Yes, I’m talking about Mastodon again. After the last installment of my Mastodon Saga – where I found that it wasn’t just a database issue that erased my account, but rather a RAID failure – I held out hope that my account and prior posts (and most importantly, follower lists) could be restored. Unfortunately, that turned out to not be true – those posts are lost forever.
Now, thankfully I had only joined this instance about a week or two before the crash, so there wasn’t much that was lost – but still, it got me thinking once again about some problems remain with Mastodon.
Finding an instance
Quite literally the required first step of using Mastodon is still very difficult. Lists of instances can be out of date and of course there’s no such thing as a centralized list (there’s nothing centralized with Mastodon), instances aren’t easily searchable, and not all topics are covered – so many people end up falling back to one of the big “general” instances… Which then gets overloaded and then can’t accept new users for a while… and then the experience on that instance isn’t as great because it’s gotten so big and “noisy” that the local timeline feature is nearly useless.
On top of that, many guides to starting out with Mastodon suggest finding an instance that focuses on something you’re interested in – maybe art, or technology, or a specific location. However, putting aside how hard it can be to actually find such instances, many interests simply are not covered at all. The people who have set up instances thus far all tend to cluster around a few types of interests. Instances that focus on art, or technology, or other such “nerdy” topics are plentiful – but you’d be hard pressed to find, say, an instance focused on boats, or camping, or cars.
Now, some people would simply say that if you are looking for an instance but can’t find one for your interests, go start your own – which leads me to my next topic.
“Just run your own”
This response to criticisms of Mastodon is both common and unhelpful. The barrier to entry for running a Mastodon instance is not insignificant – it still requires a fair amount of technical expertise, and not just for setting up the instance, but also for maintaining it. It also is not exactly cheap, either – even a small Mastodon instance can end up using a lot of bandwidth, and also storage – all those images that get shared/posted have to be saved somewhere, after all!
Responding to someone by saying “just run your own instance” is a bit like saying “just use Linux” to someone who is having problems with their Windows computer – not everyone can (or wants to) do that, and saying it comes across as both elitist and condescending.
No (Easy) Middle Ground
Focused instances are great for those with a single interest, and general instances are great for those just looking for a generic experience – but what if you have several different specific interests?
You could join multiple instances and keep the accounts separate, but that’s a hassle and not always what people want.
An alternative would be to follow a bunch of accounts on instances for your interests, and then use the “lists” feature of Mastodon to build a sort of pseudo-timeline for each interest… but this isn’t quite the same, as the list will only show those specific users you followed, so you’ll never quite be part of the local conversation on those instances.
Circling back around to my experiences I mentioned at the start of this article, one other thing to consider when trying to find an instance is how their infrastructure is set up and managed. If you join an instance and use it frequently for years, and then suddenly it has a hard drive crash and data is lost, that can be kind of devastating.
While you might say that any half-decent instance should have backups – what if the data was corrupted instead and not noticed right away? Again, many (if not most) instances are run essentially “for fun,” not for-profit, and so they won’t have dedicated IT teams looking after things. It’ll often be just one person or a few people doing it essentially as a hobby. And having lots of backups to cover all possibilities of data loss or corruption adds a lot of cost, which may not be something an instance’s admin can afford.
And when you’re choosing an instance to join, how can you know whether the instance’s infrastructure is robust or whether it’s running off of a computer in someone’s basement?
Now, many of the things I’ve mentioned could potentially be improved with time, or will improve as Mastodon grows and gains popularity and users. But some of these things are outgrowths of the fundamental nature of the system itself, and I’m not sure how best they can be addressed (or even if they ever will be).
Still, it’s worth mentioning that I don’t make these criticisms because I hate Mastodon – I do think it is a good service (I’m using it, after all) and of course there are solutions to most problems… if you’re willing to do the work or make the necessary changes. Time will tell whether this will be true for the Mastodon community or not.