One of the biggest pain-points for new mastodon users is the requirement to choose an instance. With over 20 000 instances to choose from, newcomers struggle to choose, and many wish they didn’t have to. But when the creators of Mastodon tried to fix the problem by setting their own server (mastodon.social) as the default Mastodon instance, it created a storm of controversy. Why did the Mastodon community react so negatively?
What is everybody arguing about?
The short answer is that Mastodon is a part of the Fediverse, a massive network of inter-connected services that all communicate with the same underlying protocols. This decentralized model means that no single person or company controls the network. If you’ve fallen afoul of the moderation policy, or are clashing with the community, you can simply move to a new community with different policies, without losing access to all your friends and contacts. But if new accounts are all created in one place under the same authority, then the network starts becoming centralized again. There’s a risk of losing all these benefits. So why did Mastodon Gmbh decide to do this?
If you’ve just decided to try out this Mastodon social network that you’ve been hearing about, you’re likely to either install an app on your phone, or visit a site like joinmastodon.org in your browser. At some point in the sign-up process, you’ll be asked to choose an “Instance”, from a list. Each of these instances will have a name, and a brief description, and you have to choose one to be your new home on Mastodon. If you’re still new to the concept of the Fediverse, this probably makes no sense to you. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram don’t ask you to make these decisions, you just pick a name and a password, tell them your phone number or email address, and you’re good to go!
The choice of which instance to choose is not a simple one. Many guides for new users will explain how each instance has it’s own community, and that it’s vitally important to pick one that best suits your personality, your needs, and your interests. This sounds simply but in practice you’ll find it extremely tough to find the perfect instance, from the more than 20 000 currently available. The agony of choice is a real problem, made worse by the fact that you can never know what an instance is like until you’ve already joined and felt the vibe for a few days. It’s the most common complaint about the sign-up process.
What is wrong with pushing a default Mastodon instance?
This is the problem that Mastodon Gmbh tried to solve. Rather than discourage new users by forcing them to make a decision that they don’t feel they understand, the app makes that decision for them. So if you download the official app on your device and set up a new account, you’re no longer asked to choose an instance. Instead, your account is created on mastodon.social by default. If you decide that you’re unhappy with your new Mastodon home, you can still always migrate to a new instance. But many veterans of Mastodon feel that this is a mistake, because the migration process is not as simple as we’d all like to believe. Most users of a social network are not particularly interested in technicalities like “What server am I connected to?”. They worry that this could all lead to Mastodon, and the entire Fediverse, becoming dominated by a single over-sized mega-instance.
The most obvious risk of a massive instance dominating the Fediverse is the erosion of your freedom to move around and find a community that best suits you. If the Fediverse turns into “mastodon.social and some other niche services”, then you lose all the benefits of federation. But there’s a more subtle problem: moderation and policy. Currently there is no single authority determining policies on moderation, acceptable user behaviour, technical management, or anything else. Each instance must decide for itself how it will behave and interact with all other instances in the Fediverse, and what behaviour it will tolerate from its neighbours.
The administrators of each instance set their own rules for what their users are allowed to do, and they can block other instances from being able to connect with their community (“defederate”) when they feel those other instances are causing harm to their own community. If one or two instances block you, you can live with that. But if you get defederated by a large enough number of instances that your users start leaving to keep in touch with their friends, then you know you’ve crossed a line. You can choose to update your policies to fall in line with the greater community, or you can stick to your principles and take the hit.
But this self-organizing system of community self-governance falls apart when you have a small number of giant communities dominating the environment. If one of them defederates you, that’s a very hard hit on you and all your users. And if you choose to defederate one of the giants, they will likely never even notice. In fact, the small instance is more likely to suffer for taking action, by losing users who want to stay in contact with all their friends on the giant instance. That means that the diverse range of communities becomes dominated by a single monoculture, with one set of rules on acceptable content, and one uniform moderation policy. As we’ve seen on centralized corporate social media networks, that becomes hostile to any marginalized groups, or communities that don’t fit the respectability mold. It becomes very easy for powerful interests to set the agenda for the entire ecosphere, when they only have to put pressure on one single company.
Is there no other way?
Unfortunately, many people who’ve objected to the default Mastodon instance choice have chosen to ignore the problem that it’s meant to solve. They insist that it’s a simple choice to make, or that the initial choice doesn’t even matter so much (my personal position, with caveats) since communication between users on different instances is almost frictionless. But it’s a fact that new users do struggle with this choice, and that the brief descriptions of individual instances are often merely admin wish lists, and don’t express the heart of the community that has grown in that instance.
So what to do? How to address the problem, without creating a centralized monoculture? At Monoceros, we think there are lots of ways to go about this! Many large software products ask questions in their onboarding process, to build a better user profile: Streaming services ask you for favourite genres or artists. Social networks ask about which topics you’re interested in. A new user on Mastodon could be asked similar questions, but instead of using these to funnel relevant content and ads, use these to find an instance full of people with common interests, and set that as the default. Perhaps even make the default an offer, with an option to request a different suggestion if the newcomer doesn’t like it.
Or perhaps use Geolocation direct the new account to an instance that’s in the same physical neighborhood, preserving diversity of interests and opinions while still keeping some common interests. Or even recommend one of our fully-managed mastodon hosting packages!
Either way, it’s a shame that the discourse around these default Mastodon instances was reduced to an oversimplified “THEY BAD! WE GOOD!” binary argument, when there are so many other possibilities for anybody willing to use their imagination.