Can Mastodon be a reasonable Twitter substitute for journalists?

Twitter has been my second home for more than a decade. It’s where I post articles, read articles by other journalists, and keep tabs on researchers and newsmakers. Long ago, Twitter replaced the newswires — AP, Reuters, etc. — that I used to keep open in a tab on my computer desktop.

But Twitter is in crisis. Elon Musk bought it, fired a huge portion of the staff, changed the rules so many times that I’m not even sure what the rules are anymore, and has warned that the company will likely have to file for bankruptcy soon. He launched a pay-for-a-blue-checkmark program that caused Twitter to be filled with imposter accounts that look official. And hundreds of key employees quit last week after Musk demanded that they commit to working “hardcore” long hours.

All the chaos has scared away advertisers and users, who are leaving the platform in droves. I have not yet left, but I downloaded my archive of tweets and earlier this month joined an alternative social network called Mastodon. I was not alone: On November 12, Mastodon founder Eugen Gagron posted that “[t]here are 1M more people using #Mastodon today than there were on October 27.”

Mastodon is a different kind of social network. Unlike Twitter, it doesn’t have a central gatekeeper that can decide who gets to use the platform and what type of content is allowed. Instead, Mastodon is an array of different communities that have all agreed to share a single communication standard.

What that means in practice is that to join Mastodon, you have to join a Mastodon “instance” — essentially a community that hosts a Mastodon server. Each instance has its own vibe, standards for admission, and content rules. Each server can block communications from other servers if they don’t appreciate their style.

As a journalist, I was attracted to a community designed for reporters — — initially set up by my longtime friend Adam Davidson. I’m The Markup newsroom can be found on a different server:

Adam and I have been friends since high school and went to college together at the University of Chicago. Although he declined to work with me at the college newspaper (The Chicago Maroon), he went on to an illustrious journalism career, co-founding NPR’s “Planet Money” and writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker.

Of course, moving into a new town is always fraught with culture clashes. Mastodon users are not uniformly happy about this band of Twitter journalists arriving on their doorstep with different cultural norms. So this week I spoke with Adam about his experience, what he’s learned, and what we can all learn from this different type of social networking experience.

Our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity, is below.

Angwin: What has your experience been like as a user 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. There’s no question, it’s nowhere near as user-friendly as Twitter, which is both good and bad. Clearly, a lot of people get hung up when they are just signing up in the beginning. The first question is so confusing: You have to pick 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 make every step of your experience on this for-profit platform smoother so that you can be monetized.

I think a social network is only as good as who you follow, who follows you, and what conversations you’re part of. My coming to Mastodon was not me thinking, “I love everything about Twitter and I want to find a place that’s exactly the same.” My coming to Mastodon was also not just, “Oh, Elon went crazy last week.” I’ve really been critiquing my Twitter usage 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 lots of people to hear it, then Twitter’s way better for that right now. However, if something really provokes a big conversation, it’s actually fairly challenging to keep up with the conversation on Twitter. I find that when something gets hundreds of thousands of replies, it’s functionally impossible to even read all of them, let alone respond to all of them. My Twitter personality, like a lot of people’s, is more shouting.

Whereas on Mastodon, it’s actually much harder to go viral. There’s no algorithm promoting tweets. It’s just the people you follow. This is the order in which they come. It’s not really set up for that kind of, “Oh my god, everybody’s talking about this one post.” It is set up to foster conversation. I have something like 150,000 followers on Twitter, and I have something like 2,500 on Mastodon, but I have way more substantive conversations on Mastodon even though it’s a smaller audience. I think there’s both design choices that lead to this and also just the vibe of the place where even pointed disagreements are somehow more thoughtful and more respectful on Mastodon.

Angwin: You set up a server on Mastodon for journalists. Can you talk about how this came to be?
Davidson: There were a lot of conversations among journalists about setting up a journalist server. The Twitter blue check, for all the hate I have given Twitter over the years, is a public good. It is good, in my view, that when you read a news article or view a post, you can know with confidence it’s the journalist at that institution. It doesn’t mean they’re 100 percent right or 100 percent ethical, but it does mean that’s a person who is in some way constrained by journalism ethics.

In a very short period of time, a bunch of us accepted that a) the existence of that blue check is good, b) it’s gone — whatever happens with Twitter, we’re never going to be able to fully trust it — and c) a realization that we in journalism had just outsourced that whole process, that whole decision-making, to whoever happened to work at Twitter. As a profession, we didn’t think, or at least I wasn’t part of any larger conversations, about the verification process. We just trusted that there was some office at Twitter that was making the right calls.

We realized there’s a need for some kind of verification of journalists and that if we could control it, that would be really cool. I was part of these conversations about setting up a journalism server, and it was going on and on. People were listing more and more reasons to be worried and more and more things that had to happen before we set up a journalism server. I can be impulsive, and I was just like, screw it, I’m just gonna do it and then we’ll face all the problems. So I did it, and then we did face all the problems.

Angwin: Can you talk about some of the problems?
Davidson: Many servers are set up so anyone can sign up, while others you have to apply, and some you can be invited by an administrator. I set it up that you had to apply, and in the beginning, I just sent a few messages out. I didn’t think that many people knew about it, so I was just approving everyone without really looking at it. Then, I made a really big mistake because I didn’t understand how the invitations worked. I thought the invitations were just saying, “Apply and then I’ll see if you’re worth it,” but instead the invitations transferred you directly into the server.

A bad actor figured this out because I tweeted out an invite, and they said basically, this idiot Jew reporter has opened the door for all of us. Then we had roughly 150 deeply disgusting posts. I’ve never seen stuff like this in my life. Photos of dead people, violent photos, and just deeply racist, antisemitic, homophobic, anti-trans content. There’s one picture…I don’t even want to describe it, but I will never get it out of my head.

It actually ended up being a relatively easy fix because there are lists of servers that are known bad actors, and you can easily block them. At first, I was like, “Oh, we’re journalists; maybe we shouldn’t block anything,” but once I saw the first five or 10 photos, I was like, “Oh, no, we’re blocking these people.” So those servers now have no 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 put a call out asking if anyone wanted to help moderate, and right away nine other people stepped up, and they’re amazing. So now it is this group of 10 that’s moderating and administrating.

Everyone who goes through the exercise of “what is journalism?” quickly learns there are no obvious, uncontroversial answers. We had a conversation this morning about somebody who has a blog about beer. We said, well, this person does reporting, they actually interview people, they look at statistics, they’re not just sharing their opinion on beer. And it felt like, yeah, that’s journalism.

Now, would we make that decision a month from now? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to get into specifics, but we’ve had some tricky edge cases. Inherently, it’s tricky.

Angwin: Can you talk about the debate over content warnings? This is something that was really surprising to me, the idea that everything we write about basically needs a content warning.
Davidson: Among journalists, this is the single most controversial and misunderstood issue. We’re not mandating content warnings.

I think I’ve kind of had every single opinion that one can have about this. My first response, which I think is most journalists’ first response, was, “Who are these precious snowflakes?” Then a bunch of people said, “No, that’s not how to think about it; it’s really just the subject line of an email,” and if I had the right to send you an email where you had to see the whole thing, that’d be kind of annoying.

But then a lot of people in the BIPOC community said, “The way this is being used on Mastodon is often to shield White people from racism and homophobia and other issues.” And so I’m very sympathetic to that as well. I think the solution Eugen came up with is the right solution: It’s a tool, and you can use it if you want to.

Angwin: What would you say your biggest takeaway from this experience has been so far?
Davidson: I would say the screaming headline for me is, “Wow, this was awesome. This was amazing.” The Mastodon community was amazing. The journalism community was amazing. It’s really one of the best professional experiences of my life. I just love it.

What I’m finding most satisfying about Mastodon, and I’m seeing a lot of other journalists feel this, is that it actually forces you to ask and confront some of these questions and to make active choices. Even if Mastodon were to remain Twitter’s very tiny stepbrother, I would still like to be part of a Mastodon journalist community because I think we got lazy as a field, and we let Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and, god help us, Elon Musk and their staff decide all these major journalistic questions. I don’t know for how many people that’s a good siren call to join Mastodon, but for me that’s been pretty exciting.

Julia Angwin is editor-at-large and founder of The Markup, which originally published this article. It is republished here under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.

Illustration based on image by Thomas Quine used under a Creative Commons license.

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