What open source gets wrong with Mastodon

In tech Twitter’s rush to replace Twitter with Mastodon, we seem to be falling into an old trap, one that has long bedeviled tech and, in particular, the open source corner of tech. That problem, of course, is tech. And open source. Or rather, the belief that the solution to most problems is more tech and more open source. Let me explain.

Everything is fine

I’ve spent more than two decades in open source. It’s my home, my tribe. But we open source people have an unfortunate proclivity to privilege choice over convenience, and Mastodon falls into this hole. Mastodon bills itself as “social networking that’s not for sale.” It supports this argument with reminders that it’s open source and decentralized: “Copy, study, and change Mastodon as you see fit.” And “each Mastodon server is a completely independent entity.”

None of this matters to the mostly non-techie people who just want to tweet—or “toot” in Mastodon parlance. (P.S., in my home, “toot” is a euphemism for fart.) Some of the core selling points Mastodon makes are terrifying put-offs for nearly everyone outside a core group of open sourcerors. Here are two:

  • “Mastodon deployed on your own infrastructure allows you to follow and be followed from any other Mastodon server online and is under no one’s control but yours.”
  • “Each server creates their own rules and regulations, which are enforced locally and not top-down like corporate social media.”

When you sign up for Mastodon, you have to pick a server. This is bewildering, including for experienced techies who have been posting on Twitter, “What am I supposed to do now?” You’ll quickly be told it doesn’t matter which you choose, along with whole threads of instructions on how picking a server gives you a chance to pick a community that fits your interests, although “interests” is somewhat narrowly defined. But the very fact that instructions are required means the onboarding process is already a fail.

Here’s the experience of biologist and professor Paul Knoepfler: “Some servers seem to function much better than others. Certain servers also have more problems. It seems that many servers require applying to be in them, which seems weird to me.” He concludes, “The decentralized ‘structure’ makes things clunky and messy.” Dr. Knoepfler has a PhD—he’s used to navigating arcane systems and structures. Mastodon has him flummoxed. He’s not alone.

As much as Mastodon advocates may want to cast Mastodon as “Twitter but without Musk,” it’s clearly not that. Search sometimes works across servers and sometimes doesn’t, depending on the server and the search. It’s unclear which server is the right place for a particular person, and the comfort of being able to switch later really isn’t much comfort. The more users have to think about the tech underlying the platform, the less likely they’ll use it.

And think about it they must, because for Mastodon, the infrastructure and all those servers are the point. People may want to talk, but they have to first think about the tech used to do so, especially since some of the more popular Mastodon servers have been crashing with the load caused by an influx of users. Of course, Twitter’s early days were plagued by the “fail whale,” so this isn’t unique to Mastodon. How it solves the problem, however, is, because each server has to solve the problem somewhat independently. Mastodon architects think this is a feature, but it’s a bug.

More convenience, please

Contrast this with where tech, generally, has been headed. Look at the cloud. For years, companies like AWS promoted the ability to stop worrying about the “undifferentiated heavy lifting” of managing infrastructure yet still required developers to have some sense of how much storage they’d need, what kind of processing power they’d use, etc. The cloud was a big step forward from the world of buying physical servers to support future workloads, but it still required too much planning.

Now look at the cloud hyperscalers. The clear direction is toward serverless, toward not having to think about the underlying tech. Developers write their applications and the infrastructure just happens.

For the more freedom-focused among us, one natural response to serverless is to call it “one of the worst forms of proprietary lock-in we’ve ever seen in the history of humanity.” Mm-hmm. But guess what? Enterprises don’t seem to care. They care about other things, like shipping applications that help them cater to customer requirements in a difficult macroeconomic environment.

Back to Twitter and Mastodon. However much we may idealize the good ol’ days of Twitter, it’s long been a bit of a dumpster fire. As I recently read, “This wasn’t just a hell site, it was a hell home.” It’s been filled with angry, rude people from the start, because people can be angry and rude, especially when divorced from the reality of face-to-face engagement. If you think Mastodon solves human nature because it’s open source and decentralized, you haven’t spent enough time on the Linux kernel mailing list.

Over and over, we keep learning that while techies want to celebrate utopias of choice, most of us just want convenience with a little choice. We don’t want to pick servers. We don’t want to think about the tech underlying our conversations. We just want to talk. Or tweet. Or, heaven forbid, toot.

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