Twitter has been my second home for more than a decade. It’s where I post articles, read articles by other journalists and keep an eye on researchers and journalists. A long time ago, Twitter replaced the newswires—AP, Reuters, etc.—that I kept open in a tab on my computer desktop.
But Twitter is in crisis. Elon Musk bought it, fired a lot of the staff, changed the rules so many times I’m not even sure what the rules are anymore, and warned that the company will soon have to file for bankruptcy. He launched a pay-for-a-blue-checkmark scheme that filled Twitter with imposter accounts that looked official. And hundreds of key employees quit this week after Musk asked them to commit to working long “hardcore” hours.
All the chaos has scared away advertisers And users, who are leaving the platform in droves. I haven’t left yet, but I downloaded my tweet archive and earlier this month he joined an alternative social network called Mastodon. I was not alone: on November 12, founder of Mastodon Eugen Gagron published That “[t]here are 1 million more people using #Mastodon today compared to October 27”.
Mastodon is a different kind of social network. Unlike Twitter, it doesn’t have a central gatekeeper who can decide who can use the platform and what type of content is allowed. Instead, Mastodon is a series of different communities that have all agreed to share a single communication standard.
This basically means that to join Mastodon, you must join a Mastodon “instance”, essentially a community that hosts a Mastodon server. Each instance has its own atmosphere, admission standards and content rules. Each server can block communications from other servers if they don’t like their style.
As a journalist, I was drawn to a community designed for journalists—journal.host– initially created by my longtime friend Adam Davidson. I am @firstname.lastname@example.org. Markup’s editorial team is located on another server: @email@example.com.
Adam and I have been friends since high school and went to college together at the University of Chicago. Even though he refused to work with me at the college paper (The Chicago Maroon), went on to a distinguished journalism career, co-founding NPR’s “Planet Money” and writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker.
Of course, moving to a new city is always full of culture clashes. Mastodon users are not uniformly happy about this gang of Twitter reporters who come to their door with differing cultural norms. So this week I spoke with Adam about his experience of him, what he has learned and what we can all learn from this different kind of social networking experience.
Our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity, is reproduced below.
Angwin: How was your user experience on Mastodon and how does it compare to Twitter?
Davidson: I first joined four years ago and basically peeked at it and then ran away. No doubt, it’s nowhere near as user-friendly as Twitter, which is both good and bad. Clearly, many people get stuck when they sign up just to begin with. The first question is so confusing: You have to choose an instance, what does that mean? On the other hand, the reason it’s confusing is because there aren’t buildings full of UX designers spending hundreds of millions of dollars figuring out how to smooth every step of your experience on this for-profit platform so that can be monetised.
I think a social network is only as good as who you follow, who follows you, and what conversations you’re a part of. My coming to Mastodon didn’t make me think, “I love everything about Twitter and I want to find a place that’s exactly the same.” Even my coming to Mastodon wasn’t just “Oh, Elon went crazy last week.” I’ve really criticized my use of Twitter for several years and have been looking for an alternative.
Angwin: Can you talk more about how the platforms differ?
Davidson: I think the interface on Mastodon makes me behave differently. If I have a funny joke or a really powerful statement and I want a lot of people to hear it, then Twitter is a lot better for it right now. However, if something really sparks a big conversation, it’s actually quite challenging to keep up with the conversation on Twitter. I find that when something gets hundreds of thousands of responses, it’s functionally impossible to even read them all, let alone respond to them all. My Twitter personality, like many people’s, is more screaming.
While on Mastodon, it’s actually much harder to go viral. There is no algorithm that promotes tweets. It’s just the people you follow. This is the order they come in. It’s not really set up for that kind of “Oh my god, everyone’s talking about this post.” It is set up to encourage conversation. I have something like 150,000 Twitter followers and something like 2,500 on Mastodon, but I have much more substantial conversations about Mastodon even though it’s a smaller audience. I think there’s both the design choices that lead to that and also just the feel of the place where even the point disagreements are somehow more thoughtful and more respectful on Mastodon.
Angwin: You have created a server on Mastodon for journalists. Can you talk about how this happened?
Davidson: There have been many conversations among journalists about setting up a server for journalists. Twitter’s blue check, despite all the hate I’ve given Twitter over the years, is a public good. It’s good, in my view, that when you read a news article or view a post, you can know for sure that it’s the reporter from that institution. It doesn’t mean he’s 100% right or 100% ethical, but it does mean he’s a person who is somehow bound by the ethics of journalism.
In a very short period of time, a group of us have accepted that a) the existence of that blue checkmark is good, b) it’s gone—no matter what happens with Twitter, we can never fully trust it—c ) a realization that we in journalism had just outsourced this whole process, this whole decision-making process, to whoever works on Twitter. As a profession, we didn’t think, or at least I wasn’t part of larger conversations, about the vetting process. We just trusted that there was an office on Twitter that was making the right choices.
We realized that there is a need for some sort of journalist verification and that if we could control that, that would be really great. I was part of these conversations about building a news server, and it went on and on. People were listing more and more reasons to be concerned and more and more things that needed to happen before setting up a news server. I can be impulsive, and I was just like, screw it, I’ll do it and then we’ll deal with all the problems. So I did, and then we went through all the issues.
Angwin: Can you talk about some of the problems?
Davidson: Many servers are set up so that anyone can join, while others you have to apply and some you can be invited by an administrator. I set it up for you to apply and just sent a few messages at first. I didn’t think many people knew about it, so I was just endorsing everyone without really looking at it. Then, I made a big mistake because I didn’t understand how invites worked. I thought the invites just said: “Apply and then I’ll see if you’re worth it”, but instead the invites transferred you directly into the server.
A bad actor figured it out because I tweeted an invite, and they basically said this idiot Jewish journalist opened the door for all of us. Then we had about 150 deeply disgusting posts. I have never seen such things in my life. Photos of dead people, violent photos and only deeply racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and anti-trans content. There’s a picture… I don’t even want to describe it, but I’ll never get it out of my head.
It actually ended up being a relatively simple fix because there are lists of servers that are known malicious actors and you can block them easily. At first I thought: “Oh, we are journalists; maybe we shouldn’t block anything,” but once I saw the first five or ten pictures, I was like, ‘Oh, no, we’re blocking these people.’ So those servers now don’t have access to our server, they can’t post, and they can’t read us.
Angwin: How do you decide who is a journalist and can join the server?
Davidson: The first thing I would say is that it’s not just me. I made a call asking if anyone would like to help moderate, and immediately nine other people came forward, and they’re great. So now it’s this group of 10 who moderate and administer.
Everyone who goes through the exercise of “what is journalism?” quickly learn that there are no obvious, non-controversial answers. This morning we talked about someone who has a beer blog. We said, well, this person does reporting, he actually interviews people, looks at the stats, doesn’t just share his opinion of him about beer. And it seemed, yes, this is journalism.
Now, would we make this decision in a month? I do not know. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to go into detail, but we’ve had some tricky edge cases. Intrinsically, it’s complicated.
Angwin: Can you talk about the content warning debate? This is something that really surprised me, the idea that everything we write about basically needs a content alert.
Davidson: Among journalists, this is the most controversial and misunderstood issue. We are not enforcing content warnings.
I think I’ve had every single opinion one could possibly have on this one. My first response, which I think is the first response of most reporters, was, “Who are these precious snowflakes?” Then a group of people said, “No, that’s not the way to think about it; it’s actually just the subject line of an email” and if I had the right to send you an email where you had to see everything, that would be pretty annoying.
But then a lot of people in the BIPOC community said, “The way this is used on Mastodon is often to protect white people from racism and homophobia and other issues.” And so I’m very sympathetic to that as well. I think the solution Eugen found is the right solution: it’s a tool and you can use it if you want.
Angwin: What would you say your greatest accomplishment from this experience has been so far?
Davidson: I’d say the screaming headline for me is, “Wow, that was amazing. This was great. The Mastodon community has been great. The news community has been fantastic. It is truly one of the best professional experiences of my life. I love.
What I find most satisfying about Mastodon, and I see many other journalists feeling this, is that it actually forces you to ask and deal with some of these questions and make active choices. Even if Mastodon were to remain Twitter’s tiny half-brother, I’d still love to be part of a community of Mastodon journalists because I think we’ve gotten lazy as hell and let Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and, God help us, Elon Musk and their staff decides all these important journalistic matters. I don’t know how many people it’s a good call to join Mastodon, but for me it was quite exciting.
As always, thanks for reading.
(Additional Hello World research by Eve Zelickson.)
PS There will be no Hello World next week during the Thanksgiving break. I’ll be back in your mailboxes on December 3rd.