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Monday, April 15, 2024

Mastodon Features That Twitter Should Steal (but Won’t)

I'm not sure if Elon Musk has ever been in a town square. He seems to imagine them as places where people loudly argue with each other to get as much attention as possible, ideally while paying him to rent megaphones. 

I, personally, wouldn't hang out in a town square like that. I want somewhere to sip my beer and chat with friends, ideally with as few Nazis around as possible. The ideal town square, in my mind, is a place for the occasional serious discussion but mostly just a chill place to hang out—a place, crucially, not owned by any one person or corporation. 

The good news is that Twitter doesn't need to become a town square—Mastodon already is one. Now, Elon Musk knows about Mastodon—he recently blocked the service’s Twitter account, then started marking all links to Mastodon as spam—a very cool and free speech thing to do. Before that he tweeted a very funny, not-at-all-stupid pun about it, taking a photo of a filthy laptop screen because he apparently doesn't know how to take a screenshot

I don't want to give free advice to someone who was, until recently, the world's richest man, but he should clean his laptop. After that he should check out Mastodon, because it offers all kinds of features that actually make it a great town square. He won't copy them, of course, because he's a coward. Here are a few of the features Elon Musk should steal from Mastodon but won't. 

Quick note: Mastodon connects to an entire network of services, commonly referred to as “the Fediverse.” A lot of the points I'm making here apply to the entire network, but I'm just going to use the word “Mastodon” for the sake of simplicity and/or clickbait. I hope you will forgive me.

Automatically Delete Old Posts

The nice thing about actual town squares is that my conversations there aren't stored forever on the servers of a major technology company. That's why I recently started using a service called Semiphemeral to clean up my old tweets. It was oddly refreshing to see my total tweet count go from embarrassingly high down to something more reasonable. It's also nice to know that quick conversations with friends and strangers aren't going to be part of the public record for the rest of my life, which I recently realized is a very strange thing we're all consenting to for some reason. It’s odd that I have to use a third-party service for this; it would be nice if I could do this on Twitter itself. 

Which reminds me: Mastodon offers this feature. You can, right in the settings, set up Mastodon to delete your old posts after a certain amount of time, and you can also set up exceptions for posts with a particular number of likes or boosts (similar to retweets). Twitter should mercilessly steal this feature from Mastodon, in my opinion—it would make the site better.  

Content Warnings

OK, I realize this one is going to be triggering for people who find the idea of content warnings offensive. Calm down, though, because on Mastodon they're actually great. 

As a red-blooded Canadian living in a strange, foreign land, I sometimes like to post about hockey—a habit that confounds and confuses my American friends. With Mastodon's content warning system, I can label such posts “Hockey/Mental Health.” Anyone interested in reading my thoughts about my lifelong love of the Toronto Maple Leafs—and how that relates to my inability to believe that good things can happen in my life, no matter how hard I try—can decide to click the post in order to read it. Anyone who doesn't care about hockey (or my mental well-being) can keep scrolling. 

Everyone wins, because everyone only sees content that they're interested in. Now, you can use this to label any kind of post, be it political, pornographic, or potentially problematic. This allows me to speak more freely, because I don't have to worry about whether every post will appeal to everyone—if I'm worried about that, I can put up a warning. 

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Any platform that supports free speech should have a content warning system pretty much like the one Mastodon offers. I bet Musk won't implement it, though, because his snowflake fans would find this kind of free speech upsetting (and he's afraid of them). 

Mute People For a Little While

Sometimes a person you enjoy following gets in a mood. You don't want to unfollow them, but you also don't want to deal with whatever thing they're currently yelling about. Maybe they’re endlessly discussing a movie you will never watch. Maybe they’re live tweeting a sporting event, or maybe they’re worked up about something political. On Twitter you don't have many options—you can unfollow them, mute them, or block them. All of those changes are permanent, though. 

Mastodon allows you to mute people for a set amount of time—anywhere from five minutes to seven days—enough time for the person to work through whatever has them posting so much at the moment. It's a great compromise, and Twitter should add it. 

A Simpler Verification Process

The purpose of Twitter's verification system, at least in the early days, was to confirm that a given account was actually run by a given politician, celebrity, journalist, or organization. The system for getting the checkmark was opaque, though, which led to the checkmark becoming somewhat of a status symbol. Having said that, Musk's early attempts at “reform” mostly just created a spammer's paradise

Mastodon, meanwhile, has a system that allows for quick verification without any overhead. Basically, if you link to your Mastodon account with the tag “rel=me” on your website, Mastodon will highlight that you control the site on your profile. This gives people a quick way to confirm your identity without creating a lot of work for moderators. Twitter could do worse than copying this strategy for “official” accounts. Elon Musk won't implement this, though, possibly because he wants to make you pay for verification while calling it democratic. 

A (Free) Edit Button

Twitter users want an edit button. They can get one if they're willing to pay $8 a month. Mastodon users get an edit button for free. Elon won’t offer this, though—probably because he likes money more than he likes you. 

Actual Support For Third-Party Clients

The best way to use Twitter used to be third-party clients, which generally offered a much smoother and customizable experience than the official Twitter app and website. TweetBot, for example, is a much nicer way to use Twitter on a Mac than anything built by Twitter. The problem: Twitter severely restricted its API a few years ago, which limited the kinds of things third-party clients could do. You can't get notifications for likes, or retweets. Polls are just broken. I could go on. 

Mastodon doesn't have this problem. Third-party clients can do everything—and in some cases, more—than the official website and applications can do. It's refreshing, and something that Twitter should do to reward its power users. It won't, though. Because …

Following Hashtags

On Twitter, you can follow accounts and search for hashtags. Mastodon allows users to follow an entire hashtag, so that all related posts show up on your home screen. I don't know if Twitter should add this, but a lot of people like it, and it's a really great way to find people who regularly post about the subjects you’re interested in. 

No Ads or Subscriptions

Town squares are open to everyone. They don't charge admission, and they're not covered with ads. Sure, there may be a business or two adjacent to the town square, and there might be a few walls covered with flyers for punk concerts, but for the most part a town square is primarily a noncommercial space. Twitter, if it was truly a town square, would be like that. Mastodon already is. There’s no company involved with Mastodon—it’s an open-source program owned by a nonprofit. The network is run by volunteers who set up servers for their friends and communities. Anyone can set up a server and connect to all of the other ones, and moderation is done by volunteers. 

Now, I don't think Elon Musk is going to make Twitter free and noncommercial. It's a business, and he's a businessman—not an engineer, not a free speech advocate, and not someone who actually cares about community at the end of the day, regardless of his public statements. He's a money person who likes money and would like to have more of it (even though the money he currently has is clearly not doing much for his mental and emotional health). 

And that's the problem: A town square, by definition, can't be a business. It needs to be a space owned by the people. That's what an Elon Musk Twitter can never be, and what Mastodon already is. I wrote about how to get started with Mastodon, so check that out if you're curious. 

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