Don’t you hate blog posts or articles that start with the subject, “On [SOMETHING]”? I know I do!

I was going to write a thing about how editing books is hard because you have to look at each thing and think about it. After a thousand of these things, I have begun to stare obliquely at a comma – all commas, really – and wonder if the sentence could have been made better without it, or if there could have been a colon or semicolon instead. The answer is always, no semicolon! Anyway, thanks Scarlett. The editing is going fine.

But no, I’m not going to write about that. Instead I wanted to talk about the new social media platform that’s sweeping the internation: Mastodon. I expect there’ve been a lot of pixels spilled on the topic this week, and I figured I’d add my own slightly sweaty take to the mix.

Whenever one of these things crops up, (e.g., identica, diaspora, …) there’s always a faint whiff of hope that bubbles up through the cracks in the software. You can see it in the new subscribers. The realization that there are other ways to interact online outside of the regular habitrails they’ve been running in. The early adopters always have a certain glee in their interactions. Tooting (yes, they call it tooting) about “tooting”. Boosting their toots. Failephants… It all seems fun and new, even though we’ve seen it in other forms and names before. It’s refreshing because the people are new, or new again. There’s an air of genuine hope that maybe this platform will be better the others.

And I suppose it could be.

Recently, the infosec community arrived en masse. Some heavies in the tech space have showed up and are testing the waters. It feels like it could be something big, even if it has a bit of an early 2000s livejournal thing going right now. “But they don’t have the people,” you cry out, announcing its stillborn failure.

That’s OK for now, I think. My twitter stream is the same small group of people posting threads and memes, science folks and political outrage. It’s hard on the head, and I could use a lot less of that, to be honest. Facebook is, well, I don’t really fit in there.

The notion of a “federated system,” one that is composed of a multitude of server “instances” at first sounds a little failure prone. If an instance goes down, it takes everybody on that instance with it. Their logins, their avatars, their connections to friends. The toots themselves may live on once they’ve been pushed to the federated timeline, but the backing behind them might disappear.

Toots are longer than tweets from that other place, commonly referred to as #birdsite, and they talk about it a lot. You get 500 characters instead of a mere 140. This is a surprisingly roomy field to think in. You can have real conversations without the need to abbreviate or massacre language. I haven’t seen many toots encapsulating a screen shot of a wall of text yet, or for that matter, the ubiquitous “Thread: ” tweet encapsulating someone else’s length tweet-chain. Those things are a product of twitter’s limitations, and I think, makes that platform worse for it. By sticking with 140 characters, people have routed around it in fairly uncomfortable ways.

If you don’t like it, you can always change it. This is open source software, further differentiating it from the walled gardens. This is a huge strength, I think, and perhaps a weakness too. The lead developer on the project, suddenly has an exponential upsurge in interest, and the rate of pull requests has gone up considerably in the last week. I actually feel a little guilty writing this because it might drive a few more people to sign up, if they can negotiate the maze of instances to find one that’s accepting invites. I bet dozens more crop up this weekend, and several others will probably vanish from the face of the internet for good. There’s a fluidity to this system, and initially, populations are going to be moving around until the whole thing stabilizes.

The implications are neat, technically and sociologically. Instances don’t have to publish to the federation, they can be silos. Businesses could have their own internal mastodon instance or a public facing one, or both. This is actually good for the network, because it provides stable instances that will back up the rest of the network. Users carry the fully-qualified name of their instance around. For example, I’m As the federation grows, and the software is forked, the thing could morph into something rather strange, and hopefully interesting. The underlying technology would’ve felt terrifying to any sysadmin five years ago, but now, it’s matured. It’s still freaky, the node.js and the redis, but at least there are a lot of people using these things. The database is postgresql which has been around literally forever.

Anyway, it’s a lot to think about. And it’s still fun.

toot at you later.

footnote: I suppose I should mention that mastodon is itself a variant of GNU Social. Don’t go Stallman on me, bro.