, the ways they divide us, make us different, stand us in opposition, and work to reconcile and resolve these issues will we be able to participate in the… transformation of the world.”

Based on the Mastodon example, it appears that the culture of the open source and alternative social media maker communities has evolved over time. Quietly, while the corporate world was focused on other profits models, they developed a counter-cultural model for interacting technologically, economically and socially in our complex world and while in the context of the dominant technological landscape, perhaps because, their achievements look small, they are tremendously valuable. I do not want to overstate the value of the Mastodon project, there is real potential that a schism in the community will bring it to an abrupt end, or that corporate interests will find a way to subvert its development to their own ends. Regardless of its future, for at least some users, it has re-instilled a sense of hope, hope that strangers can be kind and learn from one another, hope that care-based communities are possible both online and in the world, hope that there are alternatives to the status quo, hope that change is possible. Once planted, hope often grows. One. Small. Step. At. A. Time.

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