Mastodon is not Doomed

Posted on 04/25/2023 in misc

This blog post puts forth a theory that Mastodon is doomed. His argument, as I interpret it, is based on several ideas:

  1. Running an instance is hard
  2. Picking a username and server is hard
  3. Instance admins may not be up to the task of securing the server
  4. He doesn’t like Eugen’s technology choices
  5. There is no central plan for monetization
  6. All the interesting development activity is with ActivityPub

Let’s take these on one by one.

1. Yes, running an instance is hard. So what? Blogging was hard until Blogger made it easy. Installing WordPress was hard until eliminated the need. Mastodon may or may not ever get to a point where somebody offers Mastodon-As-A-Service, but it doesn’t really matter. There are 1000’s of servers available that are happy to have you join, often for free, sometimes for a nominal fee of $5 or $10 a month. The ideal state of everybody owning their own instance is just that, an ideal. Nobody expects it to happen in real life. We may eventually end up with a handful of massive services, ala Gmail, Yahoo Mail, etc. It’s still early, and nobody knows where this will end up, including those who have already written it off.

2. I quote from the post, “The act of choosing a server has kept more than a few people away from Mastodon.”

And I respond, good.

Not everything has to be easy. The act of picking a server is no more complex than deciding if you wanted Gmail or Yahoo Mail back in the day. Mastodon is a tool for microblogging, short-form communication, or whatever. If you aren’t willing to invest 15 minutes to understand a tool before using it, you don’t need to be using that tool in the first place. I ran a tech blog for parents for a short period of time back in 2007/2008. Everybody was confused by Facebook and Twitter back then. Expecting something new to make sense instantly is, quite frankly, silly.

3. Every day, countless people have their Facebook and Twitter identities hacked. The world’s largest corporations and government entities get hacked regularly, too. Yes, the well-meaning person maintaining the Masto instance you use may get hacked, which will suck. But I don’t see the risk as any more critical than exists without Mastodon in the picture. Arguably, that risk is a point in favor of the decentralization that is being criticized here. With Mastodon, they have to hack your instance specifically to impact you. There are more targets, each one worth way less as a target than a centralized service like Twitter.

4. Debating technology choices is arguably the 2nd oldest sport online, after porn ;) His argument against Rails with a Postgres database is that it's ten-year-old technology. Another term for that would be mature technology. Not everything must be a React app storing data in a NoSQL database. Is there a better way to build Mastodon? Probably. There is almost always a better way to build anything online. Are the choices made by Eugen bad? I have no idea, but the author here didn’t provide any evidence that he made bad choices.

5. Again, I quote from the post.

For me, the final nail in the Mastodon coffin came from a Decoder podcast interview with Eugen Rochko , the CEO of Mastodon. Throughout the interview it’s clear that Eugen has no plans for monotization beyond donations and running instances for interested users.

The lack of a monetization plan is a feature, not a bug. Not everything has to be a VC-funded play to get rich. In fact, the Internet would be a far better place with fewer VC-funded start-ups trying to get rich. Does this mean that Mastodon will never scale to replace Twitter? Probably. Again, though, it’s a feature, not a bug. Mastodon is a success today. It’s a worldwide network of thousands of servers populated by millions of users, all chatting away and sharing stuff relatively seamlessly. As long as Eugen can pay the bills, feed himself, and pay his small staff, it’s all good. The lack of a growth imperative here is a good thing. A very good thing, actually.

Also, Mastodon is open source. If somebody wants to fork the code and build Twitter 2.0 with it, they are free to do so.

6. And finally, the focus on ActivityPub in the development world is also good for Mastodon. Masto is just one node in the Fediverse, but it is the overwhelmingly most important node today. Anything that spreads that risk across more entities is good for both Mastodon and the Fediverse. Masto can continue to be Masto, and Tumblr can be Tumbler, PixelFed can continue to be PixelFed, and they can talk to each other. Interoperability is the point of the ActivityPub protocol. It’s maturation as a protocol is good for everybody, except maybe VC funded centralized services serving algorithmic content to increasingly bored users.

Mastodon is Eugen Rochko’s idea of how a microblogging platform should work. He founded the service back in 2016 on a few key ideas that he thought would negate the worst aspects of Twitter, and he really hasn’t wavered much from it. It was built as an anti-Twitter, not a better Twitter. Bigger isn’t always better, and in this case, bigger is worse.

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