Over the past year or so, there’s been a soft but steady drumbeat of information about the social networking platform Mastodon. It got written up in tech circles a couple of times, was mentioned on a higher education site or two, has been loudly praised and more quietly mused about over on Metafilter. But there’s been less hyperbolic coverage than sometimes accompanies these things, and it’s easy to think that the groundless hype that has accompanied other sites and services (cough Diaspora cough) may have made people leery of the next big social media thing. Also, my sense is that it’s only been in the past few months that Mastodon has become really vibrant: I joined mastodon.social back in December 2016, but the vibe then and for several months after I joined was like a lot of niche social networking sites: a lot of promise, but not a lot of people.
There are important things to say about the technical side of the platform– it’s part of the reason that Mastodon has so much potential, and why I continued to fund development of it even when I wasn’t using it all that much. It’s based on ideas of decentralization and federation that have been kicking around the indie/FOSS social media world for a number of years, but which will seem completely baffling if they’re new to you.
But all of this stuff is not the important thing, because something funny has happened in the past few months: Mastodon has become a community, and one that reminds us of what communities are and can be. And a niggling little thing made me realize this: Mastodon gets quiet.
For years, I worked in the public spaces that are most hung out in– coffee shops, public libraries– and one of the things you learn is that these spaces have a life of their own. There’s a rhythm to the day and times when you know it’s going to be busy. But there are also times activity slows to a crawl, and there’s little to do but read or neaten the place up or work on longer-term projects. But an entire human ecosystem moves in tandem with these rhythms: there’s the lonely guy who always stops in during the afternoon lull and stays to talk, there’s the adorable older couple that comes in every day at the same time, the rush of students, the slow-moving retirees. As Gombrich knew, rhythm is woven into our bodies, and there’s something deeply satisfying about places like these that allow for the rhythms of human existence.
In the last few years, however, I’ve realized that I’ve lost that sense of rhythm. If I’m bored waiting in line or on a bus, I can always jump back into reading the news, surround myself with the voices of the smartest podcasters, research something else I might want to buy. Some of this is due to the confluence of technological factors and the human desire for stimulation, but I think it’s the Skinner box of corporate social media that has rewired me. Before the ubiquity of fast internet, I was often alone: I was one of the people who relied on those clean, well-lighted places. But those places only get you so far, and you still have the ache of walking home in the dark by yourself. Or you used to.
Because we now live in a time of paradisiacal and almost unimaginable abundance. With its simple, homey design, Facebook gently guides you to what you want to see, gives you glimpses into the lives of old friends, shows you what’s been going on in the world, or adorable pictures of your nieces and nephews are doing. Twitter, by contrast, is like some galactic hub where the quickest wits, sharpest minds, and most reprehensible dirtbags from known space have gathered together to have a conversation or, more likely, yell at each other. And at any hour of the day, you can check in and feel like you’re in the thick of it: there’s always something going on on Twitter, and there are always more kids and cats and opinions and feels on Facebook, detached in time and presented to you in a single, unending scroll.
But Mastodon isn’t like that at all. There are days almost no one’s around, or evenings people go to bed early. There are times everyone is acting maniacally goofy and you’re not in the mood. There are times you find that you’ve come late to (or totally missed) an interesting conversation, and your belated rejoinders, carefully crafted as they are, can’t quite revive the subject: the moving finger of Mastodon writes, and having writ, moves on.
But the potential of Mastodon is precisely that it restores us, in some sense, to our postlapsarian existence. It reminds us that we are often lonely, bored, or both, that time passes rapidly, and that human connection is hard. But after you have been lonely in a new place for a while, the human connections are all the sweeter: you are immensely grateful to the people who are warm and welcoming at first, you’re impressed by the knowledge and wit of those around you, and you are reminded that a real community, which Mastodon is fast becoming, is an incredibly lucky thing.