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Personal Computing Twittering

Is There A Pachyderm in Your Future?

Are you a Twitter Refugee in search of another home? Could Mastodon be it?

Well, Elon Musk did it, he bought Twitter. And he hung a $44 Billion millstone about Twitter’s neck. The debt service on his borrowing is $1 Billion per year. And what did he put up for collateral, Twitter? Unlikely, not even his billionaire buddies would smoke that crack. So there is probably a big chunk of Tesla stock on the line. Will it be interesting? You bet. $44 Billion controlled flight into terrain will make a spectacular kaboom!

So if you have a social media habit, and the Dismal Moocher does, what are the alternatives? Everything out there has wealthy owners except for one, Mastodon and the Fediverse of social media applications. More after the break.

Revisions

  1. 2022-11-13 Original
  2. Add Justin Pot, “How to Get Started on Mastodon”, Wired Magazine, [9].Add Fediverse Observer website [10]
  3. Revised to add [11]

References

  1. Yahoo Finance initial report
  2. WSJ: Deal timeline
  3. NY Times and Musk on Twitter’s prospects
  4. https://joinmastodon.org/
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ActivityPub
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fediverse
  8. Mastodon 4 New Features Review
  9. Wired: How to Get Started on Mastodon
  10. Fediverse Observer: Searchable Mastodon Server Directory
  11. http://Markup.org on Mastodon privacy and security

So, Just what is a social network?

I’m not sure who coined the term but Facebook popularized it. A social network is a group of people who interact in some way. Social networking software allows that community to be geographically and temporally diverse, to be scattered about the globe and in different timezones, and possibly using different languages with modern translation techniques.

In practice, social network correspondents exchange picture postcards, they are pen pals. Rather than mailing individual postcards to them, we post them on a public cork board provided by social media software like Facebook, Mastodon, Tumbler, or Twitter.

The supporting software constructs a time line of posts for each participant to read. The mechanics and behavior of each network is somewhat unique.

So social networks are software facilitated corresponding communities.

Commercial Social Networks

For profit corporations built the earliest social networks Facebook, Tumbler, Twitter, etc. Once Facebook opened to the public and gained interest, a bunch of work-a-likes came along. They would provide free services while collecting any data about their users that they could get their mitts on. They built statistical models that advertisers could used to direct advertising to subsets of the users and that subset could be just you.

The commercial networks were designed to be addicting and the designers quickly discovered that anger kept participants engaged. So they fed your anger. And operatives discovered what great tools social networks were for influencing populations.

And the rest is history. It is entirely possible that the original social networks will collapse. Twitter is dying. Facebook is loosing audience and can’t carry payroll, etc.

Emergent Social Networks

A system is an entity whose properties result from the connection of components into a network. The systems behavior results form the interaction of the components as connected. Reference [5] explains more generally. So the interesting properties of the social networks to which we belong are resulting from our communications interactions with each other.

Central systems implemented the early social networks. As they grew to Internet scale, distributed system models were developed that provided regional service and distributed information between regions and markets.

Mastodon (Reference 4) and other Fediverse services, use Activity Pub [6] protocol to exchange messages. Activity Pub is now a World Wide Web consortium standard protocol for exchanging messages between social network servers. It is a peer to peer protocol. Any host correctly implementing the protocol is able to communicate with any other.

Activity Pub defines message formats (protocol data units) and signaling conventions leaving payload up to each application category. There are now multiple application layer protocols [7] built on top of Activity Pub to support most of the popular entertainment applications.

Mastodon

Mastodon is an Activity Pub based application for sending postcards from an writer to registered subscribers called followers. Postcards consist of up to 500 characters of text plus up to 4 images.

Finding Your Pachyderm Paddock

There are a number of things to consider when choosing a Mastodon instance, among them.

  • Is it nearby?
  • What country is it in?
  • What are the primary languages? Which to admins and moderators speak.
  • What speech restrictions exist? “Congress shall make no law, …” or something more restrictive?
  • Is it moderated?
  • What data privacy protections exist? Liaise faire like in the US?
  • What size is it?
  • How long has it been around?
  • How is it funded? Are donations accepted?
  • Are they covering the budget?

Reference [10] is a server directory sorted by Country, Users, Language, and whether new accounts are accepted. There are list views and a map view. And the scope is global but will use location services to focus on your continent. A good resource for finding an instance.

Mastodon API

Each Activity Pub application has an associated application protocol interface that defines the interaction between a user’s web browser and the federate’s web server component. So Mastodon refers to a specific API used to exchange Twitter-like messages. There are several similar protocols mentioned in [7].

Mastodon User Roles

In the discussion that follows, I try to distinguish between a user’s author role and the user’s subscriber role. I’m an author when I create and send a message. I’m a subscriber of other’s writings. Following custom, Mastodon calls you subscribers your followers.

You also have a set of people that you follow. You can follow local authors or authors on other instances. When an author is local, the registration happens locally. When remote, your local host and the remote host communicate to establish the connection between the two users.

Mastodon Messages

When a user posts a message, Mastodon delivers it to each of the user’s registered followers. Those followers may be on the author’s local server or on another server with which the author’s server communicates. Each subscriber has an identifier of the form @user@host. Dismal Wizard is @DismalManorGang@Mastodon.Online.

Mastodon messages are called “toots” apparently as a result of a dare. Call the messages toots and I’ll give you a fat donation. And the starving artist developer needed money so stuff happened.

Messages move pretty directly from originators to subscribers and appear in what is called a home feed. Most readers spend most of their time with their home feeds.

Mastodon is designed to be like primordial Twitter. Mastodon users get to pick the channels (other users) they receive and can content filter what is presented to them. There are tools for filtering by hashtags and to block offensive originators and badly behaved domains.

Each author record maintains a list of the users that have subscribed to the author’s

Mastodon Servers

Dismal Wizard communicates with https://mastodon.online using a standard web browser to create posts and view posts from the authors he follows. Mastodon presents posts in the order Mastodon.Online received them.

If a recipient is local to the local Mastodon instance, Mastodon stores the message locally for delivery. If the recipient is remote, the local host places it in an output queue directed to the recipient’s Mastodon server. Queue service daemons handle the details of the communication leaving the web server components free to service user interactions.

So You’re New to Mastodon?

Enough about protocols and plumbing. Reference [4] is the place to start the signup process. Think carefully about choosing a host.

Choosing a Host

Where the host is located matters. Dismal Manor Gang is hosted at Mastodon.Online in Germany. Germany, post Third Reich, has strict anti hate speech laws. Germans are free speaking except when it comes to racism, fascism, and hate speech. So DW has to watch his tongue.

Second, the European Union has much stricter data collection and data protection laws than those in the US. So we chose an EU server knowing the protections in place and the restrictions (stuff we have no desire to say) on what we could say.

Geographic locale is also a consideration. I’m 5 hours out of sync with many of the users on Mastodon.Online.

And though my host is in Germany, most of its subscribers are multi-lingual with English as one of their secondary languages. So hosting in Germany works out well for me.

Timing

I established the Mastodon.Online account in the late spring some time after Musk and Twitter reached and agreement. My initial experiences were disappointing. So I set Mastodon aside until the sale closed. Man what a difference.

When I first signed on, the only people posting reeked of gender related attitude or wanted to shout from the famous speaker’s corner soapbox. Six months later, those evacuating Twitter began to show up in earnest and wanted to chat.

Your Bio

Your bio is an elevator speech describing you, why you are a Mastodon user, and what you like to chat about. Having a good bio is essential to building initial interest. Once you have a post history, people will review your posts when making a follow decision.

Bookmarked Posts

You can bookmark posts to keep them around and on display as part of your profile. They appear below the Bio. Bookmarked posts are a good way to keep your introduction post handy and or extend your bio or give an alternate bio, say a recreational bio in addition to your professional bio if sharing an account between your day job and recreational uses.

Your Pronouns

I never got “pronouns”. I’m an English speaker. When I interact with you we are speaking in English first and second person roles and the associated pronouns are the same for all genders. Pronoun gender enters only in 3rd person speech when I speak about you. And they are gendered. Rocky could be a he or an it. I’m pretty sure Rocky is a he. He definitely rocks the entitled male role.

Gender presentation is an issue for those in transition whose appearance and expressed gender are inconsistent. Then things start to matter as the visual and cultural cues and the individual’s objective gender are inconsistent.

I don’t think this should be a problem, at least for Dismal Manor Gang, as we are usually telling a story about the inmates of the asylum, something that happened, or something we did or experienced.

Etiquette

When we are chatting with our followers, we always try to be respectful, to keep teasing to a minimum, and to be mindful that there is no larger context framing our interactions. So individual messages must remain decent and tactful.

Your Hashtags

Mastodon user records have a hashtag table with 10 slots for hashtags you use in your posts. As you post, Mastodon will keep a count of the number of posts in which each tag was used. These hashtags are a good indicator of what you are actually talking about.

My Mastodon Tracked Author’s Hashtags

Mastodon searches only on hashtags, not random words appearing in posts. This is by design making it harder for trolls to locate victims. A search won’t deliver them.

Don’t hashtag spam your bio or posts. I see some Twitter Refugees who are putting a standard set of hashtags in each post. Not all of the hashtags appearing are relevant to the post as indicated by their placement at the end of the post. Hashtags appearing in context in the message are useful in that they allow others to search for and discover your message containing the tag.

Club Tweet-Ups

Mastodon V4, rolling out Monday November 14, supports hashtag following in addition to hashtag searching. This is an interesting experiment that will facilitate ZombieSquadHQ, TheRuffRiderz, HedgeWatchers, and other such online communities within the community.

Hashtags are also useful to direct posts to a community of reference. Twitter has a large number of “tweet-up clubs” that meet by using a club hashtag to identify messages to be routed to the club’s members. Each participant opens a search on the tag establishing a channel for tweet-up communications.

Building a Following

Once you have a good bio and a good set of hashtags, it is time to start reading the local timeline to identify and follow interesting people.

Posting

To build a following, you gotta post. It’s that simple. If you have nothing to say, there’s no reason to follow you. Period. I’m in the game mostly to promote adoption of retired racing greyhounds as companion animals so my dogs are always talking about their day or my screw-ups as their guardian. We also talk about the dog’s health issues and increasingly my own as I do here. I’m careful to use the #greyhound and #doglife hashtags and other appropriate hashtags.

Favorites and Boosts

When you see a nice photo or read an interesting post, favorite it. Favoriting tells the author that you like what he wrote. Mastodon delivers favorites as notifications. When we receive a notification, we review the originator’s profile to see if this is someone we’d like to follow.

When you read a post that is worthy of your followers attention, boost it (retweeting in Mastodon). Boosting forwards the post to your followers but it goes no further. There is no tree flood algorithm delivering it to those in your social network graph. To move further, a post must be well crafted and of wider interest so that boost recipients will pass it on to their followers.

Read the Local Timeline

I’m not following anybody so there is nothing to read and I have no followers so posts have nowhere to go. Mastodon’s local timeline is the answer to this problem. It is the time series of posts originating on your local server instance, both those for local delivery, and those going to the larger federation. This gives me something to read until I follow someone. This is the place to start. Back in June, local timeline was a desert. Come the Twitterpocalypse, it was quite rich and easy to get started.

Review your Notifications

Your notifications are a good lead to people to follow. These people have seen your post on the local timeline and thought enough of it to favorite or boost it.

Following People

When you follow someone, that act makes an entry in their profile that tells Mastodon to send their new posts to you.

Mastodon Follow is not Facebook Friends

Following is not Facebook Friends. Following is “Please send your stuff to me” and does not imply “and I’ll send my schmutz to you”. And there is no Facebook apps to trawl your timeline and collect all that Facebook has learned about you.

The Web Interface

Although third parties have developed iPhone and Android apps, the desktop web interface remains a very good way to experience Mastodon.

Mastodon Web Interface
  • The left column lets you post new Toots and edit your profile.
  • The center left column shows the home timeline that displays the toots from those you follow.
  • The center right column shows the notifications including new followers, favorites awarded, boosts awarded, etc.
  • The right column is shows selected stuff.
Right column content chooser
  • You can look at the active hashtags or search a favorite tag.
  • You can select the local timeline which shows recent public posts sent by your federate. It shows the federated timeline which is assembled from posts from other federates that were delivered to someone at your federate. It can be pretty eclectic.
  • You can review your bookmarked posts
  • You can review the posts you have favorited to have further interaction.
  • And you can view posts gathered from lists of those you follow.

Lists

Timelines can get pretty crowded if you follow many people. Lists let you create a timeline view that shows only posts from those in the list. I have several.

The list editor

The list editor lets me create lists, edit lists, or put a list on display in the column.

To edit a list, first put it on display. Then click the widget in the top left corner. That opens the controls pane below the list banner. The click the edit pencil to bring up the member list and tools to add and remove members.

You can search for additions or remove current members.

By davehamby

A modern Merlin, hell bent for glory, he shot the works and nothing worked.