from the that’s-not-how-it-works dept

In the light of the continuing mayhem on Twitter under Elon Musk, lovingly chronicled by Mike in ever-longer posts, it’s no surprise that many people are looking at alternatives. One of the main options is Mastodon. Although offering similar micro-blogging functionality to Twitter, one of its chief attractions is that it nonetheless does certain things differently.

For example, there are no formal quote tweets, which means that users are encouraged to engage with what people are saying in their posts by replying to them, not simply to make a snarky hit-and-run comment. Its federated structure, with thousands of interconnected and interoperable “instances” – that is, servers – is part of the larger “fediverse“. There is no central point of control, and the local rules and culture on different instances vary widely.

These features, combined with the issues at Twitter, have led to a noticeable growth of Mastodon – even if the exact number of users is unclear – and of the number of instances that are available. One open question is whether Mastodon will ever be used by businesses in the same way that they now routinely use Twitter.

An early pioneer in this area is Raspberry Pi, which makes a popular series of very low-cost, single-board computers. Typically they are used to run the open source operating system GNU/Linux, so Mastodon seems a good fit for the company, since it too is open source. Even better, the federated nature of Mastodon means that Raspberry Pi was able to set up its own instance – raspberry.social – and run it on one of its own products. Everything seemed to be going well, until the Raspberry Pi account on Mastodon posted the following:

We hired a policeman & it’s going really great. Meet our #Maker in Residence @TobyRobertsPi.

“I was a #Surveillance Officer for 15 years, so I built stuff to hide covert video & audio gear. I’d disguise it as something else, like a piece of street furniture or a household item.

During all those years of working with Raspberry Pi, I never thought I’d end up working here; as I’ve always been a #RaspberryPi fan, I’m fascinated to see what takes place behind the scenes.”

A post by Aurynn Shaw, who runs cloudisland.nz, an instance hosted in Aotearoa New Zealand, provides a great summary of the discussion that ensued. Here’s a sample of how the Raspberry Pi account responded in a rather Twitter-like way to people’s criticisms of the new appointment:

  • “He builds lightsabers, James. Chill.”: link
  • “Bye bye now”: link
  • “Yes Sebastian. And if you can’t chill, you can unfollow. That’s how social media works. Just chill.”: link
  • “Feel free to block or unfollow us” in response to “if only they’d not hire cops”: link
  • “people can follow or unfollow us if they like” link

Shaw writes:

As the common theme from Raspberry Pi was to tell other users to unfollow them, and blocking any criticism, the Fediverse as a whole was very quick to react.

Due to the very different power dynamics of the Fediverse, it took less than two hours from the initial post and initial harmful replies before the official Raspberry Pi instance started being defederated, noted via the #fediblock hashtag. This public hashtag is a way for administrators to co-ordinate with each other in an attempt to reduce harm to their users, and hitting #fediblock is a strong indicator that an instance is being cut off from the the Fediverse until they improve their moderation abilities.

“Defederation” is another unique and important feature of Mastodon. It means that various servers running Mastodon block interaction with a particular instance that is deemed to be problematic. It is quite an extreme remedy. Normally, there is some kind of moderator on an instance that would deal with the renegade user who is causing problems elsewhere. In the present case, the problem user and the moderator are effectively the same, so defederation was the only way for other instances to deal with the situation. Shaw notes that reversing defederation and the damage to Raspberry Pi’s brand that it has caused, will be quite hard:

Now that Raspberry Pi has hit the #fediblock, recovery becomes considerable more difficult. Not only does Raspberry Pi need to withdraw their statements and issue unequivocal apologies, they must also apologise directly to the admins who defederated them, and demonstrate an ongoing commitment to change.

This commitment can be demonstrated through administrative and moderator changes, or demonstrated over a significant period of time. Both approaches will take time for trust to be regained.

As Shaw points out, the problem arises because this is a small, self-hosted instance run by a company. She offers some recommendations for other businesses that want to do the same, including this:

Brands seeking to join the Fediverse will need to invest not just in a social media manager, but competent and long-time administration for the instance that is aware of the political dynamics of the Fediverse, in order to ensure that they are able to stay on the fediverse.

As more businesses dip their toe in the waters of Mastodon, the problems Raspberry Pi has run into here can serve as a good example of how not to do it.

Follow me @glynmoody on Mastodon or Twitter.

Filed Under: defederation, fediblock, fediverse, instances, mastodon, police, raspberry pi, surveillance

Companies: mastodon, raspberry pi, twitter

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